A star cast, a big budget, and a very willing audience member because I was excited to enjoy some old fashioned entertainment after what seemed like an endless stream of gloomy scenario’s and lockdowns. I was ready to be taken away on a cruise on the Nile with Hercule Poirot as my guide and I booked a 70 mm showing on the biggest screen around to take it all in! What could possibly go wrong?
First I mistook the opening scenes for a preview for some upcoming movie, the star cast never managed to shine, the Egyptian temples seemed less impressive than any old Tombraider game, and Death on the Nile never managed to be in any way entertaining. I left disappointed. Was this story from 1937 simply too old to speak to an audience? I borrowed a copy of the book from my mom’s library (a huge detective fan) and I enjoyed it a lot more than the film. More research was needed. I watched the 1978 version of the film. More entertaining as well. Branagh seems to have changed or deleted exactly those things that make a detective entertaining or at least to make Hercule Poirot entertaining.
Agatha Christie herself didn’t like Hercule Poirot. She called him ‘insufferable’ in 1930 and a ‘detestable, bombastic, tiresome, egocentric little creep’ in 1960. She desired to get rid of him long before she actually published the story in which he died in 1975. Death on the Nile (2022) does a much better job at killing Poirot and the detective as a genre, and it did it with three moves.
The Case of Character Development
In the detective genre the story often starts with a body and the detective has to figure out who did it. The detective is someone from outside because we need to be able to trust him or her. Usually the detective is a stable figure. He or she might often has a favorite drink or habit, or a typical haircut or way of dress, or a typical manner of behavior so the detective is easily recognized. The mustache! Ah! There is Hercule Poirot!
Branagh takes one of Poirot’s identifiers, his mustache, as a lead to tell us more about Poirot’s background. This is a step away from the genre rules and while this can work, it is a risk. Once the focus is on the detective, it is less on all the possible killers and all their motives and background stories. The detective becomes more like the other characters: another person with a background, psychological motives, and ideals we need to consider.
To make matters worse Death on the Nile forces character development onto Hercule Poirot. Character development is often seen as the must have ingredient for a good story. This has not always been the case: Aristotle’s Poetics prescribed that in a good tragedy the protagonist should not change. A good tragedy should be about what happened. By default a detective story focuses on what happened too. It is all about who did it. Character development is not a necessary ingredient to find this out. There might be detective stories that include it, but it is tricky to pull off because of the specific role the detective plays in the genre. The detective is the anchor of a puzzle, our guide to the killer. We are taken along the ride and we want to see of we can figure it out too. The detective has to use his ‘little grey cells’ to conclude – without a doubt – who the killer is. If we think as clearly and observe as keenly, we should be able to know who did it too. Preferably before Poirot calls everybody together in a room to reveal who did it.
But after the reveal in Branagh’s Death on the Nile, it is far from over. Poirot still needs fixing. He needs to open his heart to love. Precisely counter to Christie’s story where Poirot warned some characters against love. Branagh wants his Poirot to change, to start to open his heart for love. To stop being a logical and masterful detective.
The Case of Inclusiveness
In the book all the victims and the possible killers are white. The version of 2022 changed this and added a lesbian couple, two black ladies as mother and daughter Otterbourne, and an Indian cousin/lawyer.
While this visually hits the box of being more inclusive, the choices that were made for the characters seem to have the opposite effect. Mother Otterbourne is transformed from a alcoholic and no longer successful writer of explicit sexual novels to a honest working class singer with good insight in people. Mother and daughter are good people, which might be good to prevent any negative connotation towards black characters but bad for a detective where anyone should be able to be perceived as a killer. We can scrap them immediately of our list as culprits. The lesbian ladies have no spark and no edge.
There are much opportunities for inclusiveness to take from the original story. Poirot himself could be easily portrayed as gay. He dies his hair, his moustache shines, he wears silk, has a “rapid, mincing gait” and a walking cane embellished with a silver duck. He is punctual, petty and sort of egotistical. He constantly proclaims himself as smart. He is an outsider, he has an accent, he comes from a different place. A funny little man at best whom people don’t take seriously and often tell too much. But there is a problem of making Poirot openly gay: it would stereotype being gay. In the book there are a lot of prejudices between people from different countries that could be used and played with, but to handle prejudices and stereotypes out in the open might be considered as non-inclusive and racist. It is a tricky subject.
The original story does display a good case of class differences and money differences, which might have been a more interesting way to introduce diversity in a way that resonates strongly in today’s world but still would have given everyone a motive without being non-inclusive.
The Case of Postmodern Truth
Sherlock Holmes said: ‘Nothing is so deceptive as an obvious fact.’ (Boscombe Valley Mystery) Poirot needs to work hard to see the facts for what they are. He often needs sleep to refresh his little grey cells and to get a clear view on the situation. Keen observation, good questions and a good memory are of the utmost importance to reveal the real intentions at play. At one point Poirot will exclaim that the answer was in front of him from the beginning! Now he knows! In a detective story there are always clues. If only you observe well and think logically, you will be lead to the culprit. After all, one of them did it.
Maybe we no longer think reality works like this. Do we still believe that a deceptive fact can be clarified by observation and logical reasoning? Isn’t the detective story merely a puzzle for fun and games, not anywhere close to reality? The more recent CSI or police shows tend to lean much more on physical evidence (finger prints, DNA). After the killer is identified one might get an explanation from an expert in pathological behavior. Murder is seen in an emotional or pathological light instead of placed in the heart of an intricate scheme of intentional behavior.
However, the genre of the detective is not dead yet. It needs the figure of the detective, and it needs the clues and the motives to make sense. Hopefully Branagh’s third installment of Poirot will take what works from Christie, will not try to change Poirot and leave it up to his little grey cells, the intrigue, the smoke screens, the motives and the clues to dazzle us.