top of page

Fiction Friction: Pragmatic Adaptation, Part 1.

By Tom Anderson.

If Agatha Christie were alive today, she'd turn in her grave at what Branagh did to Orient Express.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Please note that, by its nature, this article and its sequel include plot spoilers for a number of works of fiction including Agatha Christie mysteries, Discworld novels, “The Expanse”, Harry Potter, and “Magpie Murders” by Anthony Horowitz.


Adaptation of a work from the written word to the screen (television or film) is always a challenging process. First and foremost, there is the problem that a written novel can always include the inner narrative voice and thoughts of a character, whether first or third person. It can also include omniscient narrative asides, delightfully punning turns of phrase and the like. It is true that a visual medium also offers certain opportunities that the written word lacks, such as the use of music and colour balance to produce a different emotional state in the viewer. However, it also must present a single correct and objective depiction of the characters and setting (except perhaps in the most experimental of films!)


This contrasts with a book, in which readers frequently develop their own personal and mutually incompatible visualisations of the characters and setting, then object when a cover artist or an adaptation disagrees. Perhaps this is one reason why minimalistic covers have become so popular, particularly in the UK.


The challenge of adaptation is particularly daunting when a written work already has a hefty and opinionated fanbase, as is often the case – success in print is often what prompts the process of adaptation. Besides the more subjective complaint of visually depicting characters and places differently to readers’ imaginations, there is the problem of pragmatism.


Simply directly adapting a book to a film is rarely possible; the problem is easily illustrated by looking at the running times of audiobooks. If a film reproduced every bit of dialogue in sequence, it might run to twelve hours long. Even Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which actually does run to about twelve hours long in its special edition, doesn’t include everything from the original book! Even TV miniseries, which can use a greater overall runtime, typically must alter things in order to split up a story into episodes with a beginning, middle, and end.

Even Peter Jackson couldn't squeeze Lord of the Rings into a 12 hour film.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

But any change is perilous. Every line, every minor character, every plot point is someone’s favourite, and someone will inevitably be offended by even the most faithful adaptation.


Particularly in the past, adaptation was often less nuanced. Filmmakers were out to make a film, and didn’t care much if the adaptation wandered considerably from the source material. Even titles might disappear and morph in the process. Die Hard was adapted very loosely from a novel entitled Nothing Lasts Forever. Strictly, the novel was a sequel to an earlier novel titled The Detective, which had been adapted to film in 1968 starring Frank Sinatra. A strange consequence of this is that the makers of Die Hard were contractually obligated to ask Frank Sinatra if he wanted to play the lead in their 1989 film before he turned it down, the role going – of course – to Bruce Willis, as you can read in the article on the Die Hard connections.


This illustrates that just because an adaptation has so little to do with its source material, it can still be successful in its own right. Die Hard is its own animal.


Another interesting action movie case is The Bourne Identity. The original novel by Robert Ludlum, from 1980, was loosely adapted to film in 2002, starring Matt Damon. This film does keep a lot of plot elements of the original novel (at least the earlier part of it) whereas the sequels share almost nothing with the book sequels other than their titles. However, the appeal of the novel has almost nothing to do with the appeal of the film, which is mostly driven by cinematography and only slightly by the plot. By contrast, the novel – which, after reading it, I find to be superior to the film – works largely because the mystery (who is the amnesiac super-agent Jason Bourne?) is backed up by a relentless inner narrative and mantra of fragments he remembers: I am Cain. I am Death. Cain is for Charlie, and Delta is for Cain! Find Carlos! Trap Carlos! KILL CARLOS! Carlos, the villain of the piece, is based on the real-life assassin Carlos the Jackal, and didn’t make it into the film adaptation – one example of how the original book is wedded to 1980, whereas the film is very much enhanced by its turn of the millennium continental Europe setting.

How faithful are adaptations to books? Well, it depends.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Other adaptations which have succeeded despite changing significant points from their books include I Am Legend and Fight Club, the latter being particularly impressive as, like Magpie Murders which I’ll be discussing later, it manages to accurately put on screen a storytelling technique that shouldn’t work visually.

But, of course, the success of some adaptations has made Hollywood and other film producers a little cocky about what they can get away with. Sometimes it almost feels as though they think that making changes in an adaptation is almost a required or expected thing, whether it is needed or not. A burning rubbish tip of box office bombs illustrates that this does not always result in success.


The Harry Potter film series is an interesting example of flawed adaptation. In some ways this was inevitable, because the films were being adapted from the earlier books while the later ones were still being written. It is worth noting at this point that the appeal of the Harry Potter series is often misunderstood. Frequently, this is attributed simply to the fact that it is a magical school setting – but this has been done many times before (notably in Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch) without the same level of success. Besides the fact that JK Rowling was the first children’s author in years to recapture the classic British post-war children’s fiction ‘borderline pornographic descriptions of food’ trope, and the sheer domestic nastiness of a Roald Dahl story, her big appeal was in her mystery plots. In many ways, the Harry Potter series are Agatha Christie for kids, and Christie was clearly a big influence on Rowling – as can be seen in particular in the novel Appointment with Death, which features a loathsome Dolores Umbridge-style matriarch and a red-haired girl named Ginevra who, at one point, is speculated to have been hypnotised into committing a murder.


Similar Christie-style mystery plots with clues and hints are scattered throughout the Harry Potter books. A collectable card near the start of the first book becomes significant again near the end due to mentioning Nicolas Flamel, and then again at the end of the series due to its mention of Albus Dumbledore defeating Grindelwald in 1945. All sorts of misleading clues set up the idea that Severus Snape, a teacher who hates Harry, is the villain of the piece, when in fact he is not. Characters such as Sirius Black and Arabella Figg are name-dropped before their significance becomes clear later on.


Later, red herrings are introduced, such as Ron Weasley’s brother Percy acting shiftily when an attempted murderer is on the prowl (in fact he was just nervous about a relationship) and Hermione having a strange-acting ginger cat when wizards who can transform into animals is discussed (it was another animal altogether). The sixth book introduces the idea that the ultimate villain Voldemort, in the past, split up his soul into seven pieces in artefacts called ‘Horcruxes’ and hid them so he could never truly be killed. Harry and Dumbledore attempt to locate and destroy one of them, a locket, only to find that the locket was already stolen and swapped by a mysterious person named R.A.B. I was quite pleased at the time that I worked out what had happened; in book five we see Sirius Black’s ancestral home, Grimmauld Place (Rowling also likes her puns) and, while spring cleaning, it’s casually mentioned in passing that among the junk our heroes find is a locket they can’t open. It’s also mentioned that Sirius had a brother named Regulus, and in time we find that his middle initial was A. Yes, in fact this locket was Voldemort’s Horcrux, stolen by Regulus – but, unfortunately, by the time Harry and co work this out, the locket has already been sold, and they need to retrieve it again. There are other, similar long-running plot threads.


Unfortunately, the fact that the films were adapted as the books were still being written caused problems. The locket doesn’t appear in film number five, and the crucial character of Kreacher the house-elf appears for about five seconds, and only because Rowling insisted. There is a general trend throughout the films (especially from the third one onwards) where, while there really isn’t enough time to fit all the plot in, the producers waste even the time they have doing special effects sequences that don’t add anything. I can understand the Quidditch games, but often they ignore the colourful and comical array of magic in the books in favour of people just firing wands at each other and being boringly knocked back as though they’re wielding compressed air guns. Because of this, the films generally get less and less coherent as they progress from the fourth one onwards, only held together by visuals and acting. Perhaps in years to come, a miniseries might give the series the pace it needs in order for the plots to be understood.

"Now, Harry. All that's holding these films together is our acting ability. These later ones are really not actually coherent."

Picture courtesy Wikipedia.

But all right, maybe it wasn’t appreciated that those mystery plots were critical to the series. But what about the aforementioned Agatha Christie? Surely it’s understood that the point of her plots is the big reveal where we finally understand and make sense of the seemingly nonsensical or inexplicable clues established up till now? Well, you’d think so, unless you’re Kenneth Branagh. His adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express from 2017, in which he played Hercule Poirot as well as directing and co-producing, is a great example of missing the point (which fortunately was not the case for its two follow-ups). Branagh’s version is a feast of cinematography with lots of big name actors and an unnecessary fight scene. What it doesn’t do, however, is actually explain the plot in any reasonable way.

Aboard a luxurious train stuffed with mysterious strangers, a man is brutally slain. But the greatest crime in Branagh's Murder on the Orient Express is the one committed against cinema.

Picture and review courtesy CBR.

To spoil the ending (I did warn you!) Murder on the Orient Express is effectively a piece of revenge fantasy written by Christie about the then-contemporary kidnap and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s child. A transparent stand-in for the case is used, where the Mob committed the crime and now the primary perpetrator is a hunted man travelling through Europe under an assumed name – he even asks Poirot for protection, which he refuses.


The twelve surviving people who were afflicted by the case, including the servants in non-Lindberg’s house, band together to trap the perpetrator on the Orient Express (with them as the only other passengers) and drug him. They then, one by one, all go to his bunk and stab him in the dark, and plant false clues and testimony that a random attacker boarded the train, attacked him and fled. Two things foiled them. Firstly, that Poirot also ended up on the train due to a last minute change, and secondly, the train got stuck by a snowdrift, meaning the killer couldn’t have escaped.


The clues and testimonies of the passengers make no sense and all contradict each other. In a normal whodunnit, Poirot would find a way that makes it all make sense, but in this case they are deliberately all lying in concert to make certain that no one person has evidence pointing at them. What the Branagh film doesn’t bother to explain is why they drugged the kidnapper and all stabbed him separately in the dark, producing many different stab wounds which confuse Poirot’s fellow investigators.


If they wanted him dead, why not just shoot him in the street in Istanbul at the start? Why this elaborate scheme? The point is that the survivors of the kidnapping case regard themselves as a jury of twelve who, in the face of the failure of the American justice system to bring the kidnapper to justice, have now condemned him to death. The stabbing of a drugged man in the dark is meant to resemble execution by firing squad, in which no one person knows who dealt the killing blow. Seeing this not explained on the big screen was extremely aggravating to me. Of course, it’s not the worst Poirot adaptation. That dubious award goes to the 2018 version of The ABC Murders, which is worse than contracting dysentery, though not because of John Malkovich as Poirot.


Next time, I’ll continue this analysis by looking at some examples of good and bad adaptation from challenging source material, such as Discworld, The Expanse, and Anthony Horowitz’s innovative mystery Magpie Murders.


Discuss this article Here.



Tom Anderson is the author of several SLP books, including:

The Look to the West series

among others.




bottom of page