Greetings, readers of the Fandomentals. The topic of today’s article is fairly specific – I would like to explain why I think the Netflix show Jessica Jones, which my fellow writers have gone over in detail, is a great, unintentional companion to Hunter: the Vigil, a tabletop RPG in the Chronicles of Darkness system. I have described it once, but looking back, I think I should have included more specific examples of what playing is like. I will try to remedy that now.
Hunter or superhero?
Now, I can hear you asking – “But Michał, doesn’t Jessica have superpowers? And Luke as well? How do they compare to mortal hunters?” That is true, which is why I want to focus on the atmosphere and experience, not direct parallels between the two. Jessica Jones and Hunter: the Vigil present two different worlds, but they evoke some very similar emotions.
Jessica is strong enough to lift a car and throw someone twice her body mass across a room. But it doesn’t really help her against Kilgrave’s mind control. She’s as vulnerable to it as a regular person. Same with Luke, despite his physical near-invulnerability. Jessica’s other allies (loosely speaking…), Trish and Will Simpson, are entirely normal people (maybe not entirely, in Simpson’s case), who can’t resist Kilgrave’s voice either.
Thus, trying to capture and detain Kilgrave becomes a paranoid mind-game. The protagonists must outthink and outmaneuver a man whose power they can’t resist directly. A direct approach is impossible, because as soon as Kilgrave is close, he can take total control of them.
They must also contend with the fact that anyone they meet could be Kilgrave’s slave. A breakthrough occurs when Jessica discovers that Kilgrave’s powers cease to function when he’s under anesthesia. Which includes releasing his victims from his control. However, Kilgrave manages to stay one step ahead… by hiring guards, instead of mind-controlling them. They save him after Jessica drugs him, since their motivation is money, rather than control.
Once we take out the name “Kilgrave”, what I just described may well be… a Hunter: the Vigil chronicle, where a lone cell opposes a powerful vampire with mind-control powers. I say vampire, because of all the different supernatural beings that populate the Chronicles, it’s the Kindred who have the most direct and convenient methods of mind control. They’re also perhaps the best-known.
Mages, mummies or demons can have similar powers, or greater ones, but they operate on a level no mortal human could even approach. Demons and mummies are also psychologically detached from humanity. Demons were never human to begin with, while mummies were human millennia ago and are now undying demigods. And the reason Kilgrave is so viscerally repulsive to the audience is that his evil is so human and close to home. A Mage’s motives remain human, unless they slide down some darker paths. But their power and innate traits render Sleepers (that is, regular humans) completely helpless.
If we go by Vampire: the Requiem rules, a vampire has one power to instantly control someone – the Dominate discipline. It has some restrictions Kilgrave’s power doesn’t have. For one thing, it requires eye contact, and a vampire can only issue orders to one person at a time. More importantly, in a combat scenario, using the power is an action, and giving the order is a separate action. If the victim has friends, this gives them crucial time to act.
This is significantly less versatile than Kilgrave’s ability to walk into a room and instantly bend everyone there to his whims. Of course, if someone is alone with the vampire, the difference lessens. If they’re among other people, it’s still not necessarily a problem, as the use of Dominate is subtle. Most humans, ignorant of the existence of the supernatural, will not notice it. Under certain circumstances, other vampires, supernatural beings and hunters can fail to notice this as well.
Controlling many people at a time can be accomplished with the Majesty discipline, which is a more subtle form of control. Instead of breaking someone’s mind like a toy, the vampire radiates irresistible charisma. They can walk into a party uninvited, splattered in blood, and everyone will just shrug it off. Once someone falls to their charm, they can twist their infatuation in powerful ways. A vampire with Dominate and Majesty is a terrifying puppet-master – and thankfully a rare one. Dominate and Majesty can be resisted every time they’re used, unlike Kilgrave’s power, but the odds are heavily stacked towards the user, particularly if the victim is a mortal. That being said, supernatural beings are also very susceptible to them; they have more tools to resist it. More importantly, they’re more aware of their existence so they have the potential to be better prepared.
That being said, a Storyteller (Dungeon Master) is under no compulsion to use rules from other games in the series. Hunter: the Vigil includes Dread Powers, which is a toolbox the Storyteller can use to create their own supernatural beings and creatures. Their main purpose is, of course, to allow Storytellers to run games without purchasing all of the other source books and expansions. But even if someone has them, we often want to create our own denizens of the Chronicles’ deep shadows, without shackling ourselves to other rulesets. For example: if we want to create a terrifying mind-controller who isn’t a vampire, mage or another established supernatural entity, we can do that.
Kilgrave is, after all, physically a human – and not an imposing one at that. It wouldn’t take much of Jessica’s strength to overpower him. Vampires, however, are undying predators, and even those who doesn’t focus on physical prowess are shockingly resilient. Additionally, Kilgrave’s only ability is his mind-control, whereas any member of a supernatural group within the Chronicle games have many others at their disposal.
Using Dread Powers to create someone whose mind control goes beyond even vampiric domination, but who is otherwise physically human, would be very simple. In the end, Kilgrave is an antagonist, while characters created with the main books of the game are protagonists. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re heroic by any measure, just that their powers have a different structure.
And against him is… a private investigator who was once his victim, a popular radio host with a connection to the private eye, a policeman who is clearly more than just a beat cop, and an invulnerable ex-con bartender. That’s a first-tier hunter cell if I ever saw one. And like I said before, the methods they use strikingly remind me of hunters. They avoid direct confrontation, where Kilgrave can overpower them easily. Once they find his weakness, they ruthlessly exploit it. They risk conflict with law enforcement to attack him. All of it costs them physical, emotional and mental damage, and they come into conflict with one another.
I should note that when I say “first-tier”, I mean hunters who operate on their own, on a local level and without the support of any larger group. They also don’t have access to any special equipment or powers that hunter conspiracies typically provide their members. Which, again, might seem to clash with the fact that Jessica and Luke do have superpowers. Despite all of that, the mood and structure of Jessica’s struggle against Kilgrave is quite reminiscent of a first-tier Hunter game.
Still, that’s the major dramatis personae. What about the world around them? In Hunter: the Vigil, mortals are ignorant of the supernatural. Or rather, they are aware of its existence on some level, but most simply repress it, rationalize it away or just outright deny it. There’s a supernatural energy pervading this world that makes them forget. Many magic beings have traits that more actively obfuscate them – it’s literally impossible for a Sleeper to remember seeing a display of Supernal magic, for instance. Vampires, if we’re sticking with treating Kilgrave as one, notably do not have such traits, which means they must take more active measures to keep their existence secret.
In Jessica Jones, it’s clear that people do know superpowers exist. The series takes place in the same universe as Marvel’s superhero movies, meaning everyone saw aliens, gods and superheroes tear New York City apart. Nonetheless, most people don’t believe in Kilgrave’s mind control.
It’s not quite the same situation as it is in Hunter: the Vigil, though. People who witness Kilgrave in action generally believe it. He very rarely displays any sort of subtlety. And when his victims come together to recount their experiences, they remember them clearly. Still, how many of them had spent years wondering if they had simply gone insane? How many were blamed for people who only saw mind control as a ridiculous excuse? Particularly since when Trish puts out a call for Kilgrave’s victims to come forward, there are those who try to blame him for their misdeeds, or are simply mistaken.
So even though there’s no overreaching conspiracy, or innate energy that makes people forget, the sense of isolation that hunters, and monsters’ victims (categories with significant overlap), feel is still present in Jessica Jones to a degree. Jessica doesn’t find much solace in the support group for Kilgrave’s victims. Her reasons are her own, of course, but it is a bit reminiscent of the isolation hunters feel from other mortal humans.
Jessica’s reluctance to be a hero, even though she has superpowers, isn’t particularly relatable to Hunter. The player characters of Hunter: the Vigil are mortal humans who either chose or were forced to stop ignoring the truth about the world around them. They take up the Vigil, which is a dangerous obsession to do something about it. Jessica has her share of struggles with the concept of heroism and eventually decides to act against Kilgrave, even though her first instinct was to run. But it’s not really the same thing.
In the end, Jessica makes sure Kilgrave won’t destroy another life, but it’s hardly a happy ending or heroic victory. Which is also true for most successful Hunter: the Vigil campaigns. Hunters can eliminate a monster that preys on people, but the toll on them is considerable. That’s if they don’t simply act in their own interest, or become fanatics who attack any supernatural being, no matter how innocent. Which brings the parallel to an end. I hope that, by drawing a similarity between the show and the game, I managed to help you understand what playing Hunter: the Vigil might be like, using a seemingly unlikely source.
Images Courtesy of Netflix and White Wolf
Fall 2017’s TV Successes and Disappointments
November is a fun time in television. While shows are winding down for their winter hiatuses and networks are picking up scripts or pilots for next year’s shows, they’re also ordering “back 9s” for new shows premiering each fall. That is, the 9 episodes to bring a 13 episode series order to a full season. (Though the first full season of a show can run as short as 16 episodes these days.) Getting a back 9 generally indicates high renewal chances if the ratings stay good enough for the network. Renewals and new show pickups are announced in May during Upfronts.
Upfronts this year was a weird time. The major broadcast networks picked up the least number of new shows in five years. 19 of the shows cancelled were one season and done. Though we’re only three months into the 2017-2018 TV year, I have a feeling next May will have similar results.
After all, of 19 new shows, only 8 received back 9s/full season orders. Only two of those have received second season pick ups thus far.
ABC’s The Good Doctor received a full season (18 eps) pick up after only two episodes. Its success is unsurprising because last year’s hit was a family feel-good (though very dramatic) show. I can’t speak to the actual content but it’s clear that somewhere, a lot of Nielsen families are loving it; its yet to move below a 1.8 in the 18-49 demo, which is the most important piece of measuring a show’s success.
There’s only been one other success not related to an already existing franchise, and that’s Fox’ The Orville which received a second season renewal halfway through its first season. CBS’ Young Sheldon, a prequel to BBT received a full season pickup after one special premiere airing, and NBC’s Will and Grace revival received a renewal before even airing its first new episode.
Everything else. No, really.
ABC had two “limited season” shows that if successful would have likely seen a second year. Unfortunately, the network pulled Ten Days in the Valley from the schedule, and will air its remaining episodes in December. The much maligned Inhumans just finished its season but with terrible ratings, barely making a 0.5, and on ABC nonetheless.
The network did give a few more episodes to Kevin (Probably) and The Mayor. This likely only indicates the need to fill airtime. Kevin‘s additional episodes give it a full season (16 eps) but The Mayor is finished.
Me Myself and I holds the honor of first cancellation this year, and 9JKL received three more episodes. That really only means the network doesn’t want to open the timeslot up yet. Consider it done, too.
Among the three dramas, two are very slight renewals. Both Seal Team (22 eps) and S.W.A.T (20 eps) received back 9s, but neither have ratings to call home about. CBS expects a 0.9 demo later in a show’s life, but not within six and three episodes respectively.
Wisdom of the Crowd’s ratings were subpar and with the allegations against lead Jeremy Piven, there’s no way the show was going to get a back 9. It didn’t even garner a mention in the first press article from CBS.
Sigh. Valor, one of four military/special ops themed shows premiered to a 0.3 (!) rating. Dynasty (also 0.3) on the other hand did receive a back 9, but the show is part of a deal with Netflix. Its renewal chances are dependent on the rest of the shows.
Ghosted and The Gifted were this network’s only other fall premieres. Though their ratings aren’t as exciting as other shows, both are firmly in the middle of currently airing Fox shows, and The Gifted will finish airing its 13 episode first season in January. Fox has yet to make an announcement on Ghosted so anything could happen. (Likely it’s done.)
Law and Order: True Crime, the lowest rated of NBC’s new shows, and The Brave just above it failed to receive back 9s. The former is a limited season show so a final decision won’t be public until May. A press release for NBC’s mid-season premieres states the same for the latter. However, Brave was always meant to be a back 9 contender.
With only 1 show per Big 4 “winning” the fall, and only 8 receiving back 9s, the network’s mid-season shows must succeed. NBC’s Rise, a mix between Glee and Friday Night Lights, should be an easy ratings win for the network especially airing after This is Us finishes its season. From one feel good story to the next. The CW has Black Lightning starting in January, which should also do well considering the amazing cast and The Flash lead in.
Otherwise we’re still waiting for announcements on the rest of the new shows’ premieres.
It’s also clear that the networks’ attempt at reaching certain audiences via its military/special ops shows fell short. Valor, The Brave, Seal Team, and S.W.A.T. all failed to bring in high ratings. No surprise if only one of the latter two receives a renewal, similar to when last year’s time travel shows all died except a last minute un-cancellation for Timeless.
Of course any one of the shows I marked as done could still conceivably receive a second season. That’s in the case of an across the board failure for spring premieres/shows past their first season. It’s clear live TV watching (what advertisers care about and thus what I care about) has decreased every year since Nielsen has calculated ratings. The 13% overall decrease in the 18-49 demo this year, however, is slightly more than the usual 5-10% decrease per year. So either shows need to be more interesting, Nielsen needs to expand its ratings measurement, or both.
Either way, mid-season shows must succeed or networks will be operating at major losses financially. Without inventive and entertaining pilots, 2018-2019 is just as likely to fail.
Image Courtesy of ABC, CBS, The CW, FOX, and NBC
The Flash Shows How The Thinker Came To Be
After last week’s horribly boring episode, “Therefore I Am” comes to formally introduces everyone to the mystery that The Thinker is. We learn much more about the villain and his helpful partner, the Mechanic, but we don’t figure out his main goal. Still, a better The Flash episode as the show closes in on its fall finale.
This flashback ridden episode starts with a less than inspired Professor Clifford DeVoe, barely catching anyone’s attention during class. He is joined for lunch by his wife, Marlise, and Clifford whips out a design: a cap that could enhance his own intellect given Mrs. DeVoe can manufacture the device. In the present, we pick up from last week, with Barry and Joe interviewing the DeVoes.
Their first meeting seems to go well, as in nothing quite looked off from the DeVoes, but Barry is suspicious. Iris assigns all of Team Flash their own missions to dig deeper into Clifford just to be thorough. A new peek at four years previously shows Mrs. DeVoe had built Clifford’s thinking cap, but they would need a huge energy source for it. Thankfully — or should I say thinkfully —Harrison Wells/Eobard Thawne is right on the verge of launching the particle accelerator.
Barry decides to pay DeVoe’s class a visit to ask him a few other questions and seize the opportunity to grab his mug for a DNA’s test. However, the test comes up empty as his genetic material doesn’t fit what one would expect from meta-DNA.
A new flashback goes straight to a scene from the pilot: the press conference Wells held before the launch. After Barry ran off to retrieve Iris’s bag, Mrs. DeVoe asked Wells questions as she is concerned about the safety of the accelerator. This scene is particularly interesting because Wells’s attitude is a nice throwback to him being a villain from the future. His compliments for DeVoe’s work come across far more as “big fan of yours, hope you wreck the shit out of Barry” than anything else. Nonetheless, despite Marlise’s warning that there will be an explosion, Clifford decides to proceed as planned with the charging of the cap.
As the accelerator goes off, the thinking cap definitely does things to Clifford, but he also happens to be struck by lightning. Marlise arrives and resuscitates him just in time to witness Clifford feeling “enlightened.”
The cringy part of the episode starts as the DeVoes go to Captain Singh to report Barry’s inadequacies as harassment. As this particular form of lowkey gaslighting usually goes, the people around Barry don’t believe his instincts and ask him to stop looking into DeVoe which, spoiler alert, we also know he won’t and it will backfire eventually. Very cringey, very cliché, and not particularly well scripted drama.
So, after Clifford got hit by lightning, he becomes a really fucking smart person. To prove that, the writers ask him to reveal who Jack The Ripper is — call me foolish, but I would have rather they tried to explain who the Zodiac Killer is to see if it is more believable than American Horror Story: Cult’s ill attempt at doing so. Nonetheless, he starts having a seizure on the spot.
At STAR Labs, Barry hears a buzzing from the Samuroid head and finds a camera inside. He goes to perform some late night stalking at the DeVoes and find Marlise leaving the house, which is super convenient. However, she returns literally 45 seconds after with a full load of groceries so Barry has to quit his sleuthing. Flashbacking again, a doctor gives Clifford a grim prognosis, as his mind is feeding off his body.
After Barry reveals he broke into their house, Team Flash fully flips on Barry’s idea that Clifford DeVoe is the actual bad DeVoe. To make matters worse for my enjoyment of television, the part where Barry gets scolded a second time by the police happens as Marlise brings pictures from the invasion to the Captain. Barry gets suspended for two weeks — and somehow is 100% surprised by the Captain’s decision to suspend him after he broke into someone’s house… — and also a restraining order.
Back at it, it’s time for another cliché: Clifford goes all infomercial as he falls from his wheelchair trying to grab a book from the fireplace. Mad at the world, he begs to die, but Marlise won’t let him. In fact, she even developed the machine that DeVoe currently to help him with his fatal disease.
Even with a restraining order, Barry goes to Clifford at his lecture hall and finally something interesting happens: cards on the table, the professor acknowledges everything. He knows Barry is the Flash. He exposes his backstory, how he became a metahuman, and how superior he is in terms of intellect in comparison to Team Flash. In fact, he is only telling him who he is because “he has nothing to fear.”
Now, maybe this is just me, but I feel like this would be the time for Barry to engage and tell DeVoe that he lowkey already knows how to defeat him? I mean, Savitar did tell him the name of the device. But he doesn’t. He mostly brags about defeating speedsters, which are nothing compared to DeVoe’s powers.
Back at STAR Labs, Barry tells everyone that Clifford confessed and NOW everyone believes him even without any additional evidence — silver linings? At least they believe him now. This ‘No One Believes Barry’ nonsense could have carried on for more episodes. Cisco comes up with the Thinker name as Wally arrives to help out with supervillain but, if we’re being honest, he probably won’t because Kid Flash has been utterly useless. I blame it on the writers.
Finally, the DeVoes go back to their secret base and Marlise has her villain attire (slicked back hair and a lab coat instead of natural waves and sundresses) back on. It sort of makes you wonder about the practicality of having a whole villainous wardrobe just for the thrill of it.
As Clifford starts shaking again, it is time for him to return to the device we’ve seen him in before. The coolest part is that I was right about his hair: the Mechanic has to literally rip his scalp off in order to connect him with a machine that feels too tight on his head. As the romantic he is, Clifford is even “allowing” West-Allen to get married because “what is knowledge without love?”.
Not a lot went down again, but better than last week’s by a mile. So now we gotta get ready for the wedding crossover next week and hopefully an interesting fall finale!
Images Courtesy of The CW
A Definitive Ranking Of Murder On The Orient Express Adaptations
Murder on the Orient Express is one of the most famous murder mysteries written by Agatha Christie. As such, it is also among the most adapted ones. It is, perhaps, not the best choice of all of her work. Her strength, beside flawlessly plotted mysteries, has always been characters. She has the rare talent of making the character seem so alive in a few sentences that you can see them standing before you. That is not easy to match in an adaptation where you have limited space, and all she can say outright must be expressed by acting. It becomes extremely difficult in Murder on the Orient Express, which contains about twice as many crucial characters as most of Christie’s other books, and for reasons inherent to the plot it is difficult to curb that number.
Nevertheless, filmmakers do keep trying, and the most recent attempt is barely two weeks old. In light of that, allow me to present a little guide to these adaptations, meant both for connoisseurs of Christie’s work and the films and for those who would like to try one version but are not sure which. Because of this, I avoid spoilers. I can’t quite prevent some little hints dropping in the course of this article that might spoil your viewing pleasure a little if you haven’t seen the films or read the books, though. For that I apologize in advance.
For those unfamiliar with the story but interested, here is a listing of characters to help you through, since as I said, they are the backbone of the story.
- Poirot – the brilliant detective. Come on, everyone knows that one, right?
- Ratchett – the murdered man
- MacQueen – Ratchett’s secretary
- Masterman – Ratchett’s valet
- Michel – the train conductor in the relevant carriage
- Count and Countess Andrenyi – a Hungarian diplomatic couple
- Princess Dragomiroff – a Russian expat cosmopolitan
- Fraulein Schmidt – her maid
- Greta Ohlsson – a Swedish missionary, “rather like a sheep”
- Mary Debenham – a very collected English governess
- Mrs. Hubbard – a very not-collected American widow
- Colonel Arbuthnot – the quintessential British colonel serving in India
- Foscarelli – an Italian cars salesman
- Hardman – an American salesman/detective
And with that out of the way, let’s get straight down to that list.
5. Murder on the Orient Express (2001)
The biggest issue with this adaptation, I’m afraid, is production value and—related to that—the acting abilities of most actors. The need to save money is visible in effectively every aspect of the film, to the point that it actually detracts from watching. If it had something else to compensate for it, one might be able to forget it, but unfortunately, there is nothing. Bland actors (who all look the same) recite bland lines in a bland setting. Some of the actors at least are not bad in themselves, though, so perhaps that point rather underlines how bad everything else about this adaptation is. It’s just a whole lot of nothing to catch your attention or interest.
In the interest of fairness, this adaptation tried to get around the problem of too many characters by focusing on just a few. Namely Arbuthnot, Dragomiroff, Foscarelli, Mary Debenham and Mrs. Hubbard. They even cut a few of the rest. It’s a controversial decision in that it influences the reasoning behind the crime rather significantly and changes the atmosphere of many people from different paths of life being brought together.
But, if done for a legitimate reason, it could actually be a very good choice. If it meant those five were given real character focus and depth, it would actually be a sacrifice that could be worth it. Unfortunately, it did not lead to anything of the sort. Once more I sense the need to minimize production cost as the chief motivation. The characters remained bland and shallow, there was just a bit less of them, which is, perhaps, a blessing.
This film, probably also for reasons of saving money, is a modern alternate universe (AU). That has some practical problems—Poirot having internet access would turn this investigation into a much simpler matter. Some adaptational choices made in transforming this into a modern AU bear mentioning, though. Princess Dragomiroff becomes the widow of a South American dictator and Colonel Arbuthnot, an IT giant. The first is relatively fitting, the second much less so. Some other details were changed as well, like using a stylus instead of a pipe cleaner.
To give a bit more particular attention to the characters, since, as I said, the adaptations stand and fall with them, there were a few significant changes made with the reduction of characters. Dragomiroff became more like book Mrs. Hubbard in character and thus closer to a caricature, but at least she wasn’t as bland as most actors here. The women were generally better, in fact. Mary Debenham actually made one of the best, if not the best, showing of all the adaptations here, and even Mrs. Hubbard wasn’t wholly bad, though much less carefully crafted than in the book. The men, though…the less said about them, the better. Arbuthnot especially was almost painful.
There were also changes made to the plotting of the mystery itself that made it fall apart. We will see that is a frequent problem. One would think that while coming up with a consistent murder mystery is hard, making sure you don’t change one of the crucial plot pieces after someone else came up with it would not be so difficult. Apparently, not.
In short, this film is a whole bag of nothing with no tension that makes you feel nothing, though there are a few (well, two) acting performances that make it at least not wholly terrible. The second film on this list, on the other hand, has very different issues.
4. “Murder on the Orient Express” (2010, part of the Agatha Christie’s Poirot TV Show)
It’s actually extremely difficult to compare this adaptation with the previous one. While the 2001 one film makes me feel nothing at all, this one makes me feel a whole lot of things, and none of them are good.
I’ll be up front. I have a beef with this film. A huge one. There are no words for how much I hate a specific scene towards the beginning of the film. It’s a scene of a stoning in the streets of Istanbul. It’s one of the more glaring cases of Orientalism and racism I’ve come across in TV less than 20 years old.
In case anyone is unsure, let me point out two things. A) random stonings in the street by a mob is not how the hadd punishment for adultery works, and b) Turkey in the 30s was a far more secular state where even a lot of religious symbols were banned in public. Criminal law had no basis in religious law. Not that what we saw in the film had anything to do with religious law, just so I’m clear. Such things haven’t happened in Istanbul with approval from high places probably since the Crusaders attacked it when it was still Constantinople. In short, this is not how sharia works. It was pure racist bullshit and it can fuck right off along with the people who thought writing that scene was a good idea.
That being said, I will do my best to move on from that in my evaluation of the film.
You can tell that they were trying to do something different with this adaptation, to make it distinct from all the other ones. The idea of how to go about it wasn’t even all bad. Unfortunately, the result was mostly a big mess.
This is perhaps a case where it’s most important to make the distinction between the quality of an adaptation and the quality of a film as such. As a film, I suppose this is not so bad. It’s a film about Poirot, clearly, about his personal choices and view of justice; all other characters are there mostly as background and to act as a foil to him.
As an adaptation, it’s a disaster.
Chiefly, of course, because the book is not about Poirot at all. His personality always shines through, naturally, because Christie knows how to write. But it’s the supporting cast that inevitably forms the true bones of the story. Here, they were pushed completely into the background, and with them most of the story’s attraction. No character had enough space to truly shine.
The only one where I can offer praise is Michel, who was probably the best done here out of all the adaptations. Ratchett seemed to be done very well, until his talk of penance and his prayer was included, at which point it all went to hell, because the themes of the book were lost with it. Adaptational efficiency showed in exchanging one of the passengers for a doctor. It was a good idea, too, even though it did require Poirot to gain more medical knowledge than he normally possesses. But that’s about it for good adaptational choices.
All the other characters were either uninteresting shadows of themselves or completely missed the mark. The second is certainly true for Miss Debenham, who has absolutely nothing in common with the cool, collected English governess we meet in the book. Masterman had nothing of the unruffled calm of a trained valet either, and Mrs. Hubbard lost the entirety of the charm of her character. Princess Dragomiroff, too, for how much space she got, worked surprisingly badly. Greta Ohlsson was different but not entirely bad, I suppose, if one manages to ignore the theological nonsense she is spouting.
There were also a few random changes to the details of the case that, much like with the 2017 film, made it stop making sense. It’s equally a mystery to me this time as it is with the most recent adaptation. Another problem was that the time was very limited—and there were added scenes to boot—so very little space was left not only for characters, but even for the investigation. Poirot seemed like a wizard towards the end as he was pulling answers out of his ass.
So, to reiterate, as an adaptation it was a mess. Coming back to evaluating it as a film on its own…there are still major issues. Or rather, one issue.
When you decide to focus entirely on one character’s development in your film, you should take care to avoid making that character into a one-dimensional caricature, because then it will hardly be compelling. Unfortunately, it’s what happens here with Poirot.
His position at the beginning looks like an inexperienced Dungeons and Dragons player being a lawful neutral character for the first time. It has no nuance, no substance, nothing. Law is the law and it must be upheld. Poirot repeats this even in cases when it makes no sense, like when he manages to provoke someone into a suicide by his completely overblown bout of rage. He then tries to justify his behavior by talking about the law. The film tries to somehow connect this to lofty philosophical questions of justice, even though it’s clearly an issue of Poirot’s personal mental problems instead. Someone that out of control should’t be allowed to work with people.
Oh, and also the philosophy is painfully bad. So is the theology, as I’ve mentioned. The film insists on talking about Jesus and God all the time for some reason, and depicting prayers, but the depiction is about as accurate as their understanding of sharia at the beginning.
I tried hard to find something good about this film. Truly, I did. I can say that…the final scene was nice? Very nice, actually. It’s a pity that to have emotional strength, it would need to grow out of more solid ground.
3. Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
This film is…fine. Probably. If it wasn’t an adaptation, I think I’d be coming away from it feeling a whole lot of nothing, because the only truly good part of it was the plotting, which, of course, was done by Agatha Christie.
As an adaptation, it was moderately bad.
There was hardly a character they adapted well, but they were not adapted disastrously badly. Perhaps Game of Thrones has given me a new bar to measure things against? Poirot probably fared the best. He’s fairly authentic, but even he didn’t escape from puzzling changes. The most astonishing one, to me, was giving him a picture of a beloved woman he sighs over at night. All right, but…why?
The same confused why applies, once again, to changes in the logistics of the crime itself and some of its circumstances. In fact, it was full of mystifying changes. I suppose I can understand the need to add action sequences. There seems to be the feeling that no film for the big screen can be truly successful without them. I’m expecting a French invasion in the next Austen adaptation. Here we got an avalanche, a derailed train almost falling off a bridge (and had it followed the laws of physics, it totally would have fallen), wrestling, and a mad scramble down the bridge’s scaffold. All of it was pretty much pointless and took time that could have been spent on something more crucial, like character building.
Nothing, however, tops the random decision to have a character pretend he is an Austrian racist, thus giving him a chance to spew racist insults throughout the film. Did…did they read Christie’s book and think “this needs more racism”? Actually, that seems to be a common reaction, given the stoning scene in the 2010 adaptation. Interesting, because if there’s something I never felt Chrstie’s books lacked, it was racism. But it’s true that Murder on the Orient Express might actually be below average for her, surprisingly, so perhaps the poor filmmakers are just trying to bring it up to par?
Anyway, speaking of racism. Colonel Arbuthnot is played by a black man here, which would be awesome, if the changes to his character also didn’t transform him from a polished, stiff and pompous English Colonel into a doctor who wrestles with Poirot and shoots him. Not the most fortunate choice.
The highlight of this film was the attempt to treat Poirot’s obsessive-compulsive tendencies as a serious mental disorder instead of a funny quirk. The same goes for Countess Andrenyi’s PTSD. Even that, though, the film managed to spoil towards the end. We hear Poirot say that he’ll just have to deal with the fact that everything is not the way it should be for once, as if he got over his disorder so nicely. Likewise, the Countess is seen pouring the medicine for her nerves down the drain. As we all know, naturally, murder is just the thing to cure your mental health issues.
Now to the rest of the characters, since I keep insisting they are the most important part. McQueen was decent and had his own charm, though he was also different from the book, and his character, as it was written, made little sense. The rest mostly didn’t get enough space to become interesting. Michel and Foscarelli (who became Marquez in this version) were decent, that’s the most I can say about them. Judi Dench as Princess Dragomiroff had great potential, I’m sure, but unfortunately all of her amazing scenes from the book were cut, so what we got was a whole lot of nothing. Oh, and the Andrenyis were a complete disaster. The Count, apart from being randomly violent, is also apparently a dancer now. Again, a very confused “why?” from me.
Oh, and a middle-aged female missionary was transformed into a young one. That, by the way, holds true even in the previous adaptation. A mystery why that keeps happening, isn’t it?
2. Orient Kyuukou Satsujin Jiken (Murder on the Orient Express, 2015)
This is a Japanese AU. Yes, there is a Japanese AU filmed of the Orient Express case. And let me tell you, it’s not half bad.
The main downside of this, for me, was the comedic tone of the show (it’s a two-episode miniseries), due chiefly to the interpretation of Poirot. It is true that Miss Debenham says explicitly in the book that Poirot was a “funny little man” that could never be taken seriously, but this comes chiefly from the self-importance with which he does things considered strange or ridiculous by other people. It’s not supposed to be the almost slapstick comedy aspect Poirot (called Mr. Suguro here—the transposition is complete) gains on this show. Especially at the very beginning of the show, I found it hard to get over.
The transplantation to Japan, as far as I can tell, was done very well. Some characters changed in tone, and they are all Japanese now, but it generally stayed faithful to the tone of the book. Different 30s English prejudices were exchanged for modern Japanese ones. I don’t know enough about Japan to know how fittingly it was done, but it seemed to work well enough.
Colonel Arbuthnot underwent perhaps the most radical transformation. From a stiff and slightly ridiculous British colonel, he was turned into a man of real presence, and probably the strongest charisma on the set. In fact, he stole some of what is Princess Dragomiroff’s role in the book, and was in some ways closer to Count Andrenyi than his book counterpart. Nevertheless, I didn’t mind the transformation. An essentially English caricature would have no place in a Japanese AU, and while I don’t doubt Japan has its own kind of army types that can be caricatured, perhaps it would not fit the setting. The character they created did fit; the contrast between his utter seriousness and Poirot’s comic behavior worked quite well.
I said he stole some of the Princess’ clout, but she was not badly done herself. Her scenes don’t quite have the strength they do in the book, but they were adapted at least. I’m afraid it was the acting that was not quite up to par with this very difficult role. A similar fate befell Mrs. Hubbard, as her final transformation was not as complete and impressive as the one in the book. Again, it’s a hard part to act.
The Andrenyis and Masterman, too, were adapted very well, and Fraulein Schmidt was, I daresay, even improved in comparison with the book. In the book she is one of the most forgettable characters, whereas here she has true force of personality. My only problem was that I could not imagine her cooking, and that’s definitely a nitpick!
The adaptation, in spite of being an AU, is very faithful, though in some scenes it actually does harm. Most obviously it shows with Mary Debenham, who also represents a particular type of a young English woman. Here, she was infused with some uniquely Japenese additions to her character in a way that, at least for me, didn’t entirely work. Fraulein Schmidt felt more like her book self than Mary did at times. The scenes also suffer from not enough time to breathe. They attempt to include as much of the book dialogues as they can in the relatively limited space. Some of the characters, therefore, don’t get the space they need to really shine. Some of Poirot’s deductions towards the end, too, were a little too miraculous, because there was no time left to show his thought process.
What I appreciated, on the other hand, was the neat and organized nature of the investigation, including a plan of the carriage shown in the lower right corner of the screen. It’s often hard to follow the different factual points of a complicated investigation on screen. This adaptation did its best to overcome it.
But the most important thing I saved for last. As I said, this is a two-part miniseries. The investigation, however, is all concluded in the first part. The second one is devoted to a flashback that shows the planning of the crime. While that is not technically an adaptation of the book anymore, it’s a brilliant idea, and one that moved this adaption further up the list, above the one from this year.
1. Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
This is frustrating. I really wanted to come up with something a little more original, but there is just no denying it. The 1974 version is the best of all the adaptations, and by quite a large margin.
In fact, I have only one major problem with it, and that’s Poirot. Granted, that is quite a significant problem given that he is the main character, but still in other aspects it overshadows all the other adaptation so much it stays perfectly secure in first place.
The problem with Poirot is that he’s not Poirot at all. Of all the adaptations, he’s perhaps closest to the Japanese one, though his personality is not skewed towards its comedic aspect. It is, however, similarly exaggerated, this time to weird voluptuous gestures that are absolutely not in accordance with the book detective’s perfect manners. One of the first scenes, for example, has Poirot complain of the food in a restaurant by tearing the menu and pouring out his coffee into an ice bucket. As before, I have to ask my confused “why?”. This was the first adaptation. There was no need to set it apart from the others. So why on Earth did anyone feel the need to turn Poirot into this?
Not to mention, when he gets angry, he looks and behaves like Hitler. I’m sorry for this comparison, I have no intention of invoking Godwin’s law, but it’s true. His way of speech is very reminiscent of Hitler’s public speeches. Taken together with his small mustache, it’s actually very disturbing.
Nevertheless, this film is the only one that came close to Christie’s ability to quickly capture a character and to the soft irony she frequently displays. Ratchett’s personality, for example, is shown in small, not overdone scenes, though he’s also more sympathetic than in the book. Sometimes the characterization is a little forced. There are scenes where it’s just a little too obvious they exist only to set up a character and it’s hamfisted. But generally the flow is good. Additionally, here most of all the adaptation you get that wonderful effect of when you watch knowing the truth behind the events, you can see it in every movement of every actor.
As for the characters, even here Miss Debenham is made softer and Mrs Hubbard less comedic. Debenham, however, comes perhaps the closest she ever does to her book characterization. It’s a tie with the 2001 version. Mrs. Hubbard was significantly changed, but in such a way that it fit her character perfectly. Princess Dragomiroff was very nearly spot on. Michel, Count Andrenyi, Foscarelli, and Masterman were entirely so.
MacQueen is absolutely masterfully acted, but there was a strange interlude with his neurotic psychology that rang false for me. Ohlsson is over the top as she is in every adaptation. I don’t know what it is about religious missionaries that makes people unable to depict them reasonably.
Overall, though, it’s evident from the first scenes that this film is in an entirely different league from the others, with much better script and acting, as well as direction. Here, the characters actually mean something, and you manage to form a relationship to them in the course of the story, which is not the case with most of the others.
In fact, this is quite close to a perfect adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express. If only that terrible Poirot could be replaced by Kenneth Branagh’s…