In her long career as an author, Agatha Christie made quite a name for herself in the crime genre. According to Guinness World Records, she has won the title of best-selling fiction writer of all time, with her seventy-eight (that’s right, you heard me correctly) crime novels selling an estimated two billion copies worldwide.
So what exactly attributed to her inarguable success? I think it really comes down to her adeptness at crafting characters—after all, it’s more difficult than it looks to both ensure that all the characters seem guilty while also revealing the culprit to be someone you never would have guessed, with a succinct explanation that makes you wonder how you didn’t guess it in the first place.
There have been many attempts at film adaptations of her various novels throughout the years, the most recent ones being by director Kenneth Branagh, who also took it upon himself to play the titular role of the iconic Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. However, none of the adaptations are quite successful at getting into the spirit of a proper Christie mystery. I’m going to explore what exactly stops this from being achieved, whether it be through the lack of character depth or not finding the exact amount of time to build proper suspense.
Chase Hutchinson from Collider tells us that “In order to craft a compelling mystery, you must approach the story with a commitment to balancing both a degree of necessary concealment and properly timed revelation.”
However, it’s also vital that the writer doesn’t make it impossible to figure out the culprit so the reader will feel disappointed at the reveal. Agatha Christie’s success can definitely be attributed to her ability to do exactly that—skate the fine line between too difficult and just difficult enough.
If this is the case, like Charlotte O’Sullivan says in her review, “Why has Kenneth Branagh, in fashioning the handsome adaptation of Agatha Christie’s beloved Hercule Poirot whodunnit, opted to make so many changes to the source material?” A Christie mystery is all about the pacing—the story can’t be rushed or else the various characters and their actions will get confused, but the action can also never stop in order to keep the reader’s interest. One of the main reasons people struggle to bring it to the big screen: they have to cut parts of the novel to fit the run-time, without getting rid of the various details and hints.
This lack of consistent pacing makes shallower characters. In Branagh’s first take on Christie with his 2017 adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, Johnny Depp’s character Edward Ratchet only had a singular scene to expand on his character’s motivations before his untimely death. Similarly in the 2022 adaptation of Death on the Nile, Gal Gadot’s performance as heiress Linnet Ridgeway was consistently called flat due to the lack of time spent on her character’s anxieties and insecurities before her murder. With the shortening of run-time, you lose these realistic and detailed conversations Christie includes that both expand on the story and add depth to her characters.
In Agatha Christie’s lifetime, she said that only two of the dozens of movies based on her novels had gotten it right. If she were to have seen Kenneth Branagh’s two attempts, I don’t believe she would have changed her mind.