Op-Ed: Before I wrote the screenplay for ‘Murder on the Orient Express,’ I hated Agatha Christie
I’ve been asked in multiple interviews what my relationship to Agatha Christie was before writing the adaptation of “Murder on the Orient Express,” and I’ve evaded the question or outright lied every time. The reason is: Because I hated her.
Not her books, but her.
The family lore goes like this:
When I was five, my father brought home a brand new VCR. The first VHS tape he rented, to our giddy admiration, was the 1978 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic “Death on the Nile.” Friends and family came over for popcorn and crowded onto the couch. It was a top-loading VCR, size of a suitcase, price of a suitcase filled with cocaine.
The machine worked, the film played and everyone loved it. Everyone laughed and jumped at the right moments and cooed at the gorgeous stars and wardrobe — everyone except me, who did not love it, or laugh, but rather cried, utterly terrified.
I still need a vampire, or warrior, or wizard, or robot, or alien to metabolize the idea of evil.
That night, I demanded to sleep in my parents’ bed, where, beset by clockwork nightmares, I continued to sleep for two years. I obstructed their sleep and sex life so thoroughly that my eventual younger sister was born seven years after me, in 1980, instead of five. (When my dad tells the story it was three years and he had to sleep on the floor.)
I didn’t blame the director, John Guillermin, or Peter Ustinov, who played the great detective Hercule Poirot, nor even Mia Farrow, whose lethal jealousy especially affected me. I blamed Christie, and I hated her for decades. I called her names I didn’t entirely understand. I used the words I had learned listening to the older kids.
“Why would anyone write a story so terrible?” “Why would anyone like her stupid books?” “What the [obscenity] is wrong with her brain?”
On that fateful popcorn night, my parents had thought nothing of letting me watch the relatively tame “Death on the Nile.” I’d seen “Dawn of the Dead,” after all, and they couldn’t understand why a movie with so little blood — and it wasn’t even blood, but nail polish — hit me so hard. Although I couldn’t explain my reaction then, I can now.
Theoretically scarier movies with monsters were cartoonish, exaggerated, whereas Christie’s characters were ordinary humans. They had human motives and limitations, and they did terrible things. The film didn’t have a protective layer of genre. Perhaps if Ustinov had worn a more flamboyant mustache I would have felt at ease. But he didn’t, and I didn’t.
“Death on the Nile” taught me that good people could be hurt or killed on purpose by other, not-so-good people. Christie introduced me to the simple fact of murder. She made me see the world was not as benign as I had believed.
Even today, as an adult, I can handle any content in any genre except true crime. The most savage episode of “Game of Thrones” gives me endless joy; a teaser of “Law and Order: SVU” leaves me with enduring panic. I still need a vampire, or warrior, or wizard, or robot, or alien to metabolize the idea of evil.
(I have to take a moment to recognize that my son, now about the age I was when I saw “Death on the Nile,” is petrified of movies and refuses to watch a single one. As if he knows there are dark things he doesn’t yet know and if he watches long enough he’ll learn them.)
Writers ache for control over an uncontrollable creative process. We create private rituals of repetition and routine, like the gambler who remembers her ankle’s position when she split the 8s and hit twice to 21 — and sets her foot just so when the next cards are dealt. We send the email with draft attached at odd or even minutes on the clock (it must be even). It’s all wishful thinking, of course. We are subject to chaotic fluctuations in temperament and industry, and nothing we do can make certain any outcome.
We can, however, control our subjects. So it was surprising to me that when one of the “Murder on the Orient Express” producers asked if I was interested in writing the screenplay, I heard myself yell yes. But is it really so strange that I chose to wrestle with a story whose author had traumatized me? By doing so, I would have the opportunity, as an adult, to control my fears through my art.
The part of “Murder on the Orient Express” I sought most to unpack was the ugly deformation of the soul required to take up the knife, even to kill a killer. Writing the film, internalizing Christie’s ingenious structure, working through the math of motive and opportunity for 12 suspects (13, actually, counting the conductor), I had to channel Christie’s truth daily: This is something people do.
Although that truth still terrifies me, I no longer hate Christie for having revealed it. Quite the opposite. I admire her honesty and her craft and her humor and her intelligence and her love of day drinking; I admire her career and the tenacious work ethic it demanded; I admire the life she lived and the legacy she left behind. I come to her novels with as much respect as I leave with joy.
Everyone involved with our present take on “Murder on the Orient Express” hoped that, in success, there would be another Hercule Poirot film to follow, another of Christie’s classics to adapt.
No one else knew for certain which it would be. I did.
Michael Green is a producer and screenwriter. His writing credits include “Logan,” “Blade Runner 2049” and “Murder on the Orient Express.” He is currently adapting “Death on the Nile.”
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