Death on the Nile

Back in 2020, I posted about my surprise rediscovery of Agatha Christie. The initial discovery is lost in memory, a hand-me-down from my dad. I favored heroic action figures back then, Superman, Sherlock Holmes, Clint Eastwood. I enjoyed Christie’s Hercule Poirot but filed the rest of her work under ‘dowdy British library murder mystery’ and ignored it.

A mistake. My surprise discovery of 2020 was that Agatha Christie was a fascinating genius who rightfully earned the title Queen of Mystery.

Last week I watched a recent adaptation of Death on the Nile (1937), one of the more well-known Hercule Poirot novels. I had high hopes, but I can only give it a weak Eh! rating.

Kenneth Branagh directed and stars as Poirot, which is why I had high hopes. I’ve long enjoyed and respected his work as an actor. I’m less familiar with him as a director, though. I quite liked his adaptation/remake Sleuth (2007). And I thought Thor (2011) and Cinderella (2015) were okay. Neither were great, but neither sucked.

My high hopes for Death on the Nile (2022) may trace back to his four-hour full-text adaptation of Hamlet (1996), which he also directed and starred in. I think it’s possibly the best, most accessible, version of Hamlet I’ve seen, either on stage or on film. Branagh’s work as a Shakespearian is unparalleled.

For the most part, other than a lot of background CGI, Death on the Nile looks great, and I don’t find fault with the production. It’s a fine way to spend two hours. The greatest risk is for those who know the novel well. The adaptation takes some major liberties with the book’s characters (and some minor ones with its plot). It also adds some weird noise.

An interesting shot if you know the plot…

Regular readers know I have two main asks of a story: Take me someplace new. Don’t piss me off with mistakes I can’t ignore. Other than slightly raised eyebrows at the character alterations, nothing in this film pissed me off.

Those alterations aside, though, it also didn’t take me any place new. Which is something of a catch-22 with an adaptation. If judged by fidelity to the source text, an adaptation can’t go anywhere new. If judged by creativity, it necessarily departs from that text. One must balance judgement according to one’s view of storytelling. I award a lot of points for fidelity. I also appreciate a good jazz riff on the original, but it depends on the quality of the jazz.

In this case, and I stress, in comparison with the book, it all fell flat for me, so I found myself not appreciating the alterations. They didn’t seem to add anything

But the thing is, anticipating the adaptation, I re-read the book. Such close proximity can be a mistake. That seems to have been the case here. Michael Green has plenty of writing experience, and has turned out some stuff I’ve liked, but Agatha Christie was in a different class. (And the truth is, the book is almost always better than the movie. The only question is how much.)

Considered on its own, I might rate Death on the Nile higher, but as an adaptation, I thought it suffered in comparison. As is often the case, it’s the additions I find most prone to putting me off. I usually see the removals as least problematic, and I can go either way on changes.

Note the mise en scène symmetry!

Not long ago, I posted about a horrifically awful adaptation of The ABC Murders (1936), another Agatha Christie Hercule Poirot story (starring John Malkovich as Poirot). I wish I had a brain eraser for that revolting abomination. One of its many egregious and inexplicable sins was giving Poirot a horrific backstory as a priest during the war.

Death on the Nile, not egregiously, but inexplicably, also gives Poirot a war-based backstory (albeit less horrific). In fact, it’s the opening sequence. Poirot deduces the ideal time to attack, convinces his commander to do so, but is wounded, his face scarred. His nurse tells him he’ll grow a mustache to hide the damage. This is meant to explain his famous mustache? Because he’s hiding a scar?

Why this need for origin stories? Isn’t a bit of mystery about a character more fun? Why collapse the wavefunction of the character’s possibility space? If it ain’t Christie, it ain’t canon, and I’d rather leave it open to imagination. Here, it was noise that seemed pointless.

On the other hand, Branagh chose to start the film this way, and I question the choice. (For one thing, given Gal Godot is in this, it’s an unavoidable reference to Wonder Woman.) Opening sequences are crucial. From my point of view, it began the adaptation with an addition, the most questionable leg of the three (removals, changes, additions). For me, it started the story with a point deficit.

It sure looks like a Wes Anderson film!

And while it was watchable, that starting bump, along with all the character shuffling, kept the film from climbing much above a weak Eh! rating for me. There’s some extra noise about an unrequited romance between Poirot and one of the characters. (An aspect of which made me wonder a little about inclusivity virtue signaling.)

In many ways, it presents as a 1950s Hollywood big-name film. The sets and costumes are opulent reminders of a bygone era. The symmetry of much of the cinematography made me wonder if Robert Yeoman was involved. (Yeoman does cinematography for all the Wes Anderson films except the stop-action ones.) Instead, it was Haris Zambarloukos, with whom Branagh has worked many times before. But, wow, visually it really screamed Wes Anderson film in lots of shots.

All-in-all, worth seeing, especially for Christie fans, but it won’t rock your world.

§ §

As a Mystery Monday bonus, last week I posted about how I’d discovered the Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child (I’m on #20 now).

Once I finished Killing Floor (1997), I decided to re-watch the Amazon Prime series, Reacher (all on one long evening). As one might expect, the TV adaptation suffers in comparison with the original text. Again, the three axes of removals, changes, and additions.

Novels are generally information dense, and even an eight-episode TV series struggles to include all the detail and nuance from the books in its runtime. A lot gets cut out, and that just goes with the territory. (Usually, I’d trade the questionable additions for more screentime for the text.)

Reacher makes a lot of changes, too, especially regarding the structure of the bad guys — who was really behind it all. But, okay, whatever. It didn’t do any real violence to the original story. As usual, it was the additions that puzzled me.

For one, the final action sequence was both more and less than in the book. The fight, which pairs off, not one, not two, but three Yin-Yang combos, is pure Hollywood (especially in the pairings), but the final aspect of the fire was rather uneventful compared to what happens in the book (ironically, it was less Hollywood than the book, perhaps because of budget; Killing Floor is one of only a handful of the novels that end with a big bang).

But, still, two thumbs up and eager for more seasons. I can’t decide if I hope they match the seasons with the books or skip around some. (There are a few elements in season one that are actually from much later in the book series.)

§

I also finished Never Go Back (#18, 2013) and decided to rent the Tom Cruise movie from Amazon. Long story short, a disappointment in almost every regard and certainly in comparison with the text.

The movie is a standard heaping of worn-out Hollywood tropes and cliches, including a parade chase, a rooftop chase, and, of course, car chases. The script takes only the basic plot points, re-writes the rest, and removes all nuance and detail.

Christopher McQuarrie just did a much better job writing (and directing) the first movie than Edward Zwick and Richard Wenk did the second (Zwick directed). I think it’s not too surprising that, looking over it, I like McQuarrie’s work much better than what I’ve seen of Zwick’s or Wenk’s.

As a numerological aside, the first Tom Cruise movie is based on One Shot (2005), which is book #9, and the second one on book #18. The progression caught my eye. If they were to keep that up, a third movie should be based on book #27, the as-yet unpublished No Plan B. (But the second movie didn’t do well, so there probably won’t be more.)

§ §

Agatha Christie and Lee Child share in common that they’re fun and easy to read. They seem skilled at including what needs to be there without a lot of extra noise. I think that’s what might fool people. Their stories seem simple, but that kind of clean simplicity isn’t simple to pull off. (People cite Hemingway a lot for that kind of writing.)

I still haven’t read everything Christie wrote, but just about. She bats damn near 1.000 with me. As I mentioned, I’m reading Child’s 20th Reacher novel, Make Me (2015) now, and Child has also been batting almost 1.000 with me. That said, I didn’t enjoy #19, Personal (2014), as much as the others. Not much of a plot to it. It’s slightly noteworthy for being an in-timeline first person narrative.

Stay symmetrical, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

8 responses to “Death on the Nile

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Octavia E. Butler was my surprise discovery of 2021. Also a genius. And she definitely bats 1.000 in my book. I’ve loved everything I’ve read, and I think in her case I’ve read all she’s published. [See these posts.]

  • Wyrd Smythe

    It just occurred to me that the cinematic symmetry may be in reference to Poirot’s OCD-level love of same. (I still can’t help but wonder if they didn’t at least call Robert Yeoman for tips.)

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Are you referring to the Death on the Nile or the second Tom Cruise Jack Reacher movie? I give the former an Eh! rating, but, yeah, the latter gets a Meh! rating.

      (In terms of my Wow!Ah!Eh!Meh!Nah!Ugh! rating system, the first three are positive and the last three negative. It’s admittedly a close call, but I’m just barely on the positive side on Death on the Nile.)

      • Anonymole

        Well, at least it’s even, meaning there’s no 50%’ers. CHOOSE!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Heh, yeah, I’m rarely truly neutral on anything. 😀

        I’m generally not one for one-dimensional judgements, in part because when one has both strong pro and con opinions, the tug-of-war keeps the needle in the middle, so strong conflicted opinions look the same as neutral or ambiguous opinions — both hug the center. Multi-dimensional judgement offers an opinion space that differentiates these opinion modes better. [See SF or Fantasy, Pick One? or Expanding the Middle]

      • Anonymole

        I prefer: NO or YES (but when?)
        If YES, then when do you schedule it in? For that, you need a ranking.
        Some things are just flat out NOs.
        But when you hit a YES, and you have 10 of them, how do you set them up so that you take advantage of their relative quality?
        Do you want a BabyRuth? Sure.
        Do you want a candybar: BabyRuth or Twix? YES. But given I can only choose one, I’ll eat the Twix.
        Do you want a spoonful of cod-liver oil? NO.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Whatever works. YES! 😀

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