With the new release of Murder on the Orient Express, James Mottram asks whether film adaptations of Agatha Christie’s works are once again in rude health
Murder makes a cinematic comeback on the Orient Express
“My name is Hercule Poirot and I’m probably the greatest detective in the world,” announces the moustachioed Belgian in Kenneth Branagh’s new film, a luxurious all-star take on Agatha Christie’s classic whodunnit Murder On The Orient Express. One of Christie’s most enduring creations, Poirot’s return marks the beginning of a long-overdue big-screen revival for one of the world’s most popular mystery writers.
Published in 1934 – six years after Christie first travelled on the titular train – Murder On The Orient Express is one of the English author’s most exotic and best-loved novels. After leaving Istanbul, the Paris-bound sleeper is derailed by an avalanche in the Alps and a shady businessman is knifed to death in his carriage. With 14 strangers on board, Poirot must use his powers of detection to uncover the murderer.
There was a time when Christie’s works (66 novels and 14 short stories) were bread-and-butter for cinema, television, stage and radio. The biggest-selling novelist of all time (an estimated two billion copies worldwide), she has been outsold only by the Bible and William Shakespeare. “They are eminently adaptable not only into films and television, but to different cultures, different ages and different languages,” says her grandson, Matthew Prichard.
In the past, Christie’s books have been turned into movies by such acclaimed directors as Billy Wilder (Witness For The Prosecution) and Sidney Lumet (Murder On The Orient Express). Branagh now adds his name to that list, also playing “Hercules” Poirot – as several characters mistakenly call him – amid a glorious A-list cast that includes Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe and Dame Judi Dench.
It’s a roll call every bit as sparkling as Lumet’s 1974 version with Albert Finney (whose Poirot, with his timid whiskers, was said to have disappointed Christie), Lauren Bacall and Sean Connery. It was a line-up that first intrigued Branagh when he was a young boy growing up in Belfast. “My first encounter was with their sense of glamour,” he recently told The Guardian. “I was pretty intrigued by all the names on those posters.”
Back then, Christie was big business at the box office (despite the fact that her second husband Max Mallowan claimed she “had always been allergic” to cinema adaptations). Between 1978 and 1988, Peter Ustinov played Poirot in big-screen adaptations Death on the Nile, Evil Under The Sun and Appointment with Death, becoming one of the most memorable incarnations of the detective.
On the small screen, it was David Suchet who led Agatha Christie’s Poirot, a show that ran for 13 series and 70 episodes, spanning 24 years. Likewise, Christie’s spinster sleuth Miss Marple has enjoyed a considerable screen lifespan, with actresses ranging from Margaret Rutherford to Joan Hickson playing the amateur detective over the years. But it’s been some time since a major Christie movie. Did she fall out of fashion in a world where superheroes are tasked with solving crimes?
Branagh’s film – which opened strongly when it premiered in the UK on November 3, before it hit wide across 26 markets on Thursday – suggests there is still an appetite for her old-fashioned murder-mysteries.
“There is a general feeling that the time is right for there to be Christie on the big screen,” says producer James Spring, who is shepherding another of her novels, Crooked House, to cinemas. “It feels like there’s a desire to see those movies out there.”
Crooked House’s French director Gilles Paquet-Brenner concurs. “The Agatha Christie brand is literally one of the most famous in the world,” he says. “But I couldn’t even remember the last time I saw an Agatha Christie for cinema.” While his film features another gilt-edged cast – including Christina Hendricks, Glenn Close and Gillian Anderson – the real draw is the book. Said to be one of Christie’s favourites, it’s also one of the lesser known of her canon.
With Crooked House’s screenwriters including Downton Abbey’s Julian Fellowes, remarkably the 1949 novel, largely all set on a wealth family estate, has never been adapted for the screen. “It felt like you can actually make a movie where people don’t know who the killer is,” says Paquet-Brenner. “Of course, people who read the book would remember it, but it’s not as famous as some of the other books. I’m excited to see Murder On The Orient Express, but I know the killer! And this one, people don’t.” As Gillian Anderson puts it, right now, “there is a burst of Agatha Christie energy”.
It comes hot on the heels on the BBC’s 2016 mini-series adaptation The Witness For The Prosecution, which began life as a Christie short story before becoming a hit play. Starring Kim Cattrall and Billy Howle and scripted by Sarah Phelps, who previously adapted And Then There Were None for a three-part series, its harder-edged approach dispensed with the quaint nature of many Christie adaptations. Since then, the BBC and Agatha Christie Productions entered into a deal for seven new television films over four years. The first of those is the upcoming Ordeal By Innocence, taken from Christie’s 1958 novel and again scripted by Phelps. Others due to be shot include Death Comes As The End, a murder mystery set in Ancient Egypt, and The ABC Murders, a Poirot adventure that previously inspired 1965’s comic effort The Alphabet Murders, a film Christie was warned not to watch.
Arguably, thanks to Suchet’s Poirot and Hickson’s Marple, Christie has rarely been absent from our living rooms. But will the big screen revival continue as well? For a while, there has been Hollywood chatter that Ben Affleck will direct a feature version of Witness For The Prosecution. Currently in development at 20th Century Fox, the studio behind Branagh’s film, Affleck is said to be producing this courtroom drama with Matt Damon.
As for Branagh’s film, the finale to his Orient Express journey sees him accosted by a messenger who says he must hurry to Egypt where there has been a death that he must investigate. Does this mean a second outing for Branagh’s Poirot in more hospitable climes? Only time – and box office numbers – will tell. But if it makes it to the screen, it’ll be no great mystery.
Murder On The Orient Express is out in cinemas now