“… an entertaining story, but it had a lot of problems.”
Here we are again. As predictable as I am, I wanted to throw a curveball at you guys this time around. So there’s this movie coming out soon, Murder on the Orient Express, and I thought I would do something completely unprecedented and read the book before I saw the movie! And then, wait this is the best part, I would write my review of the book and compare it to the movie. But that’s been done before (not by me of course) so I thought I would throw in another curveball in that I will not only read the book and watch the new film, but I will also watch the old film adaption of Murder on the Orient Express. Did I blow your mind? I can feel that I have. Anyway, all jokes aside here we are again. For those who don’t know, Murder on the Orient Express is a very famous story written by Agatha Christie wherein a murder takes place a train that is aptly named ‘The Orient Express”. The story is a mystery, at least technically speaking, and like I said it is very much engrained in pop-culture. So without further ado let’s get into it.
So I had always kind of knew of Murder on the Orient Express, much like everyone else does. I have heard it mentioned in passing, and I was familiar with the general story (the title kind of says it all). It wasn’t until recently that I started to be exposed to things that really built the book up in my mind’s eye. By the time I got around to reading Murder on the Orient Express I had assumed it would be this great piece of literature that is both smart and engaging. That it would be the precursor to everything we now know as ‘mystery’ in all mediums. But what I got was a lot more underwhelming than that. Murder on the Orient Express is a book. It’s not a good book, but it’s not bad either. The biggest problem I had with Murder on the Orient Express was the engagement level of the book. When I had pictured what Murder on the Orient Express would be like, being an old mystery novel, I assumed that there would be some level of interactivity involved in reading the book. I’m not talking about a ‘choose your own adventure’ scenario here, it’s closer to how when you watch an episode of CSI you can piece together what happened and make assumptions based on the clues that are being revealed to you, and the characters on screen, simultaneously. Murder on the Orient Express doesn’t allow for this because, in terms of mystery, it takes the easy way out. One way to assure that audiences will lose interest in your mystery book is to allow them to solve the mystery before you can. If the clues are too obvious, the reader will have tuned out as soon as you start dragging your feet. So what is the solution to this problem? Create a complex mystery of course! Or, if you’re Agatha Christie, intentionally withhold information from the reader until the very end so that you can have a “dramatic reveal”. And this really is my biggest problem with Murder on the Orient Express, much like many “smart” mystery television shows of today, the crimes are only solved because the main character is way too fucking smart. Like too smart for it to be believable. There is no way in hell that Poirot would have been able to solve this murder based on the evidence he discovered, and the fact that he “solved” it by creating these connections that are so loose you’d need suspenders to keep them from falling down is ludacris. By that logic I could say that Jesus came down from the heavens and stabbed that man himself.
Another thing that really struck me about Murder on the Orient Express, though it made me far less angry, was just how cinematic Agatha Christie was trying to make this experience. Books are different from movies in one major way: There is really no limit to how in-depth you can go. A movie is told (usually) from an outside perspective and tends to kind of gloss-over situations; a book on the other hand is usually told from a first-person perspective which allows for an inner-dialogue to take place and allow the reader to feel more connected to the character. I think it is far more difficult to create a relatable main character for a book than it is to do the same for a movie, but I digress. The point that I’m trying to make here is that, despite being a book, Murder on the Orient Express opts to take the ‘movie route’ on more than one occasion. For instance, there are many times (even at the very start of the book) where entire sections of dialogue are truncated. “Lieutenant Dubosc was saying his parting speech. He had thought it out beforehand and had kept it till the last minute. It was a very beautiful, polished speech. Not to be outdone, M. Poirot replied in kind…” What? Either say what they said or don’t include it! And this continues on throughout the book but in different ways. Things like: ‘Poirot closed his eyes and thought’. Thought about what? Should we be hearing these thoughts? If not, why do I need to know that he is thinking? Isn’t everybody always thinking? And this is where the book really keeps things from the reader in its attempt to prolong the mystery. And that isn’t the only oddity I noticed in the writing style of Murder on the Orient Express but this one manifests itself in the language barriers presented in the story. When Poirot sees the group of people that are traveling with him there is a comment made that outlines how diverse this cast of characters is. This is then discussed in more detail with each individual interview of the passengers. But one thing that kept throwing me off was the apparent disregard for the different languages being spoken by the characters that Christie created. I would read entire paragraphs of conversation only to have a single line with something to the effect of ‘the men now switched to speaking in english’ only for me to ask: what the hell were they speaking before? There are quite a few french sentence fragments that are scattered throughout the book, but mainly you would assume that everybody on the train spoke english (which they most certainly do not). I understand why this was done (you can’t exactly have a book written in like five different languages), but it was kind of annoying. And these are many of the reasons that I found Murder on the Orient Express kind of underwhelming; not only from a story perspective but also from a literary one.
But I didn’t totally hate Murder on the Orient Express. I do admit that it took the story a little while to get to the ‘good part’, but when it did it was pretty enjoyable. The strongest part of Murder on the Orient Express in my opinion are the characters. What Agatha Christie managed to do with Murder on the Orient Express is pretty impressive, and that is create a cast of characters that are not only realistic, but also distinct and entertaining. Every single character in this book had their own ‘quirk’ which really brought them to life. Having them each interact with Poirot in the interview segments was probably my favourite part of the book because it allowed for so much creativity in the writing. I will admit that it was kind of hard to keep all of the characters straight in my head (especially the names), but that is more of a problem with the number of characters and not the characters themselves. Also, from a purely entertainment standpoint, I found the ending of the book to be pretty sweet. I know that I was bashing it earlier, and those points still stand, but reading it I just couldn’t help but get kind of giddy inside. All of the pieces (most of which we didn’t know about) all finally coming together to form the big picture. It all read like a shitty episode of CSI, and everyone knows the shitty episodes can be some of the best. So while I might not have liked Murder on the Orient Express in itself, I did find it pretty entertaining.
So as for the movie portion of this review, I decided to check out the 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express, directed by Sidney Lumet. There are many adaptations of this story, but the 1974 version is the only theatrically-released film (apart form the upcoming one), so I felt it was only fitting to compare that one to the new movie. I also don’t have enough time to go through the countless other adaptations, and besides if I had to experience this story that many times I would probably kill myself. Anyway, the 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express is lauded as one of the best adaptations of Agatha Christie’s work of all time, and I can definitely see where that praise comes from. Murder on the Orient Express was a very faithful adaptation in my eyes, keeping not only most of the story intact, but also the general feel as well. Now this isn’t to say that Murder on the Orient Express was without changes to the story, because there were a few. Of course because of its two hour runtime some things have to be cut, but I found that Murder on the Orient Express did a good job of truncating the main points instead of cutting them. Instead of two rounds of interviews, there was only one. Instead of a luggage search, there were only coincidences. These changes alter the story very little, and they are also necessary unless you want to watch a four hour film. Now one of the biggest changes from the book to the film was the ending of the story. The outcome is still the same, but in the movie it’s a lot more fucked up. In the book Poirot lays out his two theories, one involving no one the other involving everyone, and the Bouc picks the one that involves no one and then the book ends. A little fucked up, but it is understandable. In the movie the same thing happens, but then we get to see a whole lot of footage of all of the passengers celebrating and toasting one another. I mean, I get it, but y’all just killed a dude. Maybe chill out a little bit. And it’s not even just the ending itself that made me scratch my head, but also the amount of endings. Murder on the Orient Express had about five different points towards the end of the film where you thought “Oh yeah, this is the end”, but it just kept going. It was like the precursor to Return of the King where you get like eighteen different endings to this one story.
One of the biggest differences between the book and the movie was the lack of mystery so to speak. In the book I complained that the mystery was very much a separate thing, not really involved with the audience at all, but in the movie this changes. See, in the book there’s a part where Poirot hears a voice coming from the victim’s cabin. We don’t know who it is, because this voice to us is just words on a page. In the movie the same thing happens, but we recognize instantly who the voice in the cabin belongs to. So this is kind of a double-edged sword because it allows you to be a part of the mystery drawing your own conclusions and whatnot, but it also removes a little bit of the mystery because it is so easy. Instantly you know who was in his cabin, so instantly you know who the murderer is. And this brings me to my next point which isn’t much of a point at all: This movie was kind of boring if you knew the outcome of the story. Now this shouldn’t really be a surprise, but for me it kind of was. It turns out that there is only so much the rest of the movie can do to entertain you if you already know the outcome of the story. And I will admit, the movie did a lot to keep me entertained, but that didn’t stop the boredom from creeping in from time to time.
As for what did manage to keep my attention throughout the film, there is quite a bit here to discuss. First of all, the score in Murder on the Orient Express was absolutely beautiful. I did find it a bit too upbeat for the story that it was accompanying, but I can’t deny that it was kick-ass. I also found the direction in the film to be really fucking great as well. Not only do I think that Lumet used the space given (mainly train cars) very effectively, but there were also quite a few inventive shots thrown in there as well. Tracking shots, rotating cameras, the camera passing through walls; all of these allowed for a stunning experience while watching Murder on the Orient Express. I also found the framing to be really interesting as well, some times leading the actors to a certain spot which I found really fucking cool. What also managed to keep my attention, though in a not-so-good kind of way, was the subtle racism sprinkled throughout the film. Now I’m not easily offended, I just found it weird that these throwaway lines were included even though they were nowhere to be found in the book. Now the main thing that kept my attention throughout Murder on the Orient Express were the performances; and they were all spectacular. Seeing all of these characters that I had grown used to come to life was kind of crazy, and I feel that they transitioned to the screen very well. There were a few standouts in my opinion, Anthony Perkins being one of them, but overall I thought everyone did a fantastic job; and let’s be real, there are too many of them for me to name individually. One thing I did find a little interesting in terms of performances were the subtle differences to some of the characters, namely Poirot and his temper. In the book, Poirot reads as an everyman who is really fucking smart. He treats people with respect because he’s not a fucking asshole. In the movie, he’s a fucking asshole. Instead of being portrayed as an everyman, he is portrayed as a smarmy, constantly yelling Frenchman who also happens to be a great detective. I’m not sure why that decision was made, or maybe it was like that all along and I just interpreted the book wrong, but wither way it was a strange choice in my opinion.
So overall Murder on the Orient Express (the book) was an entertaining story, but it had a lot of problems. The movie fixed almost all of these problems, but it had a problem of its own in that it was kind of boring at times. But if you’re looking for the ultimate Murder on the Orient Express experience, the most ‘bang for your buck’ if you will, I would just recommend that you watch the 1974 film.