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The Punk-Rock Makeover Will, and Why It Sort of Works

Michelle

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Warning: this (lengthy) season review contains major spoilers for the TNT Drama Will, and references torture, rape and the exploitation of children.

Full disclaimer: I’m an early modernist. By which I mean, I have spent over ten years of my academic, professional and personal life studying early modern literature—including but not limited to Shakespeare and Marlowe—and bolstering my readings with in-depth research about early modern women’s life and work, gender presentation/representation, and socioeconomic realities and power dynamics. I bring a hefty amount of baggage, then, to TNT’s drama Will. Baggage I did my best to stow away, out of sight out of mind, but that will still, inevitably, influence my response to this period drama.

That said, TNT’s adaptation of Shakespeare—and I call it an adaptation because there is much to be said for how the writers, producers, directors, costumers and actors bring some of the best—and worst—of Shakespeare’s drama into this show—is a surprisingly entertaining look at “how it could have happened” that, for all its faults, continues the work academics, scholars, teachers and the Bard’s many lovers have been doing for years.

Making Shakespeare accessible.

What is Past is Prologue: the Plot of Will

If you would like to skip a detailed summary of the season, please scroll down to the next heading.

Will takes place in 1589, smack dab in the middle of Shakespeare’s “lost years”: a period where William Shakespeare dropped entirely from public record. A determined but naïve young man, William Shakespeare (Laurie Davidson) leaves his wife Anne (Deidre Mullins) and three children to pursue a writing/acting career in London—partly to support his family, but mostly to spare himself the tedious destiny of a married tradesman.

London is a tumultuous place. While Will secures himself a place in James Burbage’s the Theatre as writer and actor, Protestant court torturer Richard Topcliffe (Ewen Bremner) scours London’s streets for Father Robert Southwell (Max Bennett): an upstart Catholic priest inspiring downtrodden and secreted English Catholics to open resistance. Their war of propaganda and religious fervor touch every social circle, from the Queen’s advisers to a pick-pocket struggling to rescue his sister from sexual slavery.

It is a war Will tries, and fails, to avoid. A secret Catholic, Will is pressured by his parents to deliver a letter to Southwell—a letter the pick-pocket Presto (Lukas Rolfo) discovers and takes it to Topcliffe. Will is spared an early death by Christopher Marlowe (Jamie Campbell Bower), London’s most popular playwright and current Topcliffe informant, who sets up the middling playwright Baxter in Will’s place.

Will’s religion doesn’t remain a secret for very long. Marlowe knows it full well and dangles the life he saved over Will’s head, while Alice Burbage (Olivia DeJonge), James’ daughter and theatre scribe, is subjected to Will’s confession of his belief. Even knowing the danger he brings to the theatre and her family, and his married state, Alice enters into an affair with Will. They try to remain discreet, even as Alice’s parents arrange for her to marry Lord Keenan: a wealthy beer merchant whose financial backing will keep the theatre open and James out of debtor’s prison.

Will’s star rises in the theatre with the successful production of plays Edward III, The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Henry VI Parts 1 and 2, all improved with Alice’s intelligence and fine handwriting. But as it does, other stars dim. Marlowe, struck with debilitating writer’s block as he is forced to deal with the impending death of his lover, undergoes a self-destructive spiral. He investigates all aspects of religion, divination and damnation to try and understand the nature of death, salvation and the soul. With no answers, he returns to his lover’s side. Barrett’s pleas that Marlowe look to his soul provide him no peace, and after his passing, Marlowe descends into a violent self-harming despair, driving him to seek out Father Southwell in one last effort for understanding and solace.

Meanwhile, Presto continues stealing to buy his sister Apelina’s (Kristy Phillips) freedom from the brothel, going so far as to sneak a dress from the theatre and use it to steal purses. Although the dress is eventually ruined and finally returned to the theatre troupe—who then take Presto in as a new boy apprentice—the brothel matron provides him a new one. But not to thieve in. She forces Presto to prostitute himself to men with a proclivity for boys in dresses. For the sake of Apelina, he does, but when confronted with Topcliffe, Presto stabs him. In a mad dash, Presto and Apelina flee the brothel and Topcliffe’s guards, taking to the muddy streets. Apelina, however, doesn’t escape their pursuers. Shot from behind, she urges Presto to leave before dying in the mud.

Presto takes refuge in the theatre, where in a fit of grief and rage, he sets fire to the costumes and the building.

Although Will is able to save the theatre, the Burbages and Presto, his star careens off course. Horrified her daughter sabotages her engagement, Ellen Burbage (Nancy Carroll) forces Will to break off their relationship in the cruelest possible terms. Alice is devastated, and in her grief and loneliness she gravitates to Father Southwell. At the same time, Topcliffe entangles Will in the Protestant/Catholic struggle, forcing him to write a play discrediting Father Southwell.

Everything comes to a head when as Will strikes upon an idea and Alice immerses herself in the Catholic cause. While Will writes Richard III, painting Topcliffe’s monstrous personality and atrocities in the historic English king, Alice secrets messages from the Vatican to Father Southwell and even secures passage for his manifesto to the Queen. When their safe house is discovered, Alice tries to rescue Father Southwell’s work, leading to her capture and torture at Topcliffe’s hands. Although Will rescues her, Alice is permanently changed because her ordeal. Together, though, they convince the Theatre to perform Richard III and tear the Queen’s torturer down.

All converges onstage as Topcliffe and influential members of court watch Richard III. Richard Burbage (Mattias Inwood) achieves independence and fame as Richard III, and the entire theatre turns on Topcliffe as his villainy is paraded before them. Topcliffe further undermines himself by causing a scene when all the Theatre joins in Richard’s in-character/out-of-character call of “guilty.” Topcliffe leaves in disgrace, thoroughly ruined by the unity Will has created through his work.

There is nothing for Will to celebrate, though. Alice leaves him a letter bidding him farewell. She must set her own course, with Father Southwell in the Americas, and she asks Will not to look for his “once bright angel.”

There is a History in All Men’s Lives: The Use of History

Setting Will in 1589 was clever. Most of Shakespeare’s life is known through public record (birth and baptismal records, marriage certificates, business transactions, wills and death records) and secondary accounts. Moreover, there is a seven-year gap where no records about him exist at all, and the figure who emerges at the end of that gap is wholly different from the one who enters it. A nobody in Stratford in 1585, by 1594, when Shakespeare reappears in the record, he is a popular populist playwright, earning the respect of crowds and the ire of writers. Particularly Robert Greene, who calls him “an upstart crow.”

Placing Will’s action in the middle of the lost years allows the show to play with the possibilities of Shakespeare’s early years in London. The writers have done their homework on the popular theories and controversies: Shakespeare’s Catholic leanings, Marlowe’s secret service to the Queen, Shakespeare and Marlowe’s possible homosexuality or bisexuality. They’ve also done their research about social issues affecting London, although they play fast and loose with many of those facts.

Characters like Topcliffe and Southwell have their lives compressed in the historical drama. Topcliffe and Southwell didn’t cross paths until 1592, when Topcliffe captured Southwell and tortured him until Southwell was transferred to the Tower of London. Southwell also never published or disseminated a manifesto. Topcliffe didn’t fall from power, seek to become spymaster, or (as far as we know) commit any of the atrocities shown in Will. Minus the torture. He was a torturer.

Inaccurate as they are, their adapted histories work for Will. The centrality of the Protestant/Catholic struggle necessitates powerful figures standing as leaders and figureheads. Moreover, the characters remain true to their historical counterparts, expanded only for story and entertainment. Such expansion affects other characters, like Alice and Richard Burbage. Richard’s growth as not only an actor but also an individual is given greater prominence through the changes to his history, while Alice—a mere footnote to her father and brother’s existence—is given an entire life.

One aspect of early modern history Will gets almost entirely right—and the aspect that gives me the greatest pleasure—is the theatre and theatre-going itself. It’s high time everyone, not just die-hard fans and academics, know that Shakespeare was not and is not Laurence-Olivier-upper-class-accent “Shakespeare.” Shakespeare was populist; play-going was a rock concert. And Will portrays that beautiful. The groundlings—playgoers of the lower classes who would stand in the pit in front of the stage—are perfectly depicted as loud and obnoxious, cheering riotously for what they loved and jeering cruelly what they hated. The actors played to them, encouraging their participation, while the writers catered to them, knowing that an angry sea of groundlings could ruin their career. The action of the play is punctuated with dance and song, showcasing how theatres capitalized on popular performing arts even centuries past.

The groundlings highlight the fact that in Shakespeare’s time, plays weren’t high art—that was poetry—but low-brow entertainment. Puns. Sex jokes. Dick jokes and dick waving. Staged death and dismemberment. Copious amounts of fake blood and body parts. The nobility would go to see them, and occasionally host popular or talented troupes in their homes, but the theatre was a lower-class entity, nestled among muddy markets, bear-baiting rings and brothels. At the same time, though, Will shows why plays, and Shakespeare’s plays in particular, would become art because of their ability to pull the social circles together to a common cause in a common place. The powerful insights playwrights provided and actors portrayed were available to men and women, regardless of status. Will, from beginning to end, showcases that reality and potentiality expertly.

I Have Had a Most Rare Vision: Setting and Costume

Will is a vibrant show: bright and colorful, dark and filthy. The impoverished area where the theatres exist is full of open markets and muddy streets, and the bottoms of skirts, pants and boots are appropriately dirtied by the life and activity there. There are animals and open stalls, caught fish and cut meat packed in with fabric and materials. Open fires and narrowed alley ways. Hay everywhere.

The estates and courts of the noblemen and women are packed full with brocade and silk, full of art and furniture and all the trappings of extravagant spending that would lead many gentlemen to bankruptcy, while the cells of Topcliffe’s craft are dark and foreboding, with the shadows of his implements and one or two ray of lights filtering in to raise and diminish the prisoner’s hopes.

Of course, everyone is a little too clean for the early modern period. There are a few notable exceptions. Until he steps out onto stage as a prince, Presto is almost always smudged with dirt, reflecting the rough life he leads. The ripped bandages he keeps on his arms hide the scars on his arms of self-harm, which somehow never become infected (which I’m thankful for). When he’s homeless or descends into depression, Will is unkempt and unwashed, reflecting the fracturing of his life and self. And when he exits the plague house, Richard Burbage is realistically-uncomfortably-grievingly unshaved, tousled and dirty; he burns his clothes immediately.

The clothing itself is bright and colorful, and anachronistic in a way that fits. A mix of late-80s punk and New-Romanticism goth (my wife is a punk and goth expert, and I thank her for her brilliance), the lower class—especially the groundlings—are packed full with mohawks, face paint, chains and leather. Especially the women.

Men, on the other hand, regardless of their rank, tend to be in more period appropriate clothing. We still get Richard Burbage’s leopard-print lined and glass-embroidered coat, and the entirety of Marlowe’s closet, but from shopkeep to lord, the men are often in leggings, trousers, tunics, shirts and coats. With historic colors and patterns. Funny how that works.

Even the higher-class women, in which I’ll include Alice Burbage for the moment, have more anachronistic clothing. Emilia Bassano, Lord Hunsdon’s newest mistress and a key supporter of the Theatre, often has her shoulders and arms bared, while Alice is usually walking around the Theatre, and the streets, in spaghetti-strapped dresses prominently displaying cleavage.

And that’s not even including the brothel workers.

To be fair, Richard Burbage sometimes walks around on stage with a golden cup encasing and enhancing his “better” part, but that’s only in performance.

The dress, or rather lack of dress, is an uncomfortable comment on women in this world. Women are property, at once sexually available and sexually constrained depending on the men they’re attached to. Emilia Bassano is a mistress to her lord. Alice Burbage is a young woman participating in an affair. And the other bared women are generally tavern or brothel workers. Only Catholic women and Topcliffe’s wife are historically accurate, and they appear infrequently. It’s also worth noting that when Alice converts to Catholicism and later leaves London, she too is finally dressed in a full top, all her skin covered minus hands, neck and face. It’s a noticeable comment on the effect religion has had on stripping Alice of an identity and agency deemed inappropriate and troubling.

The Greatest Scandal Waits on Greatest Strength: Strengths and Flaws

It’s hard to talk about what makes Will great because what is a strength in one scene is a serious flaw in another. The consistency of the Theatre and theatre goers is, perhaps, its greatest strength, but there is so much else that could make Will a phenomenal show, if it was done consistently or wasn’t undercut with uncomfortable overtones.

As a show about Shakespeare, Will capitalizes on music and wordplay. The score is a mix of original symphonic pieces sprinkled with twentieth and twenty-first century punk and rock music. James Brown, Radiohead and The Clash are just some of the soundtracks included and, for the most part, they work. Most of the modern music is attached to the theatre, either playing during performances or performed by the theatre troupe as they celebrate or spend their time together as close family and friends. Sometimes, though, the transition from original score to modern soundtrack is jarring. One such instance is in episode 6, when Catholic criers are attacked in the open market. As a brawl breaks out and the law arrives, the music shifts into heavy rock, which downplays the horror of the Catholics being assaulted and murder and Hamnet’s terror as he is nearly run over by a horse.

Will’s wordplay is also fantastic, when it works. An homage to the language Shakespeare is known and celebrated for, many of the dialogue switches into iambic pentameter occur in or around the theatre. From his coinages (“‘bedazzled’ is not a word, it’s ‘dazzled’, fix it!” Oh, shut up, Baxter) to word battles to powerful moments of intimacy, the breaks from blank verse/modern dialogue showcase talented writing and acting and bring a sense of drama working its way into life, rather than the other way around. Occasionally though, wordplay escapes the theatre and it often leads to jolting surprise. Will often speaks to Father Southwell in iambic pentameter, and more than once Presto and his sister engage it in.

Especially with Presto and Apelina, the shift to iambic pentameter should highlight the importance of the speakers to the plot and the gravity of conversation they’re having. Iambic pentameter should emphasize, regardless of status, the seriousness of their situation. But it doesn’t because it’s not done often enough. When Will argues with Southwell in iambic pentameter, and when Presto speaks with Apelina, the importance of the wordplay is lost in the confusion that comes with the sudden linguistic shift. These characters aren’t immersed in the theatre world, where the majority of the wordplay exists. Nor do they, or other characters, speak it enough to let it be a common linguistic model. So when it is used, it becomes a momentary spectacle and little else.

Will tackles some difficult questions, including ones about sexuality, faith, and exploitation. Its treatment of sexuality is at once refreshing and disappointing. It’s fantastic that Marlowe is portrayed consistently, and in the end proudly, as a gay man although he would never call himself such (and thankfully doesn’t). Homosexuality isn’t new by any stretch of the imagination, but “gay” as a term for a homosexual man is a twentieth-century invention, inappropriate for that time. But Marlowe is a man who prefers the company of other men and is wholly devoted to two lovers: Thomas, his new younger lover, and his long-time lover Barrett.

In many ways, Marlowe’s arc is heartbreaking as his depression and grief rob him of his ability to write, and his fear and inability to understand or process Barrett’s death pushes him further and further to a physical, mental and spiritual collapse. This doesn’t excuse his atrocious behavior, but his pain becomes more understandable. The desperate lengths he goes to are the frantic reaching of a man who has lost everything that gave him meaning, without having any system to navigate that loss. The fact that Marlowe pulls himself out of that grief and offers an authentic apology and explanation to Thomas—the fact that he can both love and write again—is also unbelievably refreshing considering current media trends.

Unfortunately, Christopher Marlowe is the only openly homosexual main character, and he’s kind of an awful human being. Hedonistic, selfish and needlessly cruel, Marlowe does a host of questionable things, and you’re never entirely sure where his loyalties lie. In the end, there is some redemption. He accuses Father Southwell of hypocrisy and sin when he allows Alice to be captured, and then uses his influence to free her; when that fails, he tells Will what happened. But these instances aren’t enough. This is a man who willingly sacrifices a second-rate playwright because Will is more talented, a man who dismisses his lover with cruel and angry words when he is in the middle of a satanic ritual that scares his lover, a man that goes up and punches another man to prove how little he can feel. He is, as Marlowe later admits, “a great stupid child with a broadsword, slashing and swiping at everyone and everything.”

Moreover, Marlowe’s comfort with himself and his lovers comes at the cost of faith. As he dies, Barrett is terrified about the state of his and Marlowe’s souls. He knows he will be damned for their love and implores Marlowe to look to his own. It is this terror that spurs Marlowe’s descent; he has to know if hell and heaven, God and Satan, are real and if Barrett truly has been damned for love. The lack of answers and insight both terrify and inspire Marlowe. They drive him to the worst places, but also allow him to write Doctor Faustus, his ultimate performative expression of damnation. Marlowe finds peace only after he finishes, when he decides “belief is a state of mind.” In addition to bringing uncomfortable parallels to the fundamentalist trauma LGBTQ+ individuals face every day, Marlowe’s forced atheism eliminates the fact that faith is still important for many LGBTQ+ people, and that faith and existence shouldn’t be at odds.

Marlowe as LGBTQ+ representation, then, is extremely discomforting. Which is unfortunate because he is a fantastic character. Just…bad representation. Does this mean I would have liked to see Marlowe and Shakespeare as lovers? Not necessarily, although I think it would have been a better storyline. At least, it would have made Will cheating on Anne Hathaway a bit more stomachable.

Will’s treatment of women—especially Anne and Alice—is something I could (and probably will) discuss at length, but it highlights another important aspect of the show that I wish was more of a strength: No one in this show is good.

Except Presto, because he is an abused, exploited child and cannot be held as accountable for what he does for the sake of Apelina and his own health and safety.

In some cases, the lack of goodness and morals works; it highlights the many ways people with power exploit those without it. Father Southwell and Topcliffe, for example—on opposite sides and employing opposite means—are shown to be equally evil. Religious zealots, they are wholly committed to their respective causes and no amount of begging or bodies will deter them. Southwell is just as culpable in the deaths of the Catholic martyrs as Topcliffe. He doesn’t torture them, but Southwell makes no effort to rescue them and assures his followers their deaths are for the greater good. God’s good. Even when confronted with a man who wants his son to live, Southwell has only platitudes about the boy’s place at God’s side and how he will be saved because if he dies, God will welcome him.

Southwell also displays the same frustration and fury as Topcliffe. He rarely takes it out on others—except in one scene where he pushes Will—but he routinely hits furniture and walls when things don’t go his way. He is also manipulative and cruel, using their relationship to control Will and Alice. One minute, he calls Alice a whore; in the next, he offers her comfort as she grieves Will’s abusive words toward her. All to get them to join his cause. Southwell, then, for all his talk of religious freedom, equality and peace is an arrogant, harsh leader whose hands and conscious are no cleaner than Topcliffe’s.

Topcliffe is still the primary antagonist, cemented in the role through his cruelty, depravity and sexual predation, but Southwell is by no means depicted as a hero.

For other characters, the lack of morals is not as successful. Flaunting all social expectation of her, Alice returns her parents’ concerns with sarcasm and a total inability to understand the financial straits of the family and the theatre. This is not to say we’re not sympathetic, nor to say that those societal expectations are good, but her total disavowal with them come with serious consequences Alice just doesn’t seem to care about. Nothing—not her family, not her reputation, not others—is as important as being more than she was born to be.

Her behavior during the affair is also cruel and selfish. When Alice meets Anne and his children, she dissolves into tears about how his relationship with Anne is real while theirs isn’t. It’s a manipulative tactic, unintentional as it may be, because as much as she says to the contrary, Alice does want Will to pick between her and his family—and does so without being able to reciprocate. They agree to live out their married lives, enjoying an emotional affair, but Alice can’t, and won’t, go through with it.

And when Will ends things with her, cruelly and suddenly, Alice turns to Father Southwell. Her anger and hatred toward Will are genuine and justified—and I am so happy they don’t get back together—but her stubbornness when it comes to supporting the cause is foolhardy and clearly a way of both getting Will’s attention and getting back at Will’s cruelty. No matter how authentic her new faith is, there is no denying that Alice helps Father Southwell partly because Will will not. The deeper she gets in, the more Will clings to her and the more attention she earns from both him and Southwell. Even when confronted with the truth about Southwell’s loyalty to his followers, Alice persists with a determined singlemindedness that throws everything aside.

The worst offender, though, is Will. In some cases, his inability to stand his ground, pick sides, or be honest is understandable. He is a Catholic in a hostile Protestant city, connected to the most wanted Catholic in England. He has people he needs to, and wants to, to protect. In others instances, though, the inabilities leave Will spineless. There is, for example, nothing good about how Will starts or continues the affair with Alice (although to his credit, he’s at least up front with Alice about being married). Knowing what it will cost her, and knowing how little it will cost him, it’s incorrigible that Will continues the affair.

Should they be discovered, Will’s life wouldn’t be permanently damaged. He would probably be kicked out of the company; the Burbages would certainly be furious. He would probably be fined, ostracized for a time, and he would suffer consequences from the hidden Catholic population. Alice, however, would be ruined. Her marriage prospects decimated, her social standing destroyed, she would have nearly no future left to her. She would be an outcast. The fact that Will pursues her knowing this—and pursues her knowing this even after Alice tells him, in no uncertain terms, to leave her alone—is wrong. When Alice throws his desire to remain friends in his face—or when she hisses “you dare say that to me” when Will tells her not to be used by Southwell—he seems genuinely, stupidly, surprised. As if the fact that it wasn’t true and he said he was sorry should be enough to bring her back to him.

Moreover, Will never gives Alice the credit she deserves for launching his career: things like co-writing, creating clean copies, introducing him to standard performance practice, getting him out of the corners he boxed himself into. Will routinely tells her she’s brilliant. A genius. But he doesn’t do much else. Rather, he seems to expect this behavior from her as his creative and intellectual “equal.” And Alice obliges. To be fair, Alice could never be published or publicized; the fact that she is as close to the stage as she is, during a time when women did not perform on stage and associations with the stage and printing often quickly turned to accusations of prostitution, is unusual. But the theatre troupe knows her and her dedication to the theatre. They know she writes their copies. They know she works with Will, but Will never gives her credit around them. He never gives her, or anyone else, the proof they need to see that Alice could be more than she was born to be.

If This Shadow Has Offended, Think on This and All is Mended: Final Thoughts 

It’s a shame that most of the characters are unlikable in such drastic ways, except that it works for what Will is. Will isn’t a feel-good romcom; it’s a dark drama about exploitation and the consequences of selfishly pursing your dreams. Which is not to damn dream pursuit. But Will, like many of William Shakespeare’s dramatic works, takes what is on the surface a simple and uncomplicated “good” and reveals its messiness, its complications, its destructive tendencies.

Will gets his dream; the playgoers of London shout his name. But he pursues it selfishly, with little thought to his wife, his friends, his lover. In the end, he is left alone with a gilded reputation and little else.

That is perhaps the final saving grace for Will; it mimics what William Shakespeare’s plays are. A little anachronistic (there is no coast in Bohemia, a major geographic problem in the late romance The Winter’s Tale). A little overblown. A punk-show with depth and meaning applicable and accessible to all—when done right. Will combines humor and tension, lighthearted fun and terrible far-reaching consequences in, if not the best ways, at least ways Shakespeare probably would have inclined his head pleasantly toward.

It’s not fantastic, but it’s pretty good. Entertaining and thought-provoking. I turned the TV off unhappy but mostly satisfied, and with a great deal to talk about.

Deadline has come out saying there will be no second season, and honestly, I’m neither surprised nor upset. There’s not much they could do—they packed a lot in—that could span another ten-episode season. More importantly, though, a second season would just be unsatisfying. There’s not enough here to make a second season good, especially if it’s only going to continue with the consequences of Will’s selfishly pursed dream.

These aren’t the laurels one should rest upon.


Images provided courtesy of TNT Productions.

Trekker, Ravenclaw/Gryffindor cusp, gamer, cosplayer. Michelle is a writer out of North Carolina who enjoys playing video games and cosplaying with her wife, petting her cats, and waxing poetic about Shakespeare, Star Trek, and everything in between. With a Masters in English Literature, she brings a unique lens to modern media and its cultural relevancy and work.

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Television

Fall 2017’s TV Successes and Disappointments

Shahar

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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.

Successes

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’Will and Grace revival received a renewal before even airing its first new episode.

Disappointments

Everything else. No, really.

ABC

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.

CBS

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.

The CW

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.

Fox

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.)

NBC

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.

Looking Forward

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. ValorThe BraveSeal 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

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The Flash Shows How The Thinker Came To Be

Matthew

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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.

Recap

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

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Analysis

A Definitive Ranking Of Murder On The Orient Express Adaptations

Barbara

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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…


Images courtesy of Ardustry Home Entertainment,  ITV Studios, 20th Century Fox, Fuji Television and EMI Films

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