When I was in middle school, I had a reading list of 20 books I had to read in order to graduate from 8th grade. Among these were the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien, "A Tale of Two Cities" by Charles Dickens, and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" by William Shakespeare.
But we were also allowed to submit a book of our own choosing for approval in place of a book on the list. So I went to Barnes & Noble in search of such a book, and, after much deliberation selected "Black Coffee" by Agatha Christie, a Hercule Poirot mystery.
Why this book? Well, I had been obsessed with mystery stories since I was about 7 years old. I read every Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Boxcar Children book I could lay my hands on. I watched Law & Order, Diagnosis Murder, 48 Hours, Prime Suspect, Murder One, and, of course, Poirot.
Also in 8th grade, I saw the 1993 movie "Much Ado About Nothing" for the first time and had my eyes opened to a whole new level of wit and melodrama that I had never before seen. Since that day, I've simply worshipped the director and star, Kenneth Branagh, as a man of artistic genius.
So you can imagine when I saw that Branagh, along with a star-studded cast were to make Christie's "Murder on the Orient Express," I was ecstatic. Well, I didn't get to see it opening weekend because I had promised a friend I'd see it with her, so I still hadn't seen it when the reviews started pouring in saying it was mediocre and disappointing, but I had no choice except to keep and open mind and go see it for myself as soon as possible.
I finally saw it last night, and here's what I think: there was nothing wrong with the movie. It was not a bad movie. If it had been a BBC-produced movie for television, it would have been an excellent adaptation. Yet, it did fail to live up to the splendor it had promised to deliver on the silver screen. But why? Well, that is not always an easy question to answer, but I will try.
I ascribe tHREE primary reasons for why the movie left viewers wanting:
1. The source material is not quite in sync with modern audiences.
Agatha Christie was a giant of mystery storytelling- there's no question about it. But we are now standing on the shoulders of giants. Modern audiences are so sophisticated, so well-watched as it were, that traditional forms of storytelling can be quite predictable. What was once novel is now clichéd. In order to make this movie relevant and exciting, the source material probably should have been adapted more than it was in order to maintain the element of interest, surprise, and shock it needed to deliver.
The dialogue was not particularly riveting; the stakes never felt high enough. I'm not sure the audience ever felt scared, which is imperative in a great mystery. It's the element of the unknown, the elusive criminal, the existential danger that could appear at any moment and snuff the life out of anyone- the protagonist, even the viewer himself- (think Clarice Starling in Buffalo Bill's pitch black basement scene; not the scene itself, but the emotion it arouses in the viewer- bated breath terror).
But how is this done in a movie? Dialogue plays a part, but the biggest element is the medium of the movie: the visual storytelling, the cinematography. Which brings me to my second point:
2. The filming style was not edgy enough to create a visceral reaction to the events.
When I think of this movie I think of glittering crystal glasses, gleaming snow, rich fabrics, and warm jewel tones. Gorgeous, but too bright. The shots were too straightforward, the set too well lit. It all felt a little like it was being presented so simply, so obviously. I wanted the movie to play with my emotions, to send chills down my spine, to rent at my heartstrings. I wanted it to, but it just didn't. There wasn't enough shadows, enough secrets, enough "Alfred Hitchcock-ness." But, in the end, none of this is as important as my third point:
3. The viewer didn't have enough to do during this movie.
Why do we humans love mysteries so much? It's something for our mind to work on. We must pay attention, we must be clever, shrewd, faster than the enemy. It's a delicate balance in any mystery. How much should be given to the viewer and when? At the core, this itself is the heart of mystery writing- how to peel back the onion. In Murder on the Orient Express, there was no way for the viewer to know about the backstory that ties it all together, so the reveal left us going "Okay, so what?" Throughout, there were not sufficient clues to set our minds in action. There was no "aha" moment for us, only for Poirot. So ultimately, the viewers were just passive passengers (the only passive ones in fact) on the Orient Express.