Murder on the Orient Express movie vs. book comparison.

How Faithful Is Murder on the Orient Express to Agatha Christie’s Classic Novel? A Breakdown.

How Faithful Is Murder on the Orient Express to Agatha Christie’s Classic Novel? A Breakdown.

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 10 2017 9:34 AM

How Faithful Is Murder on the Orient Express to Agatha Christie’s Classic Detective Novel? A Breakdown.

Johnny Depp in Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
Johnny Depp as Ratchett in Murder on the Orient Express.

Twentieth Century Fox

This post contains spoilers for Murder on the Orient Express, including the ending. Read on at your own risk.

Agatha Christie has been hailed as the queen of crime, and Murder on the Orient Express might just be her crown jewel. Christie’s 1934 novel follows the author’s most famous detective, Hercule Poirot, as he solves a murder on a snowbound train while en route from Istanbul to London. With a carriage full of international passengers and no help available from the outside world, Poirot is at his finest, relying purely on the clues before him and the power of his “little grey cells.”

Advertisement

The main problem with adapting Murder on the Orient Express is that its ending is already pretty famous. Various directors have tried their hands at adapting Christie’s masterpiece for the screen, including Sidney Lumet with the 1974 movie starring Albert Finney, and each has taken a few liberties with the source material along the way. On Friday, Kenneth Branagh joins their ranks with his own take on the classic detective story, casting himself in the starring role. While Branagh more or less preserves the novel’s remarkable conclusion—they all did it—he also makes some small but significant changes to the story to make it his own.

Below is a breakdown of all the ways the movie departs from the text:

The Premise

In both book and film, there are twelve suspects aboard the train, plus four others: Poirot, his friend Bouc, a train conductor named Pierre Michel, and, of course, the dead body. In both versions, that body belongs to Ratchett (Johnny Depp), a con man who is secretly an American gangster notorious for orchestrating the kidnapping and murder of Daisy Armstrong, the daughter of a WWI hero. That fictional case bears an obvious resemblance to the real events of the 1932 Lindbergh kidnapping, in that Daisy’s death begat other tragedies. Daisy’s mother went into premature labor and died, Captain Armstrong shot himself, and an innocent maid accused of the crime jumped from a window. No wonder someone (or someones) wanted to stab Ratchett.

Advertisement

The Passengers

The characters in the movie mostly fall into the same archetypes as they do in the book (the Butler, the Governess, the Princess, etc.) with some minor tweaks to accommodate a more diverse cast. The pious Swedish missionary Greta Ohlsson, for instance, is played by Penélope Cruz and renamed Pilar Estravados (a name borrowed from a different character in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas), while Antonio Foscarelli, the Italian car salesman, becomes the Cuban Biniamino Marquez, played by Manuel Garcia-Rulfo. The biggest alteration might be to Leslie Odom Jr.’s character, Dr. Arbuthnot, who is actually a composite of two characters from the book: the English Colonel Arbuthnot, a suspect, and Dr. Constantine, a passenger who uses his medical knowledge to aid Poirot in his investigation.

The movie is hardly colorblind about its casting. In the book, characters are especially suspicious of Antonio Foscarelli, because they believe that a knife is an Italian’s weapon of choice. In the movie, that suspicion shifts toward Arbuthnot and Marquez, as Poirot worries that the crime could be pinned on one of them, guilty or not, because of their respective race and heritage. Poirot also comments on the challenges facing the movie’s interracial couple, Arbuthnot and Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley).

While he’s not a suspect, the elderly director of the train line, Monsieur Bouc, also gets a makeover in Branagh’s version. Poirot’s old friend is replaced by the decidedly not old actor Tom Bateman, who fulfills the same role but plays Bouc’s promiscuous, boozehound nephew instead.

Advertisement

The Crime Scene

In the book, the characters are snowed in on the train, so the entire murder mystery takes place aboard the Simplon Orient Express. Not so in the movie, which has the train derail rather dramatically instead, so that the characters are stranded but not actually trapped inside the train. The result is a much less claustrophobic setting, allowing Poirot to interview some of his suspects outside in the snow and for the film’s denouement to take place in a nearby tunnel.

Hercule Poirot

Branagh’s greatest departure from the novel is his characterization of Poirot, starting by giving him a personal connection to the murder case. In Branagh’s version, Poirot’s familiarity with the Armstrongs goes beyond reading the headlines; he reveals that he received a letter from Captain Armstrong years earlier begging him to help solve the kidnapping years ago, but it was too late. Poirot also gets something of a tragic backstory underneath his silly exterior, including a long-lost lover whose photo he keeps by his bed and which is subjected to long monologues about justice. Branagh’s Poirot even seems weary of crime-solving and has to be persuaded, even guilted, by Bouc into taking the case.

Advertisement

This is a very different man from the Poirot of Christie’s novels, a short, silly-looking Belgian (his head is repeatedly described as “egg-shaped”) who plays up his accent or his eccentricity to trick suspects into underestimating him. Christie’s Poirot has no qualms about solving a murder on the train as a favor to Bouc, who needs only to flatter him a little.

There is one aspect of the character that Branagh lifts directly from his source material: the famous mustache, which is described in the books as “enormous” and of which the detective is very proud. Christie herself was reportedly disappointed by the comparatively tame mustache worn by Finney in the 1974 movie, but here Branagh does it justice with what appears to be a repurposed feather duster under his nose.

The Action Scenes

Did I mention that in the film, Poirot is also something of an action hero? There’s nothing wrong with trying to spice up a book’s plot to suit a more visual medium, of course, but some of Branagh’s additions work better than others. A new scene where Arbuthnot pulls a gun on Poirot, for instance, works, because it both raises the stakes and gives Odom a chance to show off his acting chops as he desperately tries to take responsibility for the crime and spare his beloved from jail or worse.

Advertisement

Other new scenes are less successful: The sequence where MacQueen (Josh Gad) leads Poirot on a chase over a rickety bridge is obviously just there to break the monotony of the suspect interviews, and while the discovery that Mrs. Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer) has been stabbed is certainly dramatic, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, plotwise.

The Solution

You do not mess with the ending of Murder on the Orient Express, since the ending, and the careful way in which Christie reveals it, are what make the novel so great. In both book and film, Poirot presents two possible solutions to the crime. In the first, Poirot suggests that an assassin snuck onboard the train, stabbed Ratchett, and vanished. In the second (correct) solution, Poirot reveals that all 13 people aboard the train—including the conductor, Pierre Michel—have some connection to the Armstrong household, and that they conspired to murder Ratchett together to avenge their loved ones.

Here’s where the book and movie diverge. In the book, Poirot is sympathetic toward the conspirators, noting that the 12 stab wounds (the Count Andrenyi acted on behalf of both himself and his wife) are reminiscent of a trial by jury, with the killers acting as judges and executioners of a man who was obviously guilty. Poirot presents both his solutions but lets Bouc decide which theory they should present to the police. Despite the confessions of the train passengers, Bouc chooses the first, incorrect theory about the assassin, and Poirot announces that he considers the case closed.

Branagh’s Poirot is not nearly as relaxed about the whole thing. After presenting both theories and extracting a confession from Mrs. Hubbard, he announces that he can’t live with the injustice of keeping the killers’ secret (something he has in common with David Suchet’s more religious Poirot in the 2010 ITV adaptation of the novel). Branagh's Poirot puts a gun on the table and insists that the suspects will have to shoot him to keep his silence; the gun turns out to be unloaded, and Poriot eventually decides he will present the police with the assassin theory and “learn to live with the imbalance.”

The Other Mysteries

At the beginning of the film, before we even get to the mystery we came for, we join Poirot in Jerusalem, where he must determine whether a priest, a rabbi, or an imam is responsible for stealing a sacred relic. Poirot certainly arrives a very Agatha Christie-like solution (The policeman did it!) but that particular case does not occur in any of Christie’s books and seems to have been totally invented for the film.

The film ends with Poirot being called away to yet another case, this time in Egypt. That one’s a clear reference to another famous Poirot mystery, Death on the Nile.