Premise: (from IMDB) A lavish train ride unfolds into a stylish & suspenseful mystery. From the novel by Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express tells of thirteen stranded strangers & one man’s race to solve the puzzle before the murderer strikes again.
About: Today’s screenplay was written by a writer The Hollywood Reporter just called, “The most famous screenwriter you’ve never heard of.” Never has a statement been more true. Michael Green is on some kind of streak. Once known only for his involvement on the failed Green Lantern movie, Green has been unstoppable this year, scripting Logan, Alien: Covenant, American Gods, Blade Runner 2049, and now this. Murder on the Orient Express will star Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, and Josh Gad. It was directed by Kenneth Branaugh and comes out this November.
Writer: Michael Green (based on the novel by Agatha Christie)
Details: 133 pages (2/20/15 draft)
Murder on the Orient Express is an odd project that probably would’ve remained in obscurity had it not been for Josh Gad’s viral videos asking Daisly Ridley questions about Star Wars Episode 8. In all my years, I’ve never seen a movie find buzz quite like that before. Then there was that now infamous trailer that ended with a severely mismatched piece of music by the Imagine Dragons.
This may seem like nothing to the casual movie-goer. But knowing how hard it is to create buzz for a film if you’re not part of a Marvel or Star Wars universe, the fact that this obscure title can drum up any buzz at all is impressive. I mean, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone last year saying, “You know what they need to remake? Murder on the Orient Express!”
I personally consider this setup to be ingenious. A group of people not just stuck in a room, but stuck on a train in the middle of nowhere? A murder that must be figured out before they get to the next stop? It’s a tailor-made plot for a film. Let’s see how it turned out…
It’s the 1930s and Hercule Poirot is the most successful investigator in the world. And he’s not afraid to tell you that. But Poirot has been solving too many burglaries, too many murders. The dude just wants a vacation. So he hops on the Orient Express to travel to some faraway land and get some R&R.
Because Poirot is so famous, he’s able to get a first class cabin, and he’s joined there by a number of characters. There’s Bouc, an aging partier who works for the Orient Express. There’s Ratchett, a blustery American who buys and sell antiques.
There’s Caroline Hubbard, a 40-something 2-time divorcee who’s on the prowl for her third husband. There’s Mary Debenham, a young beauty who’s carrying on a secret romance with a black doctor, Arbuthnot. The two are traveling “separately.” There’s a Russian Princess, a Hungarian Count, a formally violent Cuban, and a slew of other characters, all on their way to different destinations.
On the first night, Ratchett arrives in Poirot’s cabin and tells him that the mob is after him and he wants to hire Poirot for protection. Poirot blows him off. Ratchett storms away. And the next morning the train comes to a sudden stop. Everyone’s informed that the train has hit some snow and that they will be stuck there for awhile.
Moments later, Ratchett is found dead in his cabin, stabbed 12 times. Bouc freaks out and says if they don’t figure out who killed him by the time they reach the next stop, the Slavs will use their own sense of justice, randomly pick a killer, and hang him right there in town. To avoid this fate, Poirot will have to come out of vacation and solve his toughest case yet. What he will find during this investigation… will shock everyone.
A couple of years ago I introduced a term on the site: burden of investment. I use this to describe the amount of work the reader must do to keep up with a script’s setup. When the writer inundates the reader with insane amounts of information in the first act, it causes a “reader short circuit,” effectively K.O.ing their mental facilities, throwing them into skim-mode for the rest of the story.
Murder on The Orient Express has a high burden of investment. There are a TON of characters to remember. And each character’s name is unfamiliar, making it even tougher to remember who’s who. All of them are going to unique destinations and have unique backstories and objectives. By the time you get to page 30 of this script, your brain is so scrambled, all you can think about is taking a nap.
Even if you get through this section, the script doesn’t get much better. Part of the problem with “Orient” is that the story is so old fashioned. Which I guess is the point. But you have to find a way to modernize SOME aspects of the story. Or else everything just feels… old.
The writing is stodgy and formal. The dialogue is as well. Here’s an early line from Poirot: “I am of an age and level of experience where I know what I like and what I do not. What I like pleases me enormously. What I do not I cannot abide. For example, the forced pleasantry before what is determined to be a business discussion.”
The whole script reads like this.
But it’s not just the writing. It’s the plotting. It’s very “And now I’ll go question this person, and now I’ll go question this person, and now I’ll go question this person.” It’s repetitive to a fault. Any format that repeats becomes predictable. And predictability is the predecessor to boredom. You need to shake things up. Outside of a fun chase sequence through the snow, “Orient” rarely shakes things up.
There were other dated choices as well. For example, the murdered character was an asshole. These days, when someone gets murdered in a movie, they’re almost universally a good person. Or else why would we care that their murder be avenged? I think back in the 30s, the mystery alone was enough for readers to be engaged. Today, we need to feel some connection to the victim to care.
Likewise, the construction of Poirot’s character is at odds with today’s heroes. The guy is the best in the business. He has no weaknesses. We know, from the get-go, that he’s going to solve the case. I think these days, the hero would be more flawed, more tortured, and probably not as good at his job. All of this would inject doubt into whether he would solve the case or not.
Doubt is drama’s best friend.
However, even if you were to ignore that modernist take, they still had something to work with. Poirot’s ego. Had they explored that as his flaw – his ego being his downfall – that could’ve been interesting. And yet, they decided to play the character straight up. He’s got an ego but who the cares? Not relevant to the story!
The one thing I liked about the script was that the murder on the train was tied to the murder of an innocent family that was set up as backstory at the beginning of the script. I never like something that’s straightforward (a man is dead, find his killer). By including that other murder, it added an extra layer to this murder, almost creating a secondary mystery. That was cool.
Unfortunately, the stodgy storytelling, the pragmatic pacing, and the flaw-less hero made for a less-than-stellar reading experience. All I wanted out of this movie was to have fun. This is a FUN premise. Instead, the whole thing felt like work.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Broad Stroke Writing vs. Specific Stroke Writing. When you come into a scene, you can give us the broad strokes (Joe stands by the window, staring out. Jane makes coffee). Or you can give us the specific strokes (Follow a deep long crack up a frost-bitten window, the sound of heavy breathing nearby. Moving back, a man stares out into the cold day). The former is if you want to jump right into plot. The latter is if you want to create a mood or set a tone for the scene. You will usually use broad strokes in screenwriting. But when you want us to feel a scene, move to specific. Here’s an early example of specific strokes in Orient Express…