We’re taking a short break from the projector this week and venturing into the realm of made-for-TV movies. While some (Syfy, ABC Family and Lifetime movies, for instance) are notorious for being low-budget, low-imagination or low-talent, the A&E collection and anything from the “Masterpiece” line is in good standing. And it’s in “Masterpiece Mystery” where we find our material for the week, an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic murder mystery “Murder on the Orient Express.”
This might be Christie’s most recognizable work, and with good reason. The challenge she sets before her master detective, the brilliant and quirky Belgian Hercule Poirot, is unlike anything the genre had ever seen, and the twist of who committed the titular murder is nothing short of genius.
Needless to say, one of the definitive books for one of the most famous authors of the 20th century was bound for the big screen. In 1974, “Orient Express” did roll into theaters with an all-star cast including Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, Anthony Perkins and Albert Finney as Poirot himself. So why am I looking at the 2010 TV version? In two words: David Suchet. He has played Poirot since the late ’80s, Suchet embodies the sleuth: deliberate, obsessive, perfectionist and lovable. The 2010 version also adds a lot to the source’s story. But does it work?
The story is simple enough: 12 passengers from all walks of life are aboard a train. One of them is killed in a seemingly impossible way. It’s up to Poirot to figure out which of the passengers did it. And really, that’s all the book is: a simple mystery plot with a jaw-dropping twist. The “Masterpiece” version is largely accurate to the source in this sense; most of the key moments of the book are present from the events of the night of the crime to the turning points in solving the case. It does combine two characters, which, for those who know the story, might seem to be a problem. But everything still falls into place at the end.
Where the 2010 version really diverges is the depth it gives the situation. The episode opens with Poirot in Istambul witnessing a woman being publicly chastised for being an adulterer. Through that, we not only get introduced to the first of the passengers, the same two readers meet first in the book, we also see firsthand Poirot’s position on law and order. This is a much deeper offering than the book, providing some pretty good foreshadowing. Poirot’s take on events shows up again through the course of the episode when viewers see him practice his religion and especially at the end, when the signature whodunnnit is revealed.
If you’re a traditionalist who adores the book, the ending of the episode might not be to your liking. Everything works out the same way eventually, but the tone is drastically darker and Poirot himself is much less amiable. My guess for the change was to give fans of the book something new to think about, rather than just recanting Christie’s stories word for word. This is a good things for adaptations; it shows creative ingenuity and a real understanding of the source material to try to develop it further (obviously, this can and does frequently backfire).
In this case, while the effort does pay off, it’s doesn’t give near enough weight to the brilliance of the plot and Christie’s original idea. It’s almost as though it’s conceded that everyone watching already knows how the story goes and therefore doesn’t spend too much energy making that a huge deal. This is fine, but reading how the story comes to a climax in the book was more spectacular.
All that said, I’d still recommend seeing the episode if you’re a Poirot fan or just someone interested in a good mystery. I’d also say to compare the 2010 version with the 1974 film, which has plenty of its own remarkable points. But nothing on the screen has yet to trump the queen herself, so before seeing either of them, read the book and prepare to be floored.