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Monday, September 21, 2020

Explained: The legacy of Hercule Poirot, back to life with Death on the Nile

Agatha Christie’s beloved detective Hercule Poirot returns to screen next month. How true is Kenneth Branagh’s screen version to Poirot’s image from the books, and how have other actors portrayed him over the years?

Written by Ektaa Malik | Updated: September 7, 2020 8:51:03 am
When we meet Poirot in his first novel, he is in his mid-50s and already has a reputation as a detective. (Twitter/dotnmovie)

Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective, will return next month in a new film adaptation of her novel ‘Death on the Nile’, whose recent trailer has drawn almost 2 million views on YouTube.

It is the second film in which Kenneth Branagh plays Poirot after ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ (2017). The star-studded cast also includes Gal Gadot, Letitia Wright, Russell Brand, Annette Bening, Rose Leslie and Ali Fazal.

A look at the legacy of Hercule Poirot, “the greatest detective in the world”:

The origins

Christie introduced Poirot, along with regular characters Captain Arthur Hastings (Poirot’s equivalent of Dr Watson) and Inspector Japp, in her debut novel, ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’, published in 1916 during the First World War. The quirky character of the moustachioed “little” detective, who is fond of hot chocolate, was rooted in Christie’s experiences as a nurse during the war, when she tended to Belgian soldiers and refugees.

Over a span of 55 years, Poirot featured in 33 novels, two plays written by Christie, and more than 50 short stories. The most popular novels featuring the detective are ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’, ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, and ‘Death on the Nile’.

Among Christie’s other creations who featured frequently in her stories, the most popular next to Poirot is Miss Marple, an elderly single woman, nosy by nature, who plays detective in rural murders.

The genius at work

When we meet Poirot in his first novel, he is in his mid-50s and already has a reputation as a detective. Poirot had served as the Chief of Police in Brussels and even had the patronage of the Belgium Royal family. He has made England his temporary home, having been ousted from Belgium during the war. His head is shaped like an egg, he wears a moustache and he has a ‘pink tipped nose’. He often addresses himself in the third person, and is very particular about his appearance, and likes squares rather than circles. His solves his cases using logical reasoning and old-school clue-based deduction. Poirot often uses the catchphrase “little grey cells” and “order and method”. Though he does not talk much, Poirot is skilled at getting people to confide in him. He saves up everything for the “big reveal” in the end, where he deconstructs the sequence of events —as to how a killer would have committed a murder, and wraps it all up with a flourish.

Poirot on film and stage

Poirot has been portrayed by many actors in the past. We first saw him on stage in Alibi, an adaptation of ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’, with Charles Laughton playing Poirot at West End in 1928. Later, Austin Trevor, Tony Randall, Peter Ustinov and Albert Finney played the Belgian detective on screen. Ustinov appeared in the 1978 version of ‘Death on the Nile’, and Finney in Sidney Lumet’s definitive version of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ (1974), winning an Academy Award nomination with his signature twirled-up black moustache.

Alfred Molina too has played Poirot, in a 2001 version of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, made for TV. David Suchet played Poirot for more than 24 years for the ITV series ‘Agatha Christie’s Poirot’, and American actor John Malkovich too played him for BBC’s ‘The ABC Murders’, a three-part series.

Book versus screen

There are many differences between the book Poirot and the one we see on screen. Though Christie depicts him as a “little Belgian detective” with an egg-shaped head, Finney and Molina can hardly be described as little or having a head that shape.

As for the moustache, Captain Hastings once described it as “very stiff and military. Even if everything on his face was covered, the tips of moustache and the pink-tipped nose would be visible”. While Finney and Suchet did wear the upward-curled moustache, Branagh and Molina have had their own versions. Branagh went outlandish in ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, sleeping with a special cover on his moustache, which ensured that the curls were not disturbed. Branagh’s Poirot is nowhere little or diminutive, instead towering at 5 foot 10. Additionally, Branagh’s character is rather imposing, and gets into life-threatening scrapes. Branagh continues this larger-than-life portrayal in the forthcoming Death on The Nile, where an heiress is murdered aboard a ship.

In popular culture

Poirot is not as common a household name as Sherlock Holmes, but does enjoy a huge fan base. Although Christie started writing Poirot in the very tradition of Doyle’s Holmes, he catered to a far more nuanced, literature-reading audience.

Poirot made his last appearance in ‘Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case’. Christie wrote it in the 1940s but released it only in 1975, for fear of fans’ reaction at his death. Poirot remains the only fictional character to receive an obituary mention on the front page of ‘The New York Times’, in 1975.

Although Christie declared that she was not very fond of Poirot, she let him carry on for six decades because of his appeal with readers. Miss Marple, too, enjoyed a lengthy run of 46 years, from 1930 to 1976.

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