Death on the Nile” in theaters: Why is Branagh’s adaptation hardly a classic?

Recently, Death on the Nile, directed by Kenneth Branagh, was released in theaters. This is Branagh’s second adaptation of Agatha Christie’s speculative novel, in the 2017 release of “Murder on the Orient Express”, he directed himself in the role of the great detective Poirot, and at the end of the film revealed that Poirot will rush to Egypt to deal with another case, laying the groundwork for “Death on the Nile”.

Since Agatha’s short story “The Mysterious Mr. Quinn” was first brought to the big screen in 1928, her works have been popular with film and television directors, especially those featuring Poirot. Death on the Nile has undergone two film and television adaptations: the first was the movie of the same name released in 1978, with Peter Ustinov as Poirot, which is regarded as a classic by many Agatha fans; the other was in the British drama “The Great Detective Poirot”, with David Suchet as Poirot solving the case in the third episode of the ninth season broadcast in 2004, and this version is also considered to be the closest This version is also considered to be the closest to the original interpretation. The story of “Death on the Nile” is already familiar to those who walk into the cinema today. It sets a confusing love triangle in scenic Egypt, culminating in the brutal shooting of Linnet, a wealthy woman in the thick of it, while everyone on the Nile cruise seems to have ample motive for the crime.

This novel shows the entanglement of love, ethics and money in pre-World War II British high society. Compared to the past two adaptations, Branagh put more attention on Poirot, trying to interpret a different detective for the audience. However, as of now, Branagh’s presentation of Poirot was met with skepticism from audiences back in 2017 when Murder on the Orient Express hit theaters. Critics generally considered his interpretation “more like Sherlock Holmes than Poirot”, and the adaptation of the story also deviated significantly from the original, detracting from the spirit of Agatha’s work. How did Branagh “misread” Agatha in the new film? And how should we look at the success of the film adaptation?

01 From the outer image to the inner world: why the new version of Poirot is not popular?

In the past decades, many actors have played the great detective Poirot on the screen, but the real public recognition is a minority. In addition to the aforementioned Peter Uchettinov and David Suchet, the first film version of “Murder on the Orient Express” in 1974 was also widely acclaimed for its portrayal of Poirot, Albert Finney. The film also received high praise from Agatha herself, who thought Finney’s performance was very close to her own image of Poirot, except for the moustache, which was not thick enough to be eye-catching. Today, it seems that although the three actors have their own differences in performance, but the external image of all three are generally consistent with Agatha’s portrayal of Poirot: a short, fat, stumbling, funny and subtle old Belgian man.

From left to right, Albert Finney, Peter Uchettinoff and David Suchet as Poirot

In comparison, Branagh’s costume is clearly not enough to match, but that exaggerated beard might make Agatha smile. Like his predecessors, Branagh also shows many of Poirot’s most recognizable traits, such as speaking broken English with a French twist, emphasizing his Belgian identity, placing the utmost importance on neatness and order, and the famous phrase.

“It’s always here that the real work is done (referring to the head). Little gray brain cells, remember remember remember, it’s all on little gray brain cells, my friend.”

Interestingly, the new version of “Death on the Nile” does not enter the plot at the beginning, but a fictionalized account of Poirot’s military service in World War I: the brutal war took the lives of his comrades and left deep scars around Poirot’s mouth. At the urging of his lover at the time, Catherine, he grew a beard to hide his wounds, but Catherine was tragically hit by artillery fire. In this version, Poirot’s carefully cared for beard is no longer just an aesthetic decoration, but a double memorial to war and love. In Agatha’s novel, although Poirot never went to war, he became a refugee due to the German invasion of Belgium in World War I, and then went into exile in England. Until his last case, “Curtain”, Poirot is still sentimental about this past. Obviously, Branagh wanted to reveal Poirot’s unknown sorrow and vulnerability, which was also an under-explored aspect of the previous adaptations.

Up to this point, Branagh’s adaptation is still within reason, but as the case formally unfolds, many contradictions will emerge. The most difficult for people to ignore is that the film is not only the hands of Poirot, but also personally pursued the suspect, and the gun duel, so people can not help but wonder whether the detective in front of Poirot or James Bond possessed Sherlock Holmes. It is true that both Branagh’s fictional background as a soldier and the identity of the original Belgian ex-police officer can provide conditions for Poirot’s extraordinary skills, but this does not mean that Poirot will act in this way. Agatha’s Poirot always emphasizes the use of “small gray brain cells” to think about the psychology of the culprit, opposed to the search for evidence personally, and would never work to respect the body as a last resort, how would he go after the suspect?

The bigger problem is Branagh’s handling of the ending. In Agatha’s novel, Poirot always focuses on humanity and has compassion for the individuals behind the tragedy of the case. This is precisely why in Murder on the Orient Express, Poirot ultimately gives two versions of the explanation for gently letting the culprit go; in Death on the Nile, he knows that Jacqueline, a murderer deeply in love, has a second gun hidden that could be used to commit suicide but does not stop it, again out of compassion. However, Branagh’s film allows Poirot’s gun to be aimed at the desperate Jacqueline and Simon, and also makes their self-determination an escape from evil rather than a sacrifice for love. Such an approach is clearly not Agatha’s Poirot, more dissipated the original on love and lust, good and evil of the in-depth search.

02 Behind the aura of heroism: Weak reasoning is Branagh’s biggest mistake?

As a film of deduction, “Death on the Nile” not only to establish the image of the detective Poirot, but also to show the audience how he came closer to the truth through deduction step by step. Among Agatha’s works, “Death on the Nile” is special in that the murder occurs nearly halfway through the novel, but does not reduce the sense of suspense throughout the work. As there are many characters in the case, Agatha successfully mobilizes the reader’s curiosity by revealing the motive of each person’s crime in the early stage through the detailed portrayal of the characters little by little. Poirot’s judgment is largely based on his unobtrusive observation before the crime and his logical and thorough interrogation after the crime.

Due to film length restrictions, the past two adaptations of Death on the Nile have cut and integrated the characters in the original accordingly, but still excellently present Poirot’s reasoning process. For example, in the 1978 film, the audience learns the purpose of each person’s visit and the tension between them and the victim on the way to the site, and Poirot captures the same information through his usual “eavesdropping”. 2004 TV series focuses on the detective’s interrogation. David Suchet, who played Poirot, carefully considered each suspect’s statement and reiterated key clues more than once to guide the audience through the mystery.

However, in the new version of “Death on the Nile”, Branagh ignored the importance of presenting character relationships from the beginning, focusing too many shots on the detective alone, but also wasted a lot of time at the beginning to explain the origins of Poirot’s beard, more compressed the main plot to fully develop the length of time. The dialogue and interaction between the characters is not enough to reveal their respective personalities and backgrounds, so that until the murder, many characters have not yet emerged from the murder, but only under the interrogation of Polo exposed, which not only weakens the film’s sense of suspense, but also makes the subsequent reasoning of Poirot seem unstructured. As we all know, Agatha has a very high demand for logical meticulousness, she once said through the mouth of Poirot: “The perfect answer must explain everything clearly.” For those who expect to recall Agatha’s reasoning in the film, Branagh’s film can only bring disappointment – the slackness of the first half almost makes people lose their patience in watching, and the confusion of the second half directly breaks the thrill of interlocking discriminations.

Obviously, Branagh chose the wrong focus between the aura of the protagonist and logical reasoning. He tries to make Poirot a hero who saves everyone, but the audience eventually sees Poirot not only does not look like a confident detective to clear the fog, but also seems to be confused, step behind the killer. When Poirot locked everyone in the room ready to present their conclusions, the audience had no time to analyze who was more suspicious, and some people seemed to have nothing to do with the case. Instead of finding the only person who acted from a group of people with an obvious motive, Poirot looks for the most likely person to do it from a group of people who seem to have no intention of doing it, which certainly downgrades the drama of the story.

03 The successes and failures of film and television adaptations: are they faithful to the original or do they reinvent the classics?

Agatha’s works have been in circulation for more than a hundred years since she wrote her first speculative novel in 1920, and the frequently adapted “Death on the Nile” has become a classic for generations, with countless fans worldwide. In such a context, today’s directors who want to reinterpret this work will certainly face difficulties. In the past, film and television adaptations mainly aimed to popularize literature through the form of film, and in the era of scarce images, it was easy to succeed in adapting literary classics with a wide audience. Nowadays, film and television adaptations emphasize interaction with the original works in a cross-generational and cross-cultural context, so that the classics of the past can be reborn in contemporary times.

Branagh’s attempt is also part of the effort to continue the classic, as he tries to add color to Poirot’s personal background, but fails to make the whole story deeper. The new version of Death on the Nile may not be a classic after all, but it should be pointed out that its failure is not due to “unfaithfulness to the original”, but rather to the slightest attention to reasoning, lack of dramatic tension, and flattening of characters. In fact, no film adaptation of literature can be 100% faithful, and “faithfulness” is only a description of the relationship between the original and the adaptation, not a criterion for judging the merits of the latter. But in any case, adaptations should ensure a bottom line, that is, try to make the original recognizable to anyone who is familiar with it. At the end of the new version of Death on the Nile, Poirot seems to be about to develop an ambiguous relationship with Lady Otterbourne, even removing his trademark beard to do so, thus showing Branagh’s ambition to subvert tradition. But whether such an interpretation and reinvention can resonate with the public remains to be tested by time.

In addition to Branagh, many directors have tried to interpret Agatha’s works with a new perspective in recent years. For example, in 2015, Japan, which is also keen on deduction, launched the first TV series “Murder on the Orient Express” based on Agatha’s works, moving the murder case from the Orient Express to the Toyo Express in the early Showa period; in 2018, the BBC launched a miniseries “ABC Murder” with John Malkovich as Poirot during Christmas, shaping a lonely detective trapped by memories and standing alone. Since 2009, the French series “Agatha Christie Mini-Murder Theatre” has been aired for three seasons, with changes made to the main character of the original story. It is in the continuous interpretation and discovery of these adaptations that Agatha has become a classic. That’s why audiences go to the cinema when they know the plot – we expect the pleasure of having our memories jogged, and we expect unexpected surprises to push us into the unknown.