For an entire century’s worth of debuts, reprints and adaptations, the works of Agatha Christie have given fans immeasurable amounts of joy and thrills. This is even more applicable to the Belgian sleuth she used to kick off her career as a preeminent purveyor of the murder mystery: Monsieur Hercule Poirot. Played over the years by legendary actors like Peter Ustinov, David Suchet and even John Malkovich, both throughout the media of film and TV, Kenneth Branagh’s incarnation of the Poirot is the latest torchbearer to bring stories like this year’s Death on the Nile to audiences worldwide. But these newer films, starting with 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express, have differed from traditional Christie adaptations in several key ways. One of which is, quite simply, they’re much bigger affairs on the big screen.
While visiting the set of Death on the Nile last December on behalf of CinemaBlend, I was part of a rather special day in the making of the film. While myself and several other journalists got to tour various departments that had worked on this October’s shipbound thriller, the day ended in a cocktail reception aboard the very ship the film was centered around: the S.S. Karnak. What’s more, we had a distinguished guest in our midst, one whose personal connection to the material cannot be understated: Agatha Christie’s great-grandson, and the CEO/Chairman of Agatha Christie Limited, James Prichard.
In an occasion that doesn’t always come up in the course of normal life, especially thanks to the current climate of world events, I was able to stand next to the bar of the Karnak and speak with Mr. Prichard for a good length of time. I even got to learn some amazing things about how Death on the Nile benefited greatly from Murder on the Orient Express’ surprise and stealthy success back in 2017. With the film overperforming according to estimates in Europe, as well as in the US, then-studio 20th Century Fox was emboldened to go ahead with the adaptation of Death on the Nile; a book that not only was on Kenneth Branagh and writer Michael Green’s personal agenda to adapt, but also a tome which just so happens to be the first book of Agatha Christie’s that her great-grandson got to enjoy.
So with an empire that spans over the course of a century and contains countless novels and quite a few adaptations, what makes a film such as this different from a traditional Christie adaptation? James Prichard attributes that edge to the following:
We’ve been making TV continuously for the last… forever. We’ve had 25 years of the Poirots, we were doing Marple shows for ITV as well during that period. But there was quite a long gap between theatrical movies, probably 30 years between the last of the previous situations and Murder on the Orient Express. And movies are just a different scale, as you can see here. But they’re a different scale on every level, and they have a massive [audience]. I mean our TV does well internationally, but these have a bigger reach internationally. And it just has bigger impact, for instance, on the book sales.
Even when comparing the original cinematic Murder on the Orient Express or Death on the Nile adaptations to the newer Kenneth Branagh versions, you can see the difference in scope that James Prichard is talking about. As an exercise in comparison, take a look at the following trailer from the 1978 film version of Death on the Nile, starring Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot:
Much as any star-studded murder mystery will do, that version of Death on the Nile had its fair share of stunning set pieces, as well as sweeping shots of the desert and the S.S. Karnak sailing on the world famous river. Now compare that with this year’s first look at Kenneth Branagh’s modern adaptation of the very same source material:
As you’ll see, while the flash is still very much there, the scope of the film is grander. One can even assume that much like Kenneth Branagh and writer Michael Green’s process that brought Murder on the Orient Express to life, there are some changes and liberties that are bound to be taken with Agatha Christie’s novel for Death on the Nile. So whether you’ve read the book or not, you’re going to find yourself in for a pretty exciting ride.
Part of the grander scale is, undoubtedly, tied into Kenneth Branagh’s exceedingly practical methods of making sets that feel absolutely real in scope and size. Just as he’d built the mansion at the heart of Disney’s Artemis Fowl, Branagh had the S.S. Karnak built in almost its entirety. With the exception of the inability to float on actual water, the lack of a motor and some sections being turned into soundstage friendly sets to execute action-packed sequences, Death on the Nile had a pretty lifelike quality to its locales. So much in fact that the production actually avoided having to take the Karnak apart in order to ship it to a lake in Morocco to be reassembled and filmed.
Still, with a production on the level as Death on the Nile, having those sorts of options to weigh is something that an ITV drama sadly cannot do. That’s not to say that previous film and TV adaptations of Hercule Poirot are inferior. If anything, the fact that Agatha Christie’s iconic detective can be done in either context shows just how creative one can get with the material and manage to get the job done.
Really, it’s a matter of preference for Christie fans, as you can pick and choose which version of Poirot you want to get behind. Should the cinematic work that Kenneth Branagh has brought to the table be your bag, then Death on the Nile can take you back into the world of Hercule Poirot, and his sharply deductive mind, on October 23. But you won’t have to wait that long for more coverage on this thrilling mystery, as CinemaBlend will continue to crack the case of the impending blockbuster!