It's been a very slow month in terms of my reading/watching habits, mainly because I've just finished three intense weeks of job training. But I got through intact, and am looking forward to establishing a routine that'll allow me enough time for my usual pop-culture intake. Until then, it's slim pickings: a couple of books, a couple of movies, and no television shows (save American Gods, which I've written about separately).
I did however manage to revisit three versions of Murder on the Orient Express: the original novel, the 1974 film and the ITV adaptation. As you've probably guessed, it was indeed brought on by the trailer for Kenneth Branagh's take on the famous mystery, out this November. Be warned, I may talk obliquely about the solution under the cut.
(And yes, my Orphan Black review is coming).
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat
I actually went to see this last month, but forgot to put it on May's log. Andrew Lloyd Webber gets a lot of flak from serious theatre-goers, but you can't deny he knows how to write a catchy tune. Combine that with lyrics by Tim Rice and you get a musical that's always worth seeing whenever it rolls into town.
In this case however, I was a little spoiled by my last experience with the show, which was lavish and extravagant and hilarious. "Canaan Days" for example was accompanied by footage of the cast frolicking in the Botanical Gardens, presented onstage as Jacob's recollections of his missing son. Or when the brothers sang: "turned a shade of green" and the lighting changed for a split-second to literally convey these lyrics. Or the ingenious camel costumes, which completely stole the show.
By comparison, this take on the material was a little prosaic. The singing was strong, the dancing was energetic, but some of the creative decisions were a little baffling: by this point the depiction of Pharaoh as Elvis is inevitable, but why on earth was the Ishmaelite in a Donald Trump mask? Making something topical doesn't automatically make it funny or relevant.
Still, the tickets were free and the night out was fun.
Disney Princess: Comic Strips Collection by Amy Mebberson
If you follow me on Tumblr you'll know that I love Pocket Princesses by Amy Mebberson, a series of comics that places the assorted Disney Princesses in various comedic situations. I knew it was always Mebberson's dream to work in an official capacity for Disney, and it appears she got her wish! Disney Princess Comics Strips features her artwork, which renders the familiar characters with their original designs, but also in Mebberson's distinct style. They're diminutive, with slightly oversized heads and big eyes – yet despite this, they're adorable.
The comic strips provide humorous glimpses of the princesses' lives at any point of their stories: for instance, Rapunzel can appear in her tower, all her golden hair still intact, or at her parents' castle with Eugene, her brown hair in a bob. Ariel is still a mermaid, and Belle interacts with the Beast (still in beastly form, obviously).
But there's an interesting feature I only found out about recently: due to a strange bugbear of Roy Disney's, the Princesses in the line-up are never allowed to interact with each other on any official merchandise. Even when they're depicted standing in a row, you'll notice that they never make eye contact with each other. Of course, that's not a problem in Mebberson's Pocket Princesses series (considering it's fan art) but it seems she was under that mandate for these comic strips: all the featured princesses interact only with other characters from their own movies.
It's a shame, as seeing the disparate princesses hanging out together in Pocket Princesses is one of its biggest appeals, though it doesn't detract too much from this volume. In any case, this was my reward to myself for getting my new job, and it was nice to come home to something totally light and fluffy after training.
A Storm of Swords Part I: Steel and Snow by George R.R. Martin
Again, this was a book I read through last month but forgot to add to the log! You probably know about my strange relationship with Game of Thrones by now: when it comes to the books I was late jumping on the bandwagon, and was never hugely interested in the show thanks to all the sexual violence (we all have different tolerance levels, mine is low when it comes to this sort of thing).
And yet I'm fascinated by the reactions to the ongoing story, lurking on the message boards after each new episode. Once the show overtook Martin's written words I started watching episodes in their entirety (not just YouTube clips) and finally started on the novels themselves. As it happens, my copy of A Storm of Swords is divided into two separate books, the first being Steel and Snow.
It would take too long to provide any sort of synopsis or summary, so for the sake of brevity I'll simply state what I liked most about this particular volume: firstly, the emphasis on religion and how it compels characters to act in certain ways – specifically the worship of R'hllor. I've always been intrigued by the red priests and priestesses in the show, and here their growing influence across the Seven Kingdoms is fascinating.
It's mainly through Melisandre and the Brotherhood Without Banners, but in both cases (however you feel about the individuals involved) there's obviously real supernatural power at work. And there's nothing more terrifying than religious fanatics who can back up their claims with incontrovertible proof of their belief system. That said, there's every chance R'hllor's followers are simply misinterpreting their own powers and attributing it to a god that doesn't exist.
Secondly, who isn't drawn in to the mystery of Rhaegar and Lyanna? The way Martin presents their story, through rumour and gossip and reconstituted stories, is a perfect example of "show don't tell" – assembling all the pieces but refraining from putting it in any clear context. It's best seen when Meera and Jojen tell Bran the story of the Knight of the Laughing Tree, which (on reading between the lines) could easily be the start of Rhaegar and Lyanna's fateful love story, even if the narrative sidesteps this conclusion entirely.
More than anything, it's the scope and scale of Martin's magnum opus that makes it so awe-inspiring. However you may feel about the violence, the grey morality, the endless waiting between publications, it's extraordinary to consider that all this world-building came from the imagination of just one man.
The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
I was a little bemused on finishing this novella, as knowing it had been adapted into a stage play and a film and was generally considered one of the classics of the genre, it ended up being ... a pretty standard reading experience. That's not to say I didn't like it, but given it wasn't written back in the Victorian Era (back when ghost story tropes were still fresh) and was instead first published in 1983, I have to admit being a little confused as to why it's so popular.
Arthur Kipps is an ambitious young lawyer, sent to attend the funeral of Mrs Alice Drablow and collect any relevant documents from her home of Eel Marsh House, a place accessible only by a causeway when the tides are low. He's eager enough to see the job done, though is a little unnerved by the reactions those in the village once they learn where he's headed.
To say anymore would be redundant. It's a ghost story: you know exactly where this is heading. Indeed, as evocative as the descriptions and atmosphere are, there's little in the way of surprise when it comes to the motivations of the titular woman in black that Arthur first glimpses at the funeral.
I read one review of the Daniel Radcliffe movie that speculated the story is so traditional that its very clichés have become fresh. Maybe there's some truth to that, but I have to say my reaction to the final denouement was a nonchalant: "huh."
The Silver Hawk by Beaulah Pragg
This is a self-published novel written by one of my library co-workers, so unless you live in New Zealand, you may find it difficult (or impossible) to get hold of it. It's an interesting blend of fantasy and science-fiction, which reminded me of the kiwi-made television serials I used to watch as a kid.
It involves a pair of long-lived but still teenaged aliens monitoring a more primitive planet and its inhabitants over the course of several decades. As one becomes more invested in their wellbeing, the other attempts to remain professionally detached – and fails. Their project is treated as a mix between a serious science experiment and a reality TV show, with the two increasingly breaking the "no intervention" rule as the story progresses.
On the planet there's absolutely no idea of the orbital surveillance taking place; instead the story feels more like a traditional fantasy story, with plenty of courtly intrigue and espionage. There's some fun gender-flipping to enjoy considering societies are matriarchal in nature, and a number of brother/sister relationships take a more central role than any romances.
And the best part about knowing the author is that I can needle her in person for the next book!
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
With the release of the trailer for Kenneth Branagh's Murder on the Orient Express (in theatres this November) I was struck by a sudden urge to re-read the original novel. It's come to my attention only fairly recently that the mystery was partly based on the real life kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh in the 1930s, baby son of the famous aviator of the same name. I vaguely remember reading about the case in an "unsolved mysteries" anthology by Terry Deary, but had never before connected it to Murder on the Orient Express.
This was not the only instance in which Christie based her novels on true events (see also: The Mirror Cracked from Side to Side), though much like the movie adaptation of Emma Donoghue's Room, which I watched last month, I always feel slightly uneasy at entertainment being derived from other people's suffering. In any case, truth is certainly stranger than fiction if you end up reading the details of the Lindbergh case.
Given this is Christie's most famous novel, you probably know the setup: a diverse group of travellers board the Orient Express – among them, the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. After a restless night of strange noises and disturbances, Poirot wakes to learn that one of his fellow passengers has been murdered in the night: a man travelling under a false alias that is soon identified as a violent American gangster, guilty of a child's murder.
Such a crime provides a strong motive for practically anyone, though Poirot struggles through a morass of confusing and contradictory clues, as well as twelve suspects that seem utterly unconnected to the case. But he's sure one of them must be guilty – after all, the train has been halted by heavy snow, and there's seemingly no way an outside perpetrator could have entered or exited the carriage without detection...
There's no doubt Christie was a master plotter, though in this case it's not entirely a good thing. She gives the readers exactly what they need to know and nothing more, even though the assembled cast of suspects are so fascinating they could have used some extra time and space to really get fleshed out.
Likewise, some of the "twists" have dated: it probably would have struck readers at the time of publication that the train's occupants were such an eclectic group of international travellers, but these days? No big deal. Ditto the word association involving "Debenham and Freebody", a department store that doesn't operate under that name anymore.
Other clues and revelations feel a little inelegant: the grease smudge on Elena's passport and the watery eyes of Foscarelli when he's dazzled by the snow are reinterpreted by Poirot to such a wild extent that he comes across more as a psychic than a detective. At one point he even deduces a suspect worked as a cook simply because "he has a nose for fine dining". C'mon, that's just silly.
And despite watching two films that depict the event on-screen, I still have no idea how Poirot managed to use hat boxes to reconstruct a burnt letter.
So here's my unpopular opinion: as much as I enjoy reading Murder on the Orient Express, I don't think it's Christie's best work. I think it's famous for its unique solution and its eerie atmosphere rather than its craftsmanship, which is ultimately a bunch of red herrings being flung left, right and centre.
For instance, I recall being very disappointed after my first read at the way the woman in the scarlet kimono was handled. We never learn who she was or who put the garment on Poirot's luggage – it's just a false lead designed to confuse him. That said, I may have been spoiled as to the novel's true effect by how I first came about it: watching the 1974 film...
Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
I might always regret watching this film before reading the novel, as it also happened to be my very first experience with a Christie mystery. At the time I didn't give the film my full attention, and so wasn't trying to figure out the solution. As such, it didn't come as a marvellous shock, but something that just happened.
So I may have ruined my own enjoyment of the story, not to mention a film that's considered the best Christie adaptation of all time. It's only recently that I've been able to appreciate it properly, especially since this movie is like looking into a strange time capsule. Ingrid Bergman is old. Vanessa Redgrave is young. Sean Connery turns up. There's even Anthony Perkins in one of the few roles he got after being typecast as Norman Bates (and there's what can only be a Casting Gag when his character's relationship with his mother is questioned).
But David Suchet is sadly missed. Here Albert Finney plays Poirot almost as a grotesque, not only with his oily hair and moustache, but his awkward gesticulations and body distortions. It's rather uncomfortable to watch him, though he does give the character something of an arc when Poirot goes from lethargic and glum to animated and gleeful once the mystery kicks off.
All the outrageous accents sometimes make it difficult to understand what's being said, but some of the performances are just exquisite. Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar for her take on the slow, overly religious Greta Ohlsson, and there's nothing more delightful than the scene in which Poirot interrogates Lauren Bacall's Mrs Hubbard. He asks her to keep her answers brief and to the point, and goes on to interrupt each one of her immediate digressions in quick succession.
There are some things omitted (the story of the man with the womanly voice), some things added (Arbuthnot provides a reason behind Mary's suspicious words overheard by Poirot at the beginning of the novel) and some things changed (Ratchett is not Daisy's killer, but the man who organized her kidnapping) but best of all is the dramatization of the murder itself: it's a chilling scene that was naturally kept "off-screen" in the book itself, but plays out here with incredible power.
There's also a wonderfully sinister musical refrain that's used to great effect, particularly in the opening sequence. With a montage of silent clips and newspaper front-pages, the entire saga of Daisy's kidnapping is played out, concluding in a headline that makes me jump every time it's abruptly zoomed in on. The whole thing is a masterclass of conveying exposition and background, and the horror of what it communicates stays with you to an extent that even the novel wasn't able to capture.
Murder on the Orient Express (2010)
In the shadow of the 1974 film, it's understandable that ITV would want to do something a bit different with their take on the novel, though some creative decisions are a little questionable.
They lean heavily on the themes of justice and execution, to the point where Poirot stands as an uncompromising symbol of the law, not only impassive in two instances of merciless justice (he's impassive – even defensive – when a young officer shoots himself out of guilt and a married woman is stoned to death for falling pregnant outside wedlock) but morally torn when it comes to whether he should turn in Ratchett's killers to the police (in the novel he had no such crisis of faith).
It's not a bad idea, especially when Mary Debenham's convictions are also put under scrutiny, but it all comes across a little heavy-handedly. The deaths of the married woman and the young officer in the prologue not only take up screen-time that could have been better spend on the actual train, but aren't really analogous to Ratchett's circumstances. As the novel is careful to point out, Ratchett not only escaped justice in the case of Daisy's murder, but had targeted other children both before and after her death. The people we see executed in the opening minutes of this version are designed to act as comparisons to Ratchett, yet are entirely sympathetic.
But I'm not that bothered by the changes, and it does provide an interesting spin on Poirot's characterization. I liked the conceit of the train getting colder and darker as the investigation wears on, with the denouement taking place in a candlelit carriage, and there are some nice visual hints dropped throughout: MacQueen announces to the other passengers that Poirot has identified Cassetti – clearly he's taking the opportunity to tip off his cohorts. There's another moment where Arbuthnot seems on the verge of losing his temper, and one of the other passengers is visibly alarmed, presumably worried less about violence as what might be said during an unrestrained outburst. Finally, a near-hysterical woman reaches out to Mary for comfort, despite them seemingly not knowing each other.
But the whole thing is clearly restrained by time limits and a smaller budget: though they reinstate the missing (and non-existent) Mr Harris, they have to drop the woman in the red kimono and combine Doctor Constantine with Cyrus Hardman.
Watching this for the first time since it was released in 2010, I was astonished by how many familiar faces were involved, and how many have since become a lot more famous. Jessica Chastain is the obvious standout (you'd be surprised how many Hollywood stars cut their teeth on a Poirot episode: Michael Fassbender and Emily Blunt among them) as well as Joseph Mawle, Hugh Bonneville, Barbara Hershey and Brian Smith (Will from Sense8!) Retroactive Recognition is a heck of a thing since I didn't register any of them the first time I watched.