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[Article] – Everything You Need To Know About Agatha Christie At The Movies

 

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Posted October 17, 2017 by

 
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Kenneth Branagh’s new adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express roars into cinemas in early November, with a rotting corpse, a murder weapon and a traditionally star-studded cast of eye-contact-avoiding, cocktail-swigging, “you-don’t-seriously-believe-that-I-murdered-him” suspects in tow. To mark the occasion, I decided to take a look back at the Queen of Crime’s previous forays into the movie world, and provide answers to some Frequently Asked Questions before we embark on the opulent yet perilous journey on the eponymous train.

I’ve heard of this book but I don’t really read. What is Murder on the Orient Express all about? And why is it so famous?

Yes, you’ve probably heard of it. It’s one of Agatha Christie’s most famous works, if not THE most famous, and certainly the most renowned novel to star Hercule Poirot as the detective. What is it about? Well, it’s about a murder…..on the Orient Express. When you get right down to it, it’s a pretty conventional mystery. It has a finite list of suspects, all trapped together in a traditionally claustrophobic setting, and an ingenious detective who just so happens to be there. So what makes it so iconic? In my opinion it’s simply because the eventual solution is so mind-blowing, that you’ll never forget it. In fact, Christie’s confidence in the revelations she has intertwined into the story is so supreme that she divides up the chapters into interviews with each suspect and discussions about each piece of evidence. In other words, she lays out the evidence and testimonies before her reader systematically and openly challenges them to solve it. And if you’ve never been told the ending, then trust me- you won’t guess it.

So who is Agatha Christie? Why is she so famous?

Agatha Christie is often nicknamed The Queen of Crime. She wrote 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections between 1920 and her death in 1976. She is known for taking classic murder mystery tropes (a seemingly unsolvable case, a collection of suspects, an enigmatic detective, a series of unforeseen twists) and creating ingenious plots that will leave you guessing right up until the end. Her style is usually utilitarian, as she much preferred to spend plenty of time formulating the mystery itself, but hated writing it, so would write fast but ensure tha she delivered a mystery that shocked and surprised. So successful was she, that in the list of most widely published literary works, she is only surpassed by Shakespeare and the Bible. And she does love to use the word “ejaculated” rather a lot.

Has Orient Express been adapted before?

This is not the first time the Orient Express has pulled into cinemas. The first adaptation was in 1974, with Albert Finney giving an Oscar-nominated performance as the iconic Hercule Poirot. The cast, by today’s standards, is a whistle-stop tour through the Hall of Fame, with such legends as Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Perkins, Michael York, Wendy Hiller and Martin Balsam all given places in the train’s carriages. A critical and commercial success on release, it garnered 6 Oscar nominations and 10 BAFTA nominations, with Bergman winning both Best Supporting Actresses for her vulnerable and understated performance. Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation is the first cinematic version since then, although Orient Express has made it’s way into radio in the early 90’s, been adapted for television in 2001 with Alfred Molina in the detective seat, and again in 2010 as part of ITV’s series of adaptations starring David Suchet. On top of all this, in 2006 a point-and-click computer game version was created with an alternative main detective and storyline.

Where did the original novel come from?

Agatha Christie published Murder on the Orient Express in 1934, and it was her tenth mystery written for her famously fastidious Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. Inspired by Christie’s own travels on the Orient Express, and the train’s occasional delays due to snow drifts and flooding (although no mysterious murders), the central mystery is also influenced by the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh Jr. The 20-month-old son of the famous aviator was snatched from his family home on March 1st 1932. Ransom notes and help from mobster bosses were involved in the investigation (seriously, Wikipedia this case- you’ll be fascinated), but Charles Jr’s dead body was found in mid-May by a truck driver relieving himself in the woods near the Lindberghs’ home. Bruno Richard Hauptmann was convicted of the murder and executed in 1936- although he professed his innocence right until the very end.

What other Agatha Christie adaptations are worth seeing?

The various TV adaptations tend to be preferred by most Christie buffs.. David Suchet is the definitive Poirot, sticking close to the descriptions Christie wrote, and ITV have adapted every Poirot novel, plus some new stories as well. Albert Finney played the short-statuted Belgian just once in 1974’s Orient Express. But Peter Ustinov played him several times throughout the late-70’s and most of the 80’s. His most popular Poirot performances come from Death on the Nile (also starring Mia Farrow, Bette Davis, Angela Lansbury, David Niven and Maggie Smith), and Evil Under the Sun (also starring James Mason, Diana Rigg, Roddy McDowall and, once again, Maggie Smith). Whilst these films are a bit cheesy and slow-moving by today’s standards, they’re still cracking mysteries and essential viewing for any Christie-buff.

Miss Jane Marple, Christie’s second-most popular fictional detective, has also made appearances in film and TV. You may be most familiar with the elderly spinster being played by Geraldine McEwan and Julia McKenzie over the last decade on ITV. But any Christie fan will tell you that Joan Hickson is the definitive Marple, having played her on TV throughout the 80’s and 90’s, and is generally considered to be the most faithful to Christie’s original creation. In fact, Christie herself saw Hickson in a play in 1946 and told the young actress that she hoped she would play Marple one day. I challenge anyone to find a better endorsement than that! The only cinema appearance by Marple is in the 60’s, when Margaret Rutherford played her in a popular series of low-budget adaptations.

Outside of the two main detectives, And Then There Were None, Christie’s highest selling novel, has also been adapted several times. The original “slasher” tale involves ten strangers invited to an island by a mutual contact, only to be killed off one by one by an unseen murderer and in the style of the Ten Little Sailor Boys nursery rhyme (we won’t go into the original title of this rhyme- look it up if you want to be shocked). This was most recently adapted by the BBC in 2015, with Miranda Richardson, Sam Neill, Charles Dance and Aidan Turner in a very small towel. Another popular version is the terribly old-fashioned 1945 film with Judith Anderson, Richard Haydn and Barry Fitzgerald. Two other adaptations in between have low acclaim but are worth watching to compare the various alternative endings (Christie created a much happier ending for her theatre adaptation, but the original novel ends with a darker twist).

So for anyone looking to expand their knowledge of the Agatha Christie universe, you have much to choose from! Get your cinema ticket, make sure you haven’t upset anyone who might inherit your vast fortune, and climb aboard the Orient Express for mind-blowing mystery.

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Written by:

Paul Wrench
@pjwrench

A Night At The Oscars
Freelance Contributor

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