Reality Is Overrated

At a recent writers’ conference, I got cornered by a Famous Novelist (let’s call him FN1). We were waiting together for an elevator when he turned to me and said, “I read your latest novel and really enjoyed it.”

I was dumbfounded. We had been on a panel together a couple of years ago, so I knew he knew who I was, but the idea that someone I had read and admired for years had actually read and enjoyed my own work was a lot to take in.

Before I could manage to murmur a humble “thank you,” FN1 went on, his eyes alight with curiosity. “So,” he said, “I figured that the writer in the book is [insert Famous Novelist 2’s name here], but who’s the actor?”

I felt my eyes widening, my stomach clenching. “Um, no,” I stammered, “it’s not FN2. It’s a composite. They’re all composites.”

He scoffed with a jovially haughty wave of the hand and got into the elevator. Clearly he wanted dirt, and I was no longer any fun.

The title character of my novel, Channeling Morgan—the actor FN1 referred to—is a closeted movie star. Early on in the book, he hires the main character, Derick, to ghostwrite his autobiography. But Derick’s real ambition is to be a novelist—and his role model, Graham Whitcomb, is the famous writer in question. That is, the famous writer in the book, not to be confused with FN2.

I had indeed met FN2 (though how FN1 knew that, I have no idea). So there are pieces of Graham Whitcomb that were informed by him—the charm that mesmerizes his students, something in the way he holds himself. But the character also contains pieces of other famous writers I’ve met, as well as not so famous writers, and people who aren’t writers at all. And sprinkled in among his qualities are things I made up out of whole cloth.

The truth, of course, is that all my characters are composites. Even the ones who seem to spring forth from my imagination like Athena from Zeus’s forehead: when I look more closely, I can always see a germ of someone real, even (and most disturbingly) myself. I hadn’t written a roman à clef. Though Channeling Morgan is a satire, I had no agenda to spear any particular fish.

So it really threw me that FN1—who almost certainly knows FN2 personally—had seen him in the character. What piece of Graham, I thought, had he been reacting to?

Graham Whitcomb’s signature trait is that he’s a bit of a sell-out, giving up his authentic voice in order to achieve fame and fortune. That’s not at all how I see FN2 or any of the other real people who may have influenced the character. That’s my addition to the story, my way of turning Graham into a cautionary tale for Derick (a tale he spends the entire novel ignoring, of course—hence, plot).

I don’t know any movie stars personally, so Clive Morgan has no such origins in real life. Rumors about closeted movie stars go all the way back to Charles Laughton, though, so there was plenty of secondhand material to choose from to flesh him out.

When I met my husband, he enthusiastically and quickly read my first novel, Chemistry (ah, the early days, when you’ll do anything to impress). When he started to ask questions about it, I confessed that it was autobiographical, based on a previous relationship. That got him even more interested, and he read it a second time—not out of delight with the story, but in an attempt to understand me better.

I tried to convince him that it wouldn’t matter. In fact, my contention was that reading the book as fiction would give him a deeper insight into me. After all, even a novel I call autobiographical contains tons of invented scenes, characters, and settings, so to the outsider’s eye, there’s no telling what was transformed on the way to the page. The advantage of fiction is something else entirely: even when the author him- or herself doesn’t realize it, fiction has a tricky way of highlighting the internal stuff—the emotional and spiritual underpinnings that reveal truths far more profound than who did what when.

As Kellyanne Conway might say (if she were literate), novels offer alternative facts. To be more precise, real life is full of facts—what color a person’s hair is, what they do for a living—while literature offers truth: what it all means, the values and psychological influences that underlie the chaos that constantly surrounds us.

James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, was infamously berated by Oprah Winfrey when she learned—after recommending his memoir to the world—that it was actually mostly fiction. Readers felt misled by the book, as if its impact were somehow lessened by the knowledge that it wasn’t simply a litany of facts, that each scene and each bit of dialogue and each described smell wasn’t a faithful representation of the actual events that had occurred in Frey’s life.

I once heard a rumor that Frey had originally intended the book to be a novel, but was advised that novels don’t sell. (Wherever would he get that idea?) Memoir was the hot genre (when will its 15 minutes be up?, I keep asking myself), so he presented the book as a record of his own experience rather than fiction inspired by his own experience. Best-sellerdom and scandal ensued. (This version of the story may be an urban legend, but it adds a whole level of meaning. See what I mean about fiction vs. “reality”?)

There’s something prurient about humans. Everyone wants to know the “real story”—the dish, the dirt. The ubiquity of social media, of course, has only made a bad thing worse. Now 7 billion people seem to think their stories are all fascinating (even if 80% of what you read on Facebook is still a lie). And the other 6,999,999,999 scroll through their phones and read the lies as if they were the word of God.

Truth, they say, is stranger than fiction. But that’s only because people are less willing to suspend their disbelief for something that’s labeled fiction. A novelist has to make everything sound probable, lest readers scoff and call it “unrealistic” (which has oddly become the worst of literary insults), even though real life is full of coincidence and paradox and absurdity.

On the other hand, if you take nonsense and lies and label them reality, you can get away with anything. Look no further than 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

So there’s the reality before your eyes and the reality reimagined by a novelist and printed between the covers of a book. To my mind, a novel is more honest because it admits to being a personalized, incomplete reflection of the world. Anyone who tells you “this really happened, exactly this way, because I saw it with my own eyes” is a liar or a fool.

For me, the deepest truths are most potent when they’re furthest from actual events. As one of the characters in Channeling Morgan puts it, “Sometimes, to be yourself, you have to be someone else first.”

Advertisements

The Disappointment of Glenn Close; or, The Absurdity of Competition

When Glenn Close lost the Oscar for the seventh time, I flashed back to her most-quoted line, from Fatal Attraction, my favorite of her films: “I’m not going to be ignored, Dan.” But ignored she was. Again.

I’d waited all night for her acceptance speech, to see her holding a gold statuette to match the gorgeous gold gown she was wearing (42 pounds, she’d told an interviewer on the red carpet). Hell, I’d waited 30 years to see her hold one of those things.

Truth be told, her performances are always great, but each time she’s been unlucky enough that there was another performance in the same category that was, arguably, just a little bit better. So, as much as I’ve always wanted her to have an Oscar, I can’t say anyone ever stole it from her. Not even this time. The Wife is probably her greatest role, and she played it with brilliant ferocity. But Olivia Colman. Yeah, I get it.

I’ve been obsessed with the Oscars since childhood, when I would watch the telecast with my mother and make a party of it, complete with every snack in the kitchen. By the time I was 20, I’d started making up my own ballots—creating my own nominations in the top categories, making up for the Academy’s oversights. On Best Picture alone, over the years I’ve disagreed with the Academy at least half the time.

So I’m used to being disappointed by the Academy’s choices. Art Carney over Al Pacino? Crash over Brokeback Mountain? (I could go on.)

I like to keep a running list of the Most Overlooked Actors—the great ones who never won an Oscar. People like Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton. But for the ones who are still alive, there’s always the hope that they’ll finally win. Glenn Close is at the top of that list for me.

So this time, I felt particularly invested, and then particularly disappointed. At least it’s not as bad as when Chariots of Fire beat Reds for Best Picture. That one sent me into a week-long grouchfest.

But watching the moment unfold—along with my feelings—I suddenly felt the absurdity of competition. When I saw The Favourite, I was blown away by Colman’s performance. Just as blown away as I was by Close in The Wife. How can I honestly say which one was “better”? What on earth does “better” mean in such a subjective thing as art?

And the thought occurred to me: Well, all things being equal (and assuming these performances are of equal quality), why not err on the side of history and give the award to Glenn? And the next thought was: Then what’s the point of this little competitive farce in the first place?

I have never been a fan of competition. I enjoy playing games, as long as no one’s keeping score. And the ubiquitous fascination with sports has always completely escaped me: If the Patriots play on a Tuesday, they win. If they were to play the same game on a Wednesday, and the wind was at a different speed or the sky was cloudier, they might lose. Even in sports, winning doesn’t mean you’re better; it means your talent and hard work put you in the running, and the rest has as much to do with the alignment of the stars as anything under your own control.

It’s only on Oscar night that I seem to care. The Gay Super Bowl, as it’s called. But in the end, it’s not really about who wins and loses. It’s about the spectacle and the emotional impact: Louise Fletcher signing her acceptance speech so her deaf parents can know what she’s saying. Nicole Kidman slaying in couture. Some random dude streaking behind David Niven. It’s a party.

And that’s enough for me.

Donald Trump Is Killing Me

I never call him “President.” I don’t even like to use his actual name. I prefer to refer to him as the Orange Menace, Hitler Lite, Dump, or—my new favorite—the Unindicted Co-conspirator.

But whatever I call him, it doesn’t change the fact that he’s killing me. And I don’t mean in the sense you use to praise a favorite comedian: “Stop it, Joan Rivers, you’re killing me!” No, I mean it literally. My mental and physical health have not been the same since November 8, 2016. The anxiety, the sleepless nights, the daily stress of keeping up with his alternately cruel and incompetent antics—have had tangible effects.

My stomach is in knots half the time, and my ability to deal with day-to-day stress—you know, real life, like traffic jams and the lid that refuses to come off the pickle jar—have been known to send me over the edge. And I can’t tell you how many hours I have donated to Morpheus that really should belong to me.

I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Donald Trump is shaving days off my life expectancy every month.

And he probably likes it that way. After all, it’s not his life; it’s mine. And clearly he doesn’t care much about anyone’s life but his own.

People tell me to chill out, to get off the Internet, stop watching Rachel Maddow, stop reading the Times. And if my health were the only concern, they’d be right.

But that’s part of the grand scheme, isn’t it? The intent of these people (and it’s not just Trump; one man could not do all this shit by himself, even if he weren’t a certified idiot) is to wear us down. So we must stay vigilant, right? Or maybe we should just take turns being vigilant. Like campers, or soldiers in foxholes who take shifts guarding against danger.

You watch MSNBC for me today; I’ll watch it for you tomorrow. You unplug in Maui for the week; I’ll spend the next one in Sitjes.

Long ago I learned a valuable strategy for calming my nerves: imagine the worst-case scenario. The idea is to help you see that a) the worst-case scenario is highly unlikely; and b) it wouldn’t be so bad, anyway.

That works fine when you’re worried about not getting into the right college, or being dumped by a boyfriend. It’s less successful as an antidote to existential crises.

Personally, I imagine that my marriage will be annulled, that Social Security and Medicare will be dead by the time I’m eligible for them, that I’ll be put into a concentration camp, that nuclear bombs will go off all over the world. Those fears are in increasing order of seriousness and decreasing order of likelihood. But know this: none of them—absolutely none of them—is out of the question. Not anymore.

As the old joke goes, Just because you’re paranoid it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. I prefer to think about paranoia the way Pascal thought about religion: believe in it just in case.

He’s killing all of us. But only some of us are paying attention to the pain as it comes. Ignorance is bliss, but it catches up with you eventually.

Friends, Lovers, and Cats: Hopefully Ever After

Yes, the cliché is true: writing is a lonely business. At the moment, I’m sitting at my desk, alone in a house where the only sound other than the striking of keys is the persistent mewing of my cat. His demand to go out several times a day—under supervision; the boy cannot be trusted—is a continual reminder that I need to get my butt out of this chair from time to time, too. Ah, the wisdom of felines.

The antidote to literary loneliness is forging a community. I meet other writers at conferences, at readings, and, of course, online. As I noted last time, I met novelist Beth Burnett at this year’s Saints & Sinners Literary Festival, where we shared a panel on humor in fiction. And so a friendship was born. If you want to win my heart, just laugh at my jokes. (Ask my husband.)

Beth’s latest book, Coming Around Again, is available from Amazon and Sapphire Books. I’m thrilled that she has offered to write something for the blog today. As you’ll see, her brilliant sense of humor is matched by wisdom and heart. Please also check out her website here.

***

Hopefully Ever After

by Beth Burnett

I was a little worried when Lewis touted me as being funny in his last blog post because as I was writing this post, I realized it wasn’t funny at all. In fact, it gets a little depressing, but ultimately hopeful. Sort of like my books – not happily ever after, but perhaps realistically hopefully ever after. (Which, let’s be honest, is probably why they don’t sell well. Who wants to be depressed and then… kind of uplifted? In a real life, I guess it doesn’t suck as bad as I thought sort of way?)

I wanted to write about why there isn’t more and better lesbian representation in mainstream media. I think gay men have had more representation in mainstream media than lesbians. Remember that show on one of the pay movie channels back in the 80s? Brothers. They all loved each other, even as they dealt with the very controversial subject of one of the brothers coming out and living openly as gay.

lewis blog brothers.JPG

Not that it was easy for men. As I was coming out in the mid to late 80s, the men I loved, the men with whom I formed strong, emotionally intimate relationships were dying. And that wasn’t being addressed in the mainstream media. It wasn’t really being addressed anywhere except in our own communities. Even within our communities, there was distrust and ignorance. I remember one man picking up a wine glass with rubber gloved hands and tossing it in the garbage after the guest who had been drinking from it had left. I heard he’s sick, the man had stage-whispered.

I was a little in love with my group of gay male friends back then. I think it was a way of being in the gay community without actually admitting I was gay. Maybe it was because I was so immersed in gay male culture that it took me so long to find my own. The first LGBT book I read was about male lovers and was called, I think, As If During Sex, though Googling it now brings back nothing. Did it have lackluster sales and go quickly out of print? Was it not worth being catalogued somewhere so some middle-aged lesbian, thirty years later, could find a picture of the cover and somehow bring back the memory of what it was about? Quite possibly, all the pot I smoked in the late eighties and early nineties means the book was called something entirely different.

The point is I didn’t know lesbians existed. And it wasn’t until I moved across the country and started dating women in my mid-twenties that I was introduced to lesbians in groups. There were a lot of us! I read lesbian books and discovered the joy of potlucks. I bought Birkenstocks and shaved my head and discussed Mary Wollstonecraft with tattooed academics.

I watched an awful lot of softball.

lewis blog softball.JPG

I became enthralled with the power of women when men are removed from the equation. We’re strong. We’re beautiful. We don’t have to shave our legs or lose weight or wear makeup. (Though we can if we want.) I thrived in women’s spaces, I grew. I found my confidence. And somewhere in there, I published my first book.

A book that mostly centered on women.

I published my second book.

A book that focused almost exclusively on women.

Somewhere along the line, I started thinking about representation and how much it mattered to me and how little of it I saw. And it occurred to me that a book doesn’t have to be lesfic to have a healthy lesbian relationship in it. And it doesn’t have to be labeled as gay to have a healthy gay male couple. We can give role models to our readers, no matter who our readers might be. It’s time for all of us to start branching out into creating diversity for young, queer, people of color or older lesbians finding love as senior citizens. It strikes me as a particularly heinous insult to assume that we should only write what we personally know. I mean, one of my characters is a very believable racquetball player and I’ve never even held a racquet.

I guess somewhere in my subconscious, I thought I was already writing diverse books because I AM a diversity category.

It doesn’t work that way. Life isn’t meant to be lived in a circle of exclusion. It’s meant to be rich, vibrant, and full of – well – characters. How can we write deeply diverse and realistic novels if we aren’t living a diverse life?

I guess I had an epiphany somewhere between book one and book four. In Eating Life, my circle-of-friends, slice-of-life novel, one of my characters is a straight man called Ben. He was almost deleted from the book and he’s turned out to be a favorite among my readers.

In my latest release, Coming Around Again, two of the main characters are Carter and David, an interracial gay couple who adopt David’s niece when she’s kicked out of her home for being queer.

Representation matters. I like to think that no matter who you are, you will find something that speaks to you in one of my books. And maybe someday, thirty years from now, you’ll be writing a blog about that lesbian book you read back in 2018 – what was it called? Coming Again?

Coming Around Again cover.jpg

Is It Still a Story If Nobody Dies?

A chunk of my first novel, Chemistry, takes place in a mental hospital, where one of the main characters is being treated after a suicide attempt. In addition, a minor character dies. For my second novel, The Heart’s History, I decided to change it up a bit—killing off not one, but two characters, including a successful suicide.

In other words, a laugh on every page.

So you can imagine the adjustment when, at this year’s Saints & Sinners Literary Festival, I got invited to appear on a panel called “Leave ’Em Laughing: Writing and Performing Humor.” Beside me at the dais were novelists David Pratt, Beth Burnett, and J.R. Greenwell, and Jaffe Cohen, the stand-up comic and co-creator of Feud: Bette and Joan. What am I doing here? I wondered. In most of my work, my characters don’t die laughing, if you know what I mean.

The truth is that—spoiler alert—nobody dies in my latest, Channeling Morgan. After books about clinical depression and AIDS, I wasn’t sure I had it in me to write something relatively lighthearted. One might argue, of course, that I needed to write something relatively lighthearted.

I’ve always gravitated toward witty characters who spout clever, often snarky dialogue, but they were usually expressing their humor against a backdrop of … well, angst. Now, however, my characters are plopped into the middle of a satire, where nothing is sacred, and where, yes, a happy ending is preordained. I was frankly concerned that the book would be off balance—too funny, too hopeful. All play and no work makes Jack just as boring as the other way around.

I was full of doubts, mostly: Is it still a novel if nobody dies?

I suppose I could have had somebody slip on a banana peel and break his neck, but in the end I just decided to go for it.

I’m reminded of when Woody Allen followed up Annie Hall, the culmination of his comedic skills, with the dark and very dramatic Interiors. Some people didn’t get it: how could the guy who, just a few years ago, had dressed as a neurotic sperm waiting for ejaculation now make a Bergmanesque movie about suicide and existential pain?

Of course, the themes of Interiors didn’t come out of the blue: if you look closely, many of them are in Annie Hall and Love and Death, albeit disguised as humor. And in later films, Allen found ingenious ways of merging genres, as in Crimes and Misdemeanors (home of the at-once dark and hilarious line “comedy equals tragedy plus time”).

My next book, which I’m currently wrapping up, has its share of angst, but at least all the characters manage to survive until the end. I guess that makes it a hybrid genre. Here’s hoping I don’t get annoyed with a character and knock him off in the next draft.

Next time, tune in for a guest blog from Beth Burnett, my fellow panelist and a person who really knows how to leave ’em laughing.

One Night Stand

This piece first appeared as a guest post on Beth Burnett’s entertaining and insightful blog. Expect some wit and wisdom from her on this site soon!

***

Novelists are like parents: once you send your baby out into the world, you never know where it’s going to end up.

A lesbian couple I knew kept a copy of my first novel, Chemistry, in their guest room, with a bookmark stuck in the middle of the hottest sex scene. They claimed that their guests—mostly other lesbians—loved it. I’ve heard that straight women are often into gay romance, and even gay porn—as a means, I suppose, of enjoying male sexuality without the danger and complications that often come with straight men.

But lesbians? I wondered. Why would they want to read about sex between men? One of my first lesbian friends told me that lesbians have hot sex for one night and herbal tea for nine years. With numbers like that, why on earth would they want to waste an ounce of sexual energy on men?

Before the knives come out, this is all tongue in cheek (so to speak). I long ago learned that lesbian bed death is a myth. A couple of episodes of The L Word were enough to shatter that stereotype.

On the other hand, I won’t deny that Chemistry plays right into stereotypes of my own community. To put it bluntly, my first novel is riddled with sex. But that’s kind of the point. It’s the story of a sexual awakening, focused on a character who heals a broken heart by opening himself up sexually. Sex is one of the ways he discovers who he is, so I wasn’t about to be coy with it and end scenes with a description of waves crashing to shore. Instead, I freely showed bodies crashing into each other.

My subsequent work isn’t all that sexy. I like to joke that my latest novel, Channeling Morgan, is the only one in which nobody dies. But it’s also the only one in which there’s no cameo appearance by a penis.

You could say I’ve matured. Or that my testosterone level—even in fiction—isn’t quite what it used to be.

But maybe it’s just that some books need sex and others don’t.

Sex is messy and confusing and, above all, unpredictable. I googled this question, don’t you worry. But, like a lot sex, none of the hypotheses I found was fully satisfying. There is no unifying theory of everything when it comes to sexuality. Maybe, when it comes right down to it, sex is sex. And, just as you can’t really predict who you’re going to be attracted to, you can’t always be sure which depictions of sex will turn you on, either. That’s why there are so many subgenres of porn: one gay site I know of has dozens of categories, from “Amateurs” to “Voyeur.”

So who knows why a lesbian would get turned on my book? Who knows why I got turned on by seeing Blue Is the Warmest Color? Who knows why I love asparagus but hate artichokes? (I mean that literally, by the way. It wasn’t until I’d already typed out the sentence that I realized the sexual imagery. See what I mean? Sex is everywhere and nowhere at once.)

And that woman with the herbal tea? I met her at an AIDS service organization in Boston in the late 1980s. When I was just coming out, into a community with two kinds of people: the dying and the terrified. And lesbians, with only minimal threat from the epidemic, were at the forefront in fighting it.

In the end, it’s love that turns you on.

A Tale of Two Murders

Between the increasing availability of titles for streaming, and my expanding DVD collection (yes, I’m a Luddite: I like to own copies of my favorite movies just as much as  my favorite books; they’re not quite as tangible, but I do like the way they look on a shelf), I’ve begun to fantasize about home-made film festivals:

  • Coming-of-Age Night: Boyhood, Moonlight, Lady Bird
  • San Francisco Night: Vertigo, Milk, What’s Up Doc?
  • A Little Touch of Nicholson in the Night: Chinatown, Cuckoo’s Nest, The Shining

I’m still working on the Streep Soirée, but the choices are too many; I think that may have to become a whole series, maybe one for each accent.

Last night I spontaneously got the whole thing rolling for unexpected reasons. After watching Kenneth Branagh’s immensely unsatisfying remake of Murder on the Orient Express on HBO, I was moved to immediately find Sidney Lumet’s 1974 version to see precisely where Branagh had gone wrong and get the bad taste out of my mouth.

Fortunately, Lumet’s classic version, which I hadn’t seen in decades, was available on Amazon Prime. And so the film festival was inaugurated.

Full disclosure: I haven’t read the novel, though there was a time when I was a great devotee of Agatha Christie, so I can’t be positive whether Branagh’s differences from the Lumet version are actually more faithful to the book. But if you get to pick and choose, then choose wisely. Given what I know about Christie in general and Hercule Poirot in particular, I think it’s safe to assume that Poirot was not intended to be a superhero, chasing one suspect through the supports of a railway bridge, engaging in fisticuffs with another, and taking a bullet in the shoulder in the process.

Those moments in the remake smack of an attempt to appeal to a modern audience more accustomed to Marvel comic movies than a period piece that takes place within the genteel confines of the Calais coach. Why do directors think that “opening up” a story is, by definition, a good thing? I’m reminded of Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby, using Busby Berkeley dance numbers and—god help us—3-D to completely upend what is primarily an intimate story about a few human beings confronting their own moral quandaries. (More disclosure: for all I know, Luhrmann’s messterpiece may have turned genius at some point in its 2+ hours, but I couldn’t make it through the assault of the first 10 minutes.)

Other differences in the plot in Branagh’s version of the story were innocuous enough (combining the colonel and the doctor into a single part, turning another character into a grieving father rather than a grieving brother), and I rather enjoyed the director’s visual pyrotechnics. In one scene, various characters are shot through windows, which reflect their faces to suggest their duplicity; in another scene, the camera is positioned at the ceiling, heightening the mystery while suggesting Poirot’s godlike ability to spot the truth. Less successful are the anachronistic bones Branagh throws to political correctness with references to racism that seem the moral equivalent of the chase scenes—little more than an attempt to make the story feel more contemporary.

It’s a visually beautiful film, despite the obvious use of CGI—which may or may not have been called upon for Branagh’s mustache—but, when compared to Lumet’s version, its beauty is only skin deep. The first thing you notice about the 1974 film, by contrast, is the verisimilitude. As each character parades through the station in Istanbul, dodging fallen oranges and insistent gypsies on their way to board the train, we see ugliness along with the glamour. It feels real, and it feels like 1934. You can practically smell 1934.

Unlike what passes for a mystery these days, Murder on the Orient Express is primarily a story about character. The heart of the piece is Poirot’s interviews with the suspects. For no apparent reason, Branagh moves the interviews around—one takes place absurdly over tea in the middle of the snow—whereas Lumet keeps them inside the train, all but one in the dining coach. The confined space lends an intensity to each scene and gives the actors a chance to shine—if only because Lumet grants them more dialogue than Branagh can afford, what with all those chase scenes and self-indulgent camera angles. Compare Ingrid Bergman’s Oscar-winning performance, thanks to the complexity of her nuanced character, to the breadcrumbs the later script offers to Penélope Cruz, an accomplished and talented actress who could have done so much more if she’d only had a part to play.

Even though every character lies through his or her teeth in the interviews, we still learn something, we still see cracks in their armor. And Lumet brings the solution together slowly, whereas Branagh telegraphs it all a bit too much, leaking the ugly truth out faster than the Trump White House. When the big reveal comes, he has the suspects aligned behind a long table—bizarrely, in a tunnel on the tracks rather than inside the eponymous train—conjuring an image of the Last Supper, I suppose, with Michelle Pfeiffer’s ringleader in the role of Jesus.

The climax of Branagh’s film is dispensed with before you can say “mustache wax,” so it was quite wonderful to see Lumet devote a good 45 minutes to the scene. As Albert Finney and his excessively pomaded head move through the dining coach, pulling the truth from one suspect after another, the audience is riveted—not only by the complexity of the mystery, but by Poirot’s methodology in solving it. This is, of course, the genius of the story: character, not spectacle.

Which raises the question: why on earth do people remake classic films? Remake bad ones, please: maybe someday, somebody will get The Great Gatsby right. But unless you’re going to add something significant, remakes are an exercise in futility. I’m just waiting for someone to decide that we really need to see Citizen Kane in color. Starring Dwayne Johnson, of course.