[Post contains some spoilers.]
I have great respect for movie critics.
After all, I too spend a fair share of time criticizing movies and their apparent worth, so it would be rather hypocritical of me not to hold other reviewers in high esteem. A certain measure of esteem, however, cannot atone for sheer thoughtlessness.
Because spewing my morning coffee in shock, although invigorating, is not normally the emotional reaction I seek while perusing reviews. But I digress.
Christopher Orr (a.k.a Catalyst of Coffee Spew) of The Atlantic and editorial fame wrote a rather scathing review earlier this month of the latest film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express entitled, “Murder on the Orient Express: A Ride Worth Skipping.” Having recently returned from the theater myself filled with elation about Kenneth Branagh’s latest masterpiece, I could not let the review stand unchallenged.
For good coffee should never be unjustly wasted.
Self-Indulgent and Unnecessary?
Orr’s suggestion to skip the thrill of travel on the Orient Express pivots around the core arguments that film is self-indulgent and unnecessary. He admits that Murder on the Orient Express 2017 is “not a bad movie per se,” but questions its validity as an adaptation when the world already possesses a star-studded production of the same story in Sidney Lumet’s 1974 blockbuster starring Albert Finney. This is not an unpopular opinion. The question of necessity was raised in most of the reviews I perused while seeking a favorable perspective that matched my own theater-going experience.
I will grant you, this is a Kenneth Branagh production. Serving simultaneously as director and lead actor in the role of Christie’s fastidious detective, Hercule Poirot, there is bound to be some self-indulgence. However, such indulgence seems a bit inevitable when you have a genius working both sides of the camera.
And is any of it truly unnecessary?
Orr supports his claim that the 2017 film adaptation of Poirot’s greatest case is unnecessary by highlighting the minor roles played by a extraordinarily talented cast, the visual sumptuousness, and the familiarity of the purportedly well-trodden plot. Add to this some plot diversions and character explorations contrary to the original text and it is apparently enough to make a seasoned reviewer to encourage skipping the ride. Indeed, Orr pins the blame of this supposed derailment from the novel’s vision solely on Branagh’s back commenting, “This flatly heroic portrayal of Christie’s odd little Belgian detective might be less annoying if it didn’t smack of directorial vanity on Branagh’s part.”
I beg to differ. And, in honor of 2017 Poirot’s gorgeous six-pointed mustache, I will respond with six points of my own to close this case.
1. The 1974 film adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express no longer meets the expectations of modern audiences.
Don’t get me wrong, Albert Finney will forever remain an iconic portrayal of Hercule Poirot treasured in the hearts of film lovers everywhere and Sidney Lumet’s adaptation remains pivotal in the saga of mystery adaptations. Yet modern mystery/thriller theater-goers have certain expectations of storytelling that do not include keeping the story inside a train for the duration of the tale. They expect action–adventure! Daring-do and shots of epic proportions that take us far and away from the troubles of mundane today. We have the capability to do amazing things with cinematography that were not even thought of forty years ago. Why should we continue to turn to a storytelling technique that dates itself? From the camerawork to the music, Murder on the Orient Express 1974 is too classically ’70s for the majority of modern-day viewers to be caught dead watching it.
2. This story is not an oft-traveled route.
Orr asserts in his review that “[t]he plot is familiar, even to those who have neither read the novel nor seen Sidney Lumet’s famous 1974 adaptation starring Albert Finney.” Maybe that’s true in a universe populated solely by mystery-obsessed literary types, but I know many people out in the real world unfamiliar with Christie’s works and the artistic plot design of the communal murder. In fact, I attended a film showing with a follow blogger and she did not know how the story ended. Although it would be nice to live in a universe where classic British mystery writers like Christie are required reading and viewing before reaching adulthood, that universe still resides in a far-off galaxy. And until it becomes a reality, reviewers should stop assuming that their knowledge was pre-requisite consumption for all movie-goers.
3. Adaptations only require audience, means, and purpose to be worthy of creation.
The idea of an unnecessary adaptation strikes at the core of my being.
I firmly believe that adaptations are the way that humans use their imagination to process story. We cannot have great story without the adaptation of story for others. If something is good, we want to share it. But I will admit that those considering an adaptation should consider three things: Does the adaptation we want to make have an audience? Do we have the means? And, most importantly, do we have a purpose?
I can’t know what Branagh was thinking before he began work on this adaptation. However, in my humble opinion, Murder on the Orient Express 2017 has an audience of people who are fans of mystery and eager to see a fresh silver-screen production of Christie’s work, people who never seen the 1974 movie or read the book, and people who select movies based on star appeal. And when you combine all of those segments of the population, it creates a rather large potential audience pool.
This film also had means in every sense of the word. They had the budget to create the film, the artistic cinematography techniques to capture the story, and gifted actors willing to work on the project and tell this story to the world. That’s a dream-team combination.
Finally, the film also has a purpose. The deviations from the text told by Michael Green and portrayed by Kenneth Branagh emphasize the motives behind why we do what we do. By the end of the movie, audience members have received a fantastic snapshot of the inner-workings of Poirot and why “good people do bad things.” (See more about this outlined in honorary-mustache-point #5.)
4. Stories involving a range of characters often require more talented actors to succeed.
I’m a story-obsessed librarian and blogger. I have no experience as a director, producer, or actor. My occasional brushes with show biz occur and community theater productions and school plays. It seems, however, that the larger the primary cast the more talent you need to carry a story to its completion.
Murder on the Orient Express is a story with… count ’em… FOURTEEN primary characters to be developed over the course of a two-hour film. Although Orr may argue that film-making is not a math game, it does take quite a bit of talent to help an audience follow the progress of fourteen separate characters while experiencing the story from primarily Poirot’s perspective. Character domination by Poirot is necessary for us to experience the solution of the mystery alongside him, and doses of talent along the way make the audience satisfied with the climax despite only being given snippets of character development as the original text dictates.
5. If there is room for a creative interpretation of the characters within the original text, explore!
The beauty of not being the first film adaptation of an original text is that the creators do not have to spend so much time considering how to portray the characters and faithfulness to the original text. Audiences already have copious by-the-book interpretations of both Poirot and Murder on the Orient Express, so why not explore the boundaries of the character/s and story?
We’ve already comical, short, tiny-curled-mustache interpretations of Poirot. Why not explore a glorious mustache-toting man obsessed with order and balance and answers and in that we find the occasional burst of oddity? Instead of just assuming Poirot is a good individual because he is an amazing detective, why not examine how his obsession for order pushes people away and how his own past pain may be his driving motivation? Why not examine the morality of what makes good people commit the most horrendous atrocity and if it is ever excusable? Why not peer deep into the dangers of train travel and unexpected stops we are forced to make along the way?
Upon rereading the novel for a second time, I found a basis for all of these considerations in the novel. And by viewing the novel through the lens of the motivations of the characters, I found myself enjoying the story more. Sure, the movie takes some creative license with some of the action and tweaks a character’s name here and there, but on the whole this Christie fan found it to be an enlightening experience.
6. The 2017 film is not a remake–it is an adaptation.
Orr and others have called Murder on the Orient Express 2017 a remake of the 1974 film.
I find this to be a gross error. Although both are adapting the same original text, the 2017 film is not a remake of the 1974 flick. Screenwriter Michael Green made it clear in an Op Ed piece for the Los Angeles Times that his inspiration for the screenplay was not the 1974 movie, (although it served as a catalyst), but Christie herself. Her stories, her ideas, and the way she fashions them from reality are what caused Green to take up the mantle of becoming an adapter of Poirot. Green delved into the depths of Christie’s text to discover the inner-workings of how and why she did it and reveal a hint of that secret to an audience who, like him, may be looking for answers after seeing the 1974 adaptation. After all, the scariest part about Murder on the Orient Express is not that a man dies from multiple stab wounds, it is that we grow to understand and accept the motivations “good people” put forth for murder.
And that idea rightly threatens the balance of our whole existence.
Although my journey to avenge my morning coffee and defend the legitimacy of Murder on the Orient Express (2017), your adventure is just beginning! Get your ticket today because the latest film adaptation is a ride that is both necessary and well worth taking and making.
All media is belongs to 20th Century Fox and was obtained from IMDb.com
Murder on the Orient Express will be in many theaters for at least another week with an estimated DVD release date of February 2018.