There are certain combinations that never go wrong — peanut butter and Nutella, blue jeans and a white shirt, a F.R.I.E.N.D.S marathon with your best friend. For me growing up, it was summer vacation and heaps of Agatha Christie novels to read — one of my favourite things to do as a child. In my teens, I was so obsessed with Christie’s no-nonsense and utterly charming style of crime/mystery writing, that I read every book she ever wrote — all her Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple mysteries (obviously!), her Tommy and Tuppence Beresford novels, those with detectives Harley Quin and Parker Pyne among others, as well as the ridiculously beautiful and melancholic romance novels she wrote under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott. When I was in the UK studying for my Masters, watching Agatha Christie’s Poirot on ITV became a ritual during study breaks. David Suchet’s iconic portrayal of the famously egotistic egg-shaped Belgian detective in this long-running series (it aired for 25 years) has become so popular and recognisable over time, that most fans consider this series to be the quintessential adaptation of Christie’s work.
But it isn’t, not necessarily. When you’re the world’s biggest selling crime writer (overall, Christie’s works have sold two billion copies — only surpassed by the Bible and the works of William Shakespeare!), it’s only natural that most of your novels and short stories will be adapted for film or TV. With Kenneth Branagh’s version of Murder on the Orient Express set to hit theaters, let’s have a look at some of the best movie adaptations of Agatha Christie’s novels.
Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
Like the new version, this 1974 adaptation was also equally star-studded. Instead of Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz, think yesteryear superstars like Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, and Lauren Bacall. Albert Finney played Hercule Poirot, and the movie was directed by the legendary Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon). Not only was Lumet’s adaptation rich and faithful to the source work, but the movie was also a commercial success and very critically acclaimed (apparently, it was also one of the few adaptations of her work that Christie herself was very happy with).
It went on to receive six Academy Award nominations, including Best Actor (Finney), Best Supporting Actress (Bergman), and Best Adapted Screenplay. The luminous Ingrid Bergman won her third Oscar for her role of the Swedish missionary Greta Ohlsson.
Death on the Nile (1978)
This one often follows Orient Express, as proven by the recent news that Kenneth Branagh will reprise his role of Poirot in the upcoming remake of Death on the Nile, which will act as a “sequel” to this year’s Orient Express. For the 1978 movie, Albert Finney declined a repeat of his portrayal of Hercule Poirot; he was replaced by the (late) great Peter Ustinov, in the first of six films in which Ustinov played the Belgian grey-cells user. As if having a Russian aristocrat in the lead role wasn’t enough, this John Guillermin-directed movie’s cast also includes Bette Davis, Mia Farrow, Angela Lansbury, Maggie Smith, and David Niven!
Its lush and exotic Egyptian setting, a warmer and decidedly friendlier portrayal of the usually quite-snobbish Poirot, and decadent costume design (for which designer Anthony Powell won the Academy Award for Best Costume Design) meant that, while Death on the Nile wasn’t as critically or commercially successful as Murder on the Orient Express four years before, it is a visual and narrative treat, and still ranks as one of the best adaptations of Christie’s works.
Evil Under the Sun (1982)
Christie’s 1941 novel of the same name, on which this movie is based, had received more-than-widespread praise from critics when it first released — Maurice Richardson’s review in The Observer, in 1941, said that it was the “best Agatha Christie since Ten Little Indians – and one can’t say much more than that – Evil Under the Sun has luxury summer hotel, closed-circle setting, Poirot in white trousers. Victim: redhead actress man-mad. Smashing solution, after clouds of dust thrown in your eyes, ought to catch you right out. Light as a soufflé.”
Keeping the tone, look, and feel of the movie as light as the book, while still maintaining the profound meaning of the title (it refers to Ecclesiastes 6:1, which reads, “There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy upon humankind.”) would have been a tough ask for most, but director Guy Hamilton ensured that Peter Ustinov’s second time as Hercule Poirot was as splendid and enjoyable as his first. Maggie Smith is deliciously wicked as always, and Diana Rigg was perfectly cast as the glamourous victim. While this movie didn’t win any Academy Awards, Cole Porter’s thoroughly unsettling background score is worthy of mention.
Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
This movie, based on Christie’s play of the same name (which, in turn, was adapted from her short story) has a rating of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. I’m not saying that’s reason enough to watch it, but if you’re the kind of person who doubts crowdsourced reviews, then get this – the great Billy Wilder (The Apartment, Some Like It Hot, The Seven Year Itch) directed this thrilling noir-esque courtroom drama about a barrister (the brilliant Charles Laughton) who takes on a murder case to defend an American war veteran (Tyrone Power) who’s been accused of murdering an old, wealthy female acquaintance who’d become enamoured by him and had made him the main beneficiary of her will. All of this, despite the objections of his nurse (played by Elsa Lanchester), who agrees with his doctor that the barrister shouldn’t take on any criminal cases, for the good of his own health. The inimitable Marlene Dietrich is the titular “witness for the prosecution” and the movie boasts one of the best plot twists in cinematic history, like, ever!
Unsurprisingly, Witness for the Prosecution received six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Supporting Actress. That 100 percent rating is really justified!
And Then There Were None (1945)
Possibly the most famous of Agatha Christie’s novels, And Then There Were None (originally appallingly titled – cue wince – Ten Little Niggers) has been adapted a number of times, with slight variations to its characters and the setting/location, including a Hindi movie adaptation (1965’s Gumnaam) and the most recent one (2015’s TV movie of the same name, starring Game of Thrones’ Charles Dance). But none of the movie or television versions do this brilliant novel as much justice as the 1945 movie of the same name, directed by René Clair and starring Barry Fitzgerald.
This one is classic Christie — a chilling tale of ten strangers invited to a remote and isolated island by a somewhat-mysterious host, and one by one they all start vanishing dying. Dun dun dun! Black and white movies add a tinge of atmospheric tension and romance to most movies, and even though director Clair adds a touch of humour and absurdity to the almost-unbelievable events that transpire, there’s still a level of suspense to this one that makes it a true delight for Christie fans and a must-watch for film lovers. The tension is real, the paranoia hyper-real, and the thrill of watching And Then There Were None is incomparable. Even when you know who the killer is!