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A Note from an Agatha Christie Purist

25th May 2017

Agatha Christie expert, Chris Chan, shares his views on Hercule Poirot being portrayed by different actors, and addresses Kenneth Branagh’s interpretation of Poirot’s moustache.

"I’ve been commenting on the Agatha Christie website for eleven years now, and over that time I’ve made my position as a Christie purist very clear, which is why I’ve had my issues with some of the adaptations of her work. I understand that a story has to undergo a substantial change as it goes from page to screen, and that alterations are necessary. Christie herself remarked on the need for “simplification.” I’ve been among the first to complain when episodes of Poirot or Marple have added original subplots, completely reinvented characters, and, most galling of all, changed the identity of the murderer. I hate it when they do that. In contrast, nothing delights me more than to see adaptations of Christie done right.

With the latest screen adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express coming out in less than six months, and the promotional pictures recently released, fans have been buzzing about the upcoming movie. I am really hoping for the best, and as part of my interactions with other Christie fans worldwide, I’ve been gauging the reactions to what’s been released about the movie so far, and the responses have been decidedly mixed. One of the most common responses I’ve seen is that some fans are refusing to watch the new movie because they feel like David Suchet can be the one and only definitive Poirot. While I can understand this perspective, I can’t concur in it.

My thoughts on this matter can be reflected in the most recent edition of the crime magazine The Strand featured an interview with editor Andrew F. Gulli and Stephen Moffat, co-creator of Sherlock. In the interview, the two of them discussed how fans respond when a new actor takes on the role of an iconic character, and note how Jeremy Brett had to find a new approach to the portrayal of Sherlock Holmes after Basil Rathbone’s many performances had captured the public imagination.

I want to make it clear that I love David Suchet’s performance as Poirot. He is brilliant in every respect, and it is to the everlasting shame of the major acting awards that they never honored him with trophies for his work (they had a quarter-century to do so, and blew it). Of all the actors who have played Poirot on screen, Suchet is far and away my favorite. He’s definitely earned the lasting respect of Agatha Christie fans everywhere. Nothing can ever take away his crowning achievement.

Suchet is unequivocally excellent as Poirot. But the role of Poirot is too big, too iconic, and too immortal to be owned by a single actor. As the interview between Moffat and Gulli illustrates, many terrific actors, such as Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Downey Jr., Sir Ian McKellen, Nicholas Rowe, Rupert Everett, Christopher Lee, Brian Bedford, Michael Caine, Peter Cushing, Ian Richardson, Nicol Williamson, Tom Baker, Frank Langella, Christopher Plummer, Roger Moore, John Cleese, and Peter O’Toole have taken on the role of Sherlock Holmes. Some were more successful than others, but all of them brought their own approach to the character. Some stressed Holmes as a thinking machine, others depicted him more as a man of action, while others emphasized his drug addiction. Some gave him romantic interests, others left him immune to love. Holmes has been portrayed as warm and friendly, as well as cold and calculating. He’s been diagnosed with manic depression, sociopathy, and Asperger’s syndrome. And aside from the parodies, all of these performances have been based on different references, incidents, and interpretations on the original Sherlockian Canon.

There’s a reason why plays are revived all the time– every actor wants to take a classic role and make it his own. William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Tennessee Williams’ Pollitt and Wingfield families, Eugene O’Neill’s Tyrone family, Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman and Eddie Carbone, and Edward Albee’s George and Martha have received so many Broadway revivals over the years because talented actors want to inhabit classic characters, and audience want to see those characters live.

I think that Poirot is one of those immortal characters that any actor worth his salt would want to play. There are reasons why actors dream of playing James Bond or The Doctor or Superman or Batman. For many actors, playing the greatest detective in the world would be a career highlight, and while I do not want Poirot to ever be served poorly on-screen, I can understand why a skilled actor like Kenneth Branagh would want to pick up the role. Christie’s work has been delighting readers for nearly a hundred years, and why shouldn’t some incredible actors want to play her characters over the course of the twenty-first century?

The next big source of controversy is…the moustache. If you haven’t seen the promotional pictures yet, search for them, and then take a glance at the images of Branagh in character. For some reason, they’ve decided not to make his hair black. However, you might be excused for not noticing the lighter hair because of the massive facial hair directly beneath his nose. There’s even a little soul patch below the lower lip. It’s definitely memorable. It’s provoked a wide array of responses on fans from social media, ranging the gamut of opinions.

Then I thought for a minute about the canonical descriptions of Poirot’s moustache. It’s been described by Christie herself as “ridiculous” and “enormous” on multiple occasions. David Suchet’s moustache grew smaller as the series progressed, and it was always neat and elegant, and I couldn’t see anybody ever describe it as “ridiculous.” It’s also been described as “military” several times. When I think “military” from the early 20th century I think of some small pencil moustache, like that of Captain Renault in Casablanca. Then I did a Google Image search for “Belgian Military Moustaches.” The results, and the moustaches, were amazing. Look at Franz Ferdinand, Earl Kitchener, General Leman, and countless other military men from that time, especially some of the Belgians. Their moustaches are the stuff of legend. (If you want to see some really impressive soup strainers, take a look at “Civil War Moustaches.”) Interestingly, moustaches were mandatory for British WWI officers.

I feel a bit like the character Dwight Schrute in the U.S. version of the TV show The Office when asked why he reenacted a famous scene from The Silence of the Lambs with a CPR dummy. When challenged, Dwight calmly replies, “I didn’t think it was very realistic in the movie… and it turns out, it’s pretty realistic.” Turns out, Branagh’s moustache is pretty realistic for a Belgian military-style moustache from that time. Moustaches were a symbol of power and virility during WWI, the bigger and more elaborate the moustache, the better. Many Belgians grew big moustaches in honor of the mustachioed King Albert I of Belgium. Interestingly, the Belgian army chaplains largely went without moustaches, since elaborate facial hair required great grooming and maintenance, and was thought too narcissistic for the clergy. (For more information on Belgian WWI moustaches, click here).

There’s always reason to be concerned about how the movies will treat a beloved book, but right now, I’m excited to see more."
–Chris Chan

Discover all about the new film adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express here.