My relationship with Agatha Christie – now a half-century old – began with And Then There Were None. Why not start with the best: the best classic mystery writer, the best of her novels. Oh, I have other favorite Christies, too, culled for a list of Poirots and Marples. But ATTWN stands apart from the rest both in its form and tone. To start with, there is no detective, no outsider investigating the strange goings-on in the modern house at the top of this isolated island. There is no trying to find a killer amidst a gathering of innocent suspects, for in this novel everyone is guilty! Everyone is a killer! The question is, which among them is bumping off the others, and why? And while the central mystery is wonderful, the truly great thing about this novel is the tragic journey the inhabitants of Soldier Island take. As a group of strangers, each burdened with a terrible secret, try to maintain the veneer of British civilization even as they die off one by one, the suspense mounts almost unbearably, and any reader who hopes for some sort of relief, for that sense of order restored in the conventional fashion of a classic murder mystery, may be unprepared for how far Christie is willing to go here to show the cruelty of blind justice.
A mere four years after the novel came out, Christie adapted it for the stage. She made a powerful decision, with which we modern readers may or may not agree. She concurred with the producers’ desire to give audiences a happy ending – two characters turn out to be innocent of any past crime and manage to foil the murderer and survive – and in so doing transformed this tale of mass murder into more of a mystery comedy. That tone was repeated in the fine film rendition of 1945, directed by Rene Clair. Most of the subsequent film versions stuck with this happy ending but lost the charm of Christie’s writing (or Dudley Nichols’ screenplay for the 1945 version.) Some characters were hopelessly miscast or changed to allow for stunt casting (Emily Brent and Anthony Marston suffered the worst indignities.) Violence was amplified, and sex was added. But the storyline generally followed Christie’s stage adaptation.
The novel has been adapted for television quite a few times: three times in the U.K., once in America, with other versions popping up in France, Germany, Lebanon, and Cuba. As far as I know, these adaptations stuck with the happy ending.
Only four times, to my understanding, has an attempt been made to present Christie’s novel as it was originally written. First, onstage in 1944 at the Dundee Repertory Theatre Company (by special permission from the author) and again in 2005, in a play by Kevin Elyot that was staged in gory splendor and died an ignominious death soon after it opened. In Russia, a film was made in 1987 that you can watch on You Tube. (There used to be a version with subtitles.) I found it very slow going, but it does have the original downbeat ending.
And now we have the latest version, the 4th British TV adaptation, this one by the BBC. It was presented at the end of 2015 in three one-hour installments and is scheduled to be shown in the U.S. this spring in two parts. I had the opportunity to watch the production ahead of time, and I am here to report that it is really quite marvelous in nearly every way.
To begin with, the production is bleak and beautiful, portraying the period exquisitely and the remote setting and the disintegration of civilization with artistic flair. The characters are deeply drawn, more so with those who survive the longest, as it should be, but each one is a beautifully portrayed gem. The script, by Sarah Phelps, makes fine use of the luxurious three hours of storytelling she has been given, highlighting the psychological torture of this event and providing flashbacks and hallucinations at key moments to expose the truth of each character’s past or to torment the doomed guests. And there really is a sense of doom here, one that manages to transcend the episodic format of this presentation. Some have complained that it ran too long; I myself ate up every delicious minute of it!
The original ending of Christie’s novel is, to all intents and purposes, restored, but inquiring minds still want to know if the adaptation is faithful in all ways to the original. My answer is: “Sort of, but that’s fine with me!” Phelps focuses much of her story on Vera, which is quite appropriate given her prominence throughout the novel. Her backstory is handed to us, bit by bit, through flashbacks and retains the original tale of Vera’s involvement with Cyril and Hugo Hamilton faithfully. Other characters are given different and, to my mind, darker motivations to explain their crimes, particularly Emily Brent, Justice Wargrave and Mr. Blore. More important, we see a much more severe societal breakdown as the deadly weekend progresses, most notably in a debauched scene where the remaining guests indulge in drink, drugs and sex to get through a particularly horrendous night. Nope, this scene is definitely not found in Christie, but it shows with great power how shredded the psyches of these survivors have become. The adaptation is incredibly faithful to the original where it counts, and I would venture to opine that it will go down as one of the best versions of the novel to be filmed.
Now, it seems I have cast down a gauntlet. However, I will not argue with anyone who disagrees with me, nor will I provide any strong comparison with, or negative opinion of, the other adaptations. I consider And Then There Were None to be one of the greatest mystery novels ever written, and I am sure that those who agree with me on that score will have equally strong opinions about the merits and detractions of the BBC version. And to them I say: vive la difference!
(P.S. The image at the top of this post is for the production I will be directing at my school, San Mateo High School. It is my chance to celebrate the 125th anniversary of my favorite mystery novelist. If you happen to be in the area at the time, come check it out!)