I don’t know, but I would guess that this is Agatha Christie’s most famous book. The Wikipedia article lists a string of allusions to it in other works, and at least four dramatisations of it. Raymond Chandler used it (although without naming it) as an example of how not to write a murder mystery (like he would know! …. oh, wait.) (Sidenote: I’ve never read Raymond Chandler, other than skimming that essay and then getting annoyed at his attack on Agatha Christie. What should I start with?) And I’ve been going through an Agatha Christie phase for the last few weeks – we watched an episode of Poirot over Christmas (The Clocks) and since then I’ve wanted to go on a Christie-reading binge, as well as watching versions of her works: Witness for the Prosecution, a number of other episodes of Poirot (whatever I can get my hands on, really), and the all-star film version of Murder on the Orient Express.
One of the Poirot episodes I watched was also Murder on the Orient Express, and by sort-of coincidence I watched it fairly soon after watching the 1974 film version. I was worried that I’d spend the whole time comparing the two, but I didn’t. I was very impressed by how differently they treated exactly the same material. Oh, sure, they made changes to the book (documented in Wikipedia, among other places – I won’t go into them here). But what interested me the most was how differently Albert Finney (1974) and David Suchet (2010) played Poirot, without many (if any) of the words changing.
A lot of that is because of the framing structure for each film. In the 1974 feature release, the film starts with the background for the case – the Armstrong kidnapping. It is a blatant, obvious, deliberate comparison to the Lindbergh kidnapping, with Colonel Armstrong even being a near lookalike of Charles Lindbergh. This film is much more about the case, about the puzzle. Not that Poirot isn’t important, but character development is not a factor – plot is. As such, a lot of time is spent establishing the suspects in the beginning – watching them all get on the train – and with the interrogations.
The Poirot episode, though, becomes almost entirely about Poirot. It starts with Poirot doing his classic explanatory accusation for an unnamed case – but this time one of the suspects shoots himself in front of everybody. This rattles Poirot, and he starts to wonder if his methods are still worth using. Not the methods he uses to solve the case, of course, because he still gets the right answers, but his methods of revealing the culprits. This is continued when he witnesses the stoning of a pregnant, unwed woman in Istanbul – bringing up issues of local/cultural justice versus absolute justice. The themes of redemption and justice are very much on Poirot’s mind as he boards the train.
All the details of the interrogations and the case are the same (mostly – again, Wikipedia has some of the variations) but the focus is not on the case itself. Instead, almost everything points to the themes of redemption and justice. Does justice provide redemption? Can you redeem yourself without justice being served? And whose responsibility is it to provide justice and redemption? What happens if the systems to provide justice and redemption fail to do so?
It was fascinating for me to watch such two different performances, and to see how the editing and script choices, and the framing scenes, made the exact same story turn into such very different films. The ending is still the same, the result is still the same, but in the 2010 episode of Poirot, Poirot is such a very different character by the end – he’s doubting everything about what he does and what he stands for. In the film, there is no doubt – Poirot is just doing what he does best, solving a mystery.
They’re both well worth watching, and my craving for Agatha Christie hasn’t faded yet….