In the first scene of Kenneth Branagh’s big-screen adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express (1934)—one of Agatha Christie’s three most popular novels, according to a 2015 poll (Flood)—famous Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot plagues the staff members of a Jerusalem hotel with his unusual request for two eggs of identical size. He goes so far as to apply a ruler to his breakfast, only to conclude that it does not meet his requirements. The scene serves as a neat summary of the character that will likely sit well with hardcore Christie admirers—the author famously had Captain Hastings characterize Poirot as a man so meticulous that ‘a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound’ (1920/2007: 14)—and the shot of Branagh (the film’s star as well as its director) cowering behind his breakfast table and scrutinizing the eggs sets up Murder on the Orient Express as an adaptation that literally goes ab ovo. It invokes the initial description of the character in Christie’s debut novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (‘His head was exactly the shape of an egg’, 1920/2007: 14), and at the same time it is indicative of how the film reboots Christie for the twenty-first century, playing up Poirot’s tics while also humanizing him, an adaptive policy that has worked wonders for Sherlock Holmes. Like Guy Ritchie’s action-packed adventures starring Robert Downey Jr.’s deeply eccentric and queer detective, Murder on the Orient Express hooks into canonical though rarely adapted details in order to revamp the character for the big screen. Instead of Peter Ustinov’s inspired buffoonery or David Suchet’s reverend take on the character, we get a world-weary loner who mourns for ‘ma chère Katherine’ and thus comes fully equipped with a customary backstory wound, not to mention a well-publicized, exuberant moustache that has received more press than the cast—no mean feat, given the film’s assembled star wattage. Where Christie’s Poirot relies exclusively on his insight into the human psyche to solve a case, Branagh treats the viewer to an amalgam of various screen sleuths; like Downey Jr.’s Holmes, he shakes off the character’s predominant image as an armchair detective and shows that he can hold his own in a chase or in a fight. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, particularly since the film has an eye on establishing Poirot as a new serialized hero for the big screen—indeed, a sequel was announced only a few weeks after the film’s release. Where Christie had Poirot ridicule the Sherlockian method of obsessing over fingerprints and footprints (‘the Hercule Poirots, they are above the experts! To them the experts bring the facts, their business is the method of the crime, its logical deduction, the proper sequence and order of the facts’, 1923/2011: 13), the exposition of Branagh’s film sees him solve a case because he spots the culprit’s preferred footwear. The trouble that Branagh’s Poirot takes over his boiled eggs or different types of shoes sets up Murder on the Orient Express as an adaptation deeply invested in the idea of the comparison. Arguably, comparisons always play a significant role in the genre of the whodunit, as the detective hears testimony after testimony and has to identify contradictions, ambiguities, and outright lies by meticulously comparing all the individual accounts, working his way towards the solution via a series of interrogations that seldom translate into compelling cinematic moments. That is why big-screen adaptations of Christie tend to cast recognizable faces who can be relied on to ‘ham it up’ for their individual close-ups, as they pop in for brief turns as anemic aristocrats and international eccentrics. But there is a case to be made for the comparison being particularly instrumental to Branagh’s take on the story, which sees Poirot embark on the eponymous train ride only to discover the corpse of a shady American millionaire the morning after an avalanche has brought the journey to a halt. The novel’s final chapter famously opens with Poirot making an unusual offer to the gathered suspects, the intradiegetic audience of his usual climactic monologue: ‘There are two possible solutions of the crime. I shall put them both before you, and I shall ask M. Bouc and Dr. Constantine here to judge which solution is the right one’ (Christie 1934/2011: 250). Poirot’s decision to allow two bystanders to deliver a verdict on the thirteen suspects (twelve of whom Poirot reveals to be collaborators in a meticulously crafted revenge plot) inverts the idea of the ‘jury of peers’, an aspect that Sidney Lumet amps up considerably in his 1974 adaptation of the novel, thus turning it into a kind of spiritual sequel to his much-admired courtroom drama, Twelve Angry Men (1957). Branagh’s version of the same scene drops the theatrical setup of Poirot moving up and down the ramp to perform his show for a captivated audience in dire need of catharsis and opts for an entirely different tableau: that of the ‘last supper’, with the detective first provoking the gathered disciples as a treacherous Judas Iscariot (who has come to betray them and is thus judged by them as much as they are by him) and then offering himself as a martyr. However, his version retains the novel’s central conceit: that it is up to the ‘audience’ to pick their preferred solution once they have compared the two conflicting accounts. This is an intriguing yet risky proposition for the film’s audience, as they are invited to view 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express through the prism of the 1974 version. Lesley Stern has argued that a new adaptation of a property that has already been adapted before ‘is almost by default a remake’ (226), which means that we, as audience members paying admission to Branagh’s film, are automatically handed a return ticket to what is still considered the definitive adaptation of the novel. Scott Free, the Ridley Scott-led production company behind the film, has booked several of these ‘return tickets’ in 2017: Alien: Covenant (directed by Scott himself) and Blade Runner 2049 (directed by Denis Villeneuve) make similar journeys into the cinematic past, revisiting properties that are three or four decades old; all three films boast work from screenwriter Michael Green. Murder on the Orient Express is different insofar as it tackles a film that is far from an undisputed classic (I am here sidelining the two much lesser-known TV adaptations which were produced in the early 2000s). Lumet’s wordy film is fondly remembered for Albert Finney’s towering performance and for some nifty touches on behalf of the director (the scene of how the individual travelers board the train still stands as a masterclass in character economy), but it is mainly due to its impressive star power that it has remained in collective memory, having been released at the height of of the disaster-movie cycle. In the era of New Hollywood, both the glamorous whodunit and the disaster movie were deliberate throwbacks: a final attempt to show off more stars than in heaven. These films would gather a prominent ensemble for one final, nostalgic journey, confronting the dramatis personae with a violent disruption from within and without, respectively, and they would frequently overlap in their choice of personnel: director John Guillermin worked on The Towering Inferno (1974) and later on Death on the Nile (1978). Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express, in spite of its stylistic makeover and its undisputable cinematic qualities (the film, shot in 65 mm, repeatedly goes beyond the confines of the train itself and adds a vertical dimension to the egalitarian horizontal of the train compartments), is, for the most part, smart enough not to pretend that Lumet’s film never happened. Like Poirot in the story, who uncovers the victim’s past life to find the true motif for the murder, viewers of the film are well-advised to look back. Take Branagh’s casting choices, which deliberately evoke those of the earlier adaptation: they establish the players explicitly as successors of the 1974 cast, and the symmetry even extends to the distribution of Academy Award winners. This pronounced attempt to match the predecessor provoked Lumet’s producer Richard Goodwin to insist that ‘the actors in the new film [do not] have the horsepower of the ones we had’ (qtd. in Clarke), which is, of course, for the viewer to judge. Thus, Penélope Cruz is aligned with Ingrid Bergman, two European screen idols who deconstruct their predominant image as sex symbols in the role of the traumatized missionary; the role of retired American actress Mrs. Hubbard serves as a vehicle for Lauren Bacall and Michelle Pfeiffer, both of whom went into semi-retirement from the big screen when they reached middle age; and the role of the quintessentially British manservant goes from one renowned, knighted Shakespearean (John Gielgud) to another (Derek Jacobi). In their shared interrogation scene, Branagh’s Poirot asks Jacobi’s Masterman whether he has ever been to the USA, and the answer is: yes, of course Jacobi has been to the USA, co-starring in Branagh’s Dead Again (1991), a neo-noir about dual identities and past lives that sits comfortably amongst the director’s various adaptive ‘returns’, in spite of being, paradoxically, based on an original script. Clearly, then, the invitation to ‘look back’ that Murder on the Orient Express extends is far from a new phenomenon in Branagh’s output—in a way, it is the definitive conundrum he has been wrestling with throughout his career, which has seen him gradually outgrow his reputation as the heir of Laurence Olivier. Not only does the impressive list of Branagh’s adaptations include new takes on the two most popular films starring the screen’s definitive Shakespearean (Henry V and Hamlet, respectively), the ghost of ‘Sir Laurence’ continued to haunt Branagh’s work even outside of his Shakespeare adaptations. In 2007, he directed a new version of Sleuth, a play that provided Olivier with one of his greatest screen roles, and, to top it all off, he earned himself an Academy Award nomination by playing Olivier himself in 2011’s My Week with Marilyn (dir. Simon Curtis). Branagh may now have exorcised the ghost of ‘Larry’, but as an adaptor, he continues to incur rather than evade the ‘curse of the second-born’. Some notable exceptions aside, his directorial output consists of films which wrestle with the intertextual ghosts of previous ‘definitive’ versions: Sleuth was largely received as inferior to Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ version of the same play (1972), Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014) failed to match the success of previous Tom Clancy adaptations starring Harrison Ford, while Cinderella (2015) was a live-action remake of the beloved Disney classic. Murder on the Orient Express can be safely added to this list, even though it finds yet another unlikely spiritual predecessor amongst Branagh’s back catalogue: his notoriously ill-received Shakespeare musical, Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000), not just because of a shared enthusiasm for the period they are set in, the glamorized 1930s—the soundtracks of both films include Cole Porter’s ‘I Get a Kick out of You’ (originally performed in 1934). Both films, in spite of the democratizing force of their setting (Shakespeare’s camp outside the palace fulfills a similar role to Christie’s train, which momentarily dispels class distinctions), emphasize the vertical plane: the characteristic bird’s-eye shot that the musical employs to show off its dance routines is resurrected several times in Orient Express, first in the opening shot and later in the well-choreographed discovery of the murder victim. As a result, Murder on the Orient Express is not much interested in presenting the audience with a moral conundrum: we are neither explicitly put into the roles of the detective nor that of the conspirators (our complicity never really is an issue), but are asked, like Christie’s innocent bystanders, to pick from two ‘solutions’. The point is underlined by one small plot detail in Branagh’s film. While the novel merely alludes to Ratchett, the murder victim, having been a powerful ‘man of business’ who deals in antiquities, Branagh’s film has him trade forged artworks. This means that in the ‘official’ account of the murder that Poirot ultimately offers to the police, the murderer becomes a kind of radical, disgruntled art critic who kills Ratchett because of a dispute over what constitutes ‘the original’—and this may just be the film’s best punchline. REFERENCES Alien: Covenant . Dir. Ridley Scott. Fox, 2017. Blade Runner 2049 . Dir. Denis Villeneuve. Warner, 2017. Christie, Agatha. Murder on the Orient Express . 1934. New York: HarperCollins, 2011. Christie, Agatha. The Murder on the Links . 1923. New York: HarperCollins, 2011. Christie, Agatha. The Mysterious Affair at Styles . 1920. New York: Cosimo, 2007. Cinderella . Dir. Clyde Geronimi/Hamilton Luske/Wilfred Jackson. Disney, 1950. Cinderella . Dir. Kenneth Branagh. Disney, 2015. Clarke, Cath.“How We Made the Original Murder on the Orient Express.” The Guardian 13 November 2017. 18 November 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2017/nov/13/how-we-made-the-original-murder-on-the-orient-express. Dead Again . Dir. Kenneth Branagh. Paramount, 1991. Death on the Nile . Dir. John Guillermin. Paramount, 1978. Flood, Alison.“And Then There Were None Declared World’s Favourite Agatha Christie Novel.” The Guardian 1 September 2015. 18 November 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/sep/01/and-then-there-were-none-declared-worlds-favourite-agatha-christie-novel. Hamlet . Dir. Laurence Olivier. Rank, 1948. Hamlet . Dir. Kenneth Branagh. Columbia, 1996. Henry V . Dir. Laurence Olivier. Eagle-Lion, 1944. Henry V . Dir. Kenneth Branagh. Goldwyn, 1989. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit . Dir. Kenneth Branagh. Paramount, 2014. Love’s Labour’s Lost . Dir. Kenneth Branagh. Buena Vista, 2000. Murder on the Orient Express . Dir. Sidney Lumet. EMI, 1974. Murder on the Orient Express . Dir. Carl Schenkel. Ardustry Home Entertainment, 2001. Murder on the Orient Express . Dir. Philip Martin. ITV, 2010. Murder on the Orient Express . Dir. Kenneth Branagh. Fox, 2017. My Week with Marilyn . Dir. Simon Curtis. Entertainment Film, 2011. Sleuth . Dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Fox, 1972. Sleuth . Dir. Kenneth Branagh. Sony, 2007. Stern, Lesley.“ Emma in Los Angeles: Remaking the Book and the City.” Film Adaptation . Ed. James Naremore. London: Athlone P, 2000. 221– 238. The Towering Inferno . Dir. John Guillermin. Fox, 1974. Twelve Angry Men . Dir. Sidney Lumet. United Artists, 1957. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Adaptation – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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