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Every once in a while, I get fascinated by things that make no sense for me to be fascinated with.  It’s as if my mind is running around loose and suddenly hits a groove.

Some of these things are completely irrelevant to anything–this term, for instance, I seem incapable of getting a blog post written why I’m having an easy day, but get right to it on days that I know are going to end up being miserable.

Some of these things matter, but in ways I haven’t worked out yet. 

The latest one of this second set has to do with the fact that I was able, over the week-end, to see two of the David Suchet Hercule Poirot mysteries that I hadn’t had a chance to see before.

And, speaking of obsessions–if somebody could explain the principle by which the PBS stations put their stuff up Free on Demand, I’d appreciate it.  Right now I have to check back every day to catch them making a Lewis or a Poirot available, and then I have to watch it almost immediately, because I never know how long it’s going to last.

It’s not the scheduling that got to me this time, though.  It’s the way the two stories were played out, and especially Murder on the Orient Express.  And the specific thing about the way they played out that bothered me was all about religion.

It’s not that Christie, in the books, presented Poirot as an atheist, or that she ignored his religion altogether.  We are told on several occasions in different books that he is a Catholic, and in Third Girl we even see him going to church on Sunday.  It’s an Anglican church, in a country where there are plenty of Catholic churches for him to attend, and a Catholic of that era probably would not have done that except for a wedding or a funeral.

But Poirot goes, and in fact religious conviction–the sanctity and moral equality of each individual human life–makes a difference in the way that story ends.

In the two movies I saw, however–the other was Appointment with Death–we are shown Poirot praying the rosary, and being very fervent and dedicated about it.  In other words, the Catholicness of his religion is on display–a Catholicness I’m sure Christie never actually injected into her character.

What’s more, in the production of Orient Express, this Catholicness is made explicit as the grounds for Poirots eventual decision not to turn in the culprits to the police.

Orient Express is a famous book, and I tend to think that everybody must have read it.  If you have, what follows will make perfect sense.  If you haven’t, go read it.  It’s a landmark in mystery writing.

I’ll try to keep the spoilers to a minimum.  But I’m only going to try.  There are things that bug me here.

The BBC/Masterpiece Mystery production opens with the scene that does in fact open the novel–Poirot on board a ferry in Istanbul, on  his way to the train station after he has settled an issue for the British garrison in the area.

In the book and in the original movie, however, this scene is played light.  In fact, it’s largely played for laughs. 

In the BBC production, however, this scene has become tense.  The solution to the garrison’s mystery has resulted in the suicide of one of its officers, and the officer accompanying Poirot to the train is distraught about it.  This was just one man.  He was a good man.  He had made one mistake.  By being so relentlessly on the side of law and justice, Poirot has created a tragedy.

Poirot’s attitude is that the tragedy was created by the officer himself, that he knew the rules before he broke them, and that justice must be upheld if we are not all to be savages.

The second scene in this movie is the scene at the train, where Poirot is being shoehorned into an already booked Orient Express.

It’s been years since I read the book, but I admit that I don’t remember the events that come next as having been in it at all, and I know they weren’t in the movie with Albert Finney.

In the BBC production, what happens is that a woman is chased through the streets near the train by a crowd intent on stoning her to death for adultery.  The crowd reaches her and kills her.

One of the women who will be a passenger on the Orient Express is horrified.  This should not have been allowed.  Poirot, however, is adamant.  The woman knew the rules of her culture before she broke them.  She has nobody to blame but herself.  It’s important that justice be done–if it isn’t, we are savages–and that sentimentality not be indulged.

Let me inject here that this particular scene made me truly exasperated.  I know it’s become practically policy for people not to know their own history, but the simple fact of the matter is that we’re looking at an England still largely of the Empire, and the England of the Empire would not have reacted to that stoning as that woman passenger did.

The England of the Empire was a lot of things, good and bad, but what it was not was either sentimental or culturally relativist.  This is the same society, after all, which responded to an Indian potentate’s claim that it was “their custom” to burn widows in suttee by saying that they could follow that custom as long as they understood that the British would follow theirs, by taking the people who burned the widow and hanging them by the neck until dead.

The British have a valid response to the stoning incident, and that is that it is not in fact justice.  For Christie–who was very definitely a Brit of the late Empire–the response to the stoning would be that justice was not done, for justice to have been done the stoning would have to be stopped.

In other words, justice is not a matter of rigidly following the rules, without regard to what the rules are.

Poirot, of course, is not supposed to be British, but Belgian.  That may provide some cover for portraying him as somebody who believes that “rules are rules” no matter what the rules are–the worst kind of relativist, if you ask me. 

But this was not Christie’s vision of the man.  In the books, he has a very British sense of justice indeed, and a very British sense of the moral worth of every human being, too.

All of this harping on Poirot’s supposed blind allegiance to rules-because-they-are-rules is meant to set up the drama of the ending, in which Poirot allows the killers to go free out of allegiance to a higher sense of justice.

And that this is what Christie intended–that the killers should not pay for their crime because in a higher sense of justice they were not wrong–would be difficult to deny.  That is, after all, the way the book ends. 

It has never been a satisfying book for me, because of that.  The issue, presented as Christie presents it, is straightforward enough, and I would agree in the hypothetical that the ending is just.  Even if we stress the moral worth of every human person–which Christie does, on many occasions–we have a situation where the murdered man himself committed a foul and inexcusable crime for which he has made himself beyond punishment. 

Still, it bothers me, at least in part because the back of my head says that real people in the real world are not avenging angels with pure motives, that the likelihood is that at least one of these killers would be, in fact, a killer, and not just an instrument of justice.

That said, the BBC production adds a number of scenes I really do not remember from the book, scenes of Poirot praying the rosary.  He prays before the murder, after the murder, and while considering the request of everybody on the train that he shield the murderers from the Bulgarian police to allow them to go free.

He also gives endless impassioned speeches against such an act and in favor of turning the killers over to the police.  All these speeches are about the necessity of following the rules absolutely, and about how we will all become savages if we do not.

It’s hard to piece out some of the problems here.  Poirot’s religion is not portrayed as superstitious or corrupt, nor as stupid and credulous.  It’s not that.

What it may be is, I think, that in trying to come down hard on the side of  Poirot’s eventual act of mercy, this production has managed to highlight everything that is wrong with it. 

In the book–and in the Albert Finney movie–letting the killers get away with it is so much a matter of convention, and causes so little soul searching on the part of Poirot or anybody else, that it sort of glides by without the reader/viewer ever thinking about it. 

In the BBC production, an enormous about of time and energy is devoted to making the reader/viewer think about it, and the more I thought about it the more wrong it all seemed. 

I think Christie misread her own character when she had him make that decision in the first place, because it undermines almost everything else he stands for throughout the series.

I think the BBC misread religion–well, okay, the BBC misreading religion is not exactly a shock–by making it seem as if resort to God would lead to this particular decision.

After all, what happens on the Orient express is not, in any way, analogous to what happened in the street when the woman was stoned.  The stoning of the woman was itself an unjust act–and the killing of the victim on the Orient Express is equally unjust, while the freeing of his murderers is more so.


That was something.

I am going to try to look through the Chambers today to make sure I remembered his thing about the last lines of Dante and Marx–somehow, given how vilified Chambers was at the time, my head says that if he’d made that kind of mistake I’d have heard about it.

But for the moment, teach and a launching of myself  into the world.

Written by janeh

September 28th, 2010 at 6:07 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Rosary'

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  1. SPOILER NOTICE! I can’t avoid them.

    I don’t think I can have seen that movie – I’ve certainly read the book, and remember it well, and Poirot is never described as a devout Catholic, much less as one who explicitly uses his religion in his approach to solving crime. I suppose you might make an argument that he does so automatically – after all, anyone who practices a religion seriously tends to at least try to apply its teachings to all aspects of his or her life – but I always took Poirot’s foreign-ness and presumed Catholicism as colour added to his character, and not as strong motivations for his actions. If anything, his foreign origin was of more importance than his religion, as his obvious foreign origin tended to lead a certain kind of English character to underestimate him.

    And in any case, I can’t imagine any version of Catholicism (possibly barring the most extreme and unofficial version involving liberation theology and sometimes involvement in armed rebellion) that would claim that allowing an assortment of victims to murder in cold blood, not self-defense, their enemy was in any way morally acceptable. Understandable, yes, of course. Any religion understands the nastier aspects of humanity such as the desire for vengeance. They have to know their enemy.

    An educated Catholic would know that, especially one of Poirot’s era. Catholics might support a legal execution, following a trial. They might believe that killing in self-defense (including in a just war) was morally acceptable. But the events in that novel? No way.

    Based on your description, by adding in Catholicism, I suspect BBC was simply trying to make the story newer and more contemporary, just as someone or other did by adding same-sex relationships to several of the recent Miss Marple movies. And the idea that religion both makes people accept injustice and cruelty (as in the suicide and the stoning) and helps them carry them out (as allowing the murder without trial of the villain to go unpunished) is a very contemporary one. Of course, it is also a very irrational one, particularly when you put both effects into play in the same character in the same movie.

    Really, when people make movies based on classic stories, they shouldn’t muck around with important elements of the plot and characterization.


    28 Sep 10 at 6:30 am

  2. I also object to rewriting classics. A film adaptation should try in such cases to be as close to the novel as the different media and the passage of time will allow.

    By this I mean I can understand dropping subplots and minor characters because under the usual rule of “one page of novel equals one minute of film” there just isn’t TIME. I do understand adding clarifications made necessary by the passage of years. My favorite version of PERSUASION (Amanda Root & Ciaran Hinds) has to insert about two minutes of film to tell the audience things which Austen’s contemporaries didn’t need to be told. But to bring in new themes and rework established characters–no. Let the scriptwriter sell his or her own story instead.

    Do try to look up Randall Garrett’s “Lord Darcy” stories relative to the Orient Express. Garrett commonly pirated characters, but one time and one time only he “did” someone else’s mystery story, and that was a version of “Orient Express.” Garrett was an ordained priest late in his life–Orthodox Church of America, if I remember correctly–so as with Sayers, the ethics of the situation are never forgotten.

    By the way, how was Poirot so sure they’d got the right man? THAT evidence wouldn’t hang a dog.


    28 Sep 10 at 4:30 pm

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