Adapt or Die

People are endlessly arguing about adaptation choices, and I often find myself waffling. I understand that changes to the source material are often necessary, but am wary of alterations that affect what made the original work so good in the first place. Sometimes, I can't even settle on a satisfactorily final opinion. There is one work, though, where I did reach a very staunch conclusion about pretty much all of the adaptations.

Agatha Christie's 1939 murder mystery And Then There Were None is not only my favorite Christie book, it's one of my favorite books, full stop. So much so that I'm putting a Pantheon tag on this post, because it represents the pinnacle of murder mysteries in pop culture. Pretty much every modern thriller or teen slasher flick that gathers a group of characters and then begins killing them off one by one owes a giant debt to this book.

It's also known as Ten Little Indians (as well as its original title, which was... Um... Ten Little Word-I-Can't-Say-That-Begins-With-N). A play based on the book has been performed steadily since 1943, and there have been no fewer than five film adaptations. Isn't it great? Having one of my favorite titles constantly being presented in new and interesting ways?!? Well, no. Because for the most part, every single one of these adaptations is dreadful.

Happily, though, the new BBC adaptation (that aired in the United States recently on Lifetime) finally gets it right, though not everyone thinks so. My friend Amanda (another devotee of the book) said that she found some of the changes to the source material bizarre and off-putting, and that people unfamiliar with the story should not make this their first introduction to it. I agree with the back half of that opinion; everyone should start with the book. But I found the majority of changes at the very least acceptable, and in some cases even an improvement. A 1939 story begs to be modernized in some ways, and And Then There Were None obliges.

If you don't know the story, stop reading now, because from here on out...SPOILERS!

And Then There Were None is about ten people gathered on an island. They're a strange collection, from servant to judge to spinster to doctor to policeman to secretary. They seem to have almost nothing in common at first, until they're accused by a disembodied voice on a gramophone record of all causing the deaths of innocent people in the past. The law hasn't been able to touch them, but they can't escape justice now. And one by one, they're hunted. Clues to their demises are found in the framed nursery rhyme hung in all their bedrooms, teasing them with the morbid imagery of the ever-decreasing number of little Indian (or soldier) boys. And with each death, one of the china figures arranged on the dining room table vanishes. The guests eventually realize that killer is not some outside force, but is among themselves, and their fear and suspicion increase exponentially.

So why did I hate all those other adaptations so much? Because it took a satisfying, grim, dark, thrilling story about awful people getting their comeuppance after being emotionally tortured by a killer, and spun a happy ending out of it. Barf. That's not what I want out of this story. I don't want Philip and Vera to be secretly innocent of their past crimes, evade the killer, and get married. This And Then There Were None has no such pabulum. Philip and Vera are just as guilty as everyone else, and die alongside their fellow murderers. But like I said, there are some significant changes, so let's get into those.

  • In the book, the reason that these characters have gotten away with murder is that all of their crimes were passive. They didn't actively go after their victims, but perpetuated such willful neglect that people died for it. Mr. and Mrs. Rogers denied an old woman her life-saving medicine. Blore commits perjury, which sends an innocent man to the horrors of the old English penal system, where he dies. Stuff like that. In the miniseries, these crimes are much more active. Rogers suffocates the old woman with a pillow. Blore head-stomps the prisoner to death. Story-wise, it works better in the book, since it explains how everyone got off scot-free. Visually, though, this change makes sense for TV, and underscores how heartless these people are.
  • Speaking of their past crimes, the miniseries has time to go into flashbacks, which the movies and play never could. We can see the events that these characters are so desperate to put behind them, which helps give them depth.
  • In the book, even in the midst of all this horror, the characters do their best to be proper and polite. So very English of them! The cracks in that facade are few and far between, and even when they're accusing each other of murder, people keep themselves at a polite distance. In the miniseries, these people loathe each other. They shout. They'd avoid each other if they weren't so terrified of being alone. It's a change that works really well, and makes them seem a lot more realistic.
  • The miniseries introduces closeted gay tendencies in multiple characters, chief among them Emily Brent. In the book, she's just a prim, judgmental bitch. Here, she's a prim, judgmental bitch who is likely that way because she can't pursue the life she really wants to lead.
  • The book hammers heavily on the nursery rhyme, consulting it often so that the characters can try and figure out what's happening and what will happen. The miniseries is a bit confusing, in that it almost goes out of its way to ignore the rhyme and the disappearing china figures. The characters note it, of course, but put hardly any weight on it. This is a change I wasn't too wild about. The key to their situation lies in that rhyme; you'd think they'd be utterly obsessed with it.
  • In the book, Vera becomes hysterical and Dr. Armstrong slaps her. In the miniseries, Dr. Armstrong becomes hysterical and Vera slaps him. Hehe. Nice touch.
  • The book is old, so no eye candy. The miniseries cast Aidan Turner as Philip Lombard and lets him take his shirt off. Yay!
  • One weird note: The miniseries briefly shows Isaac Morris, who was hired by the killer to assist in luring all the characters to the island. But it never bothers to go into his backstory at all, so he just seems like some guy who's helping a murderer for no discernible reason. The book handles this far better.
  • In the miniseries, once only a handful of characters are left, they let loose for a scene, and try to cut the tension by having an alcohol- and cocaine-fueled party. I liked it!
  • The wrap-up is always challenging for an adaptation, because in the book, the police simply discover a bottle with the killer's confession in it. That wouldn't work on the screen, so the miniseries has Vera survive just long enough to hear the killer confess, which works very well.

So overall, the changes really work for the better. There are other nice touches to the miniseries too, including some really great production design (an art deco mansion with a clock that I covet), and a cast stacked with talented actors (Charles Dance, Miranda Richardson, Sam Neill, Maeve Dermody, etc.) Finally, a terrific book has an adaptation worthy of your attention. Amanda is right that it doesn't hit the same heights that the book did, but at least it climbs higher than any of the attempts that have come before.

And Then There Were None: B+

Let's Book It

I've been taking a spring break of sorts from writing blog posts, but that doesn't mean that culture isn't being consumed! I've been diligently recording what I've been watching, playing, and reading, and the titles have been piling up. So rather than write up a deluge of posts, let's clear out all the books I've read lately in one go. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), only one book of the bunch is really worthy of your attention.

The Doll Maker - Richard Montanari (2014)

I try to jump from genre to genre in my reading, and it had been a while since I took on a traditional thriller. This type of book is churned out in buckets, so I'm trying to remember what made this one actually jump out and grab my attention. I believe it may have been a positive blurb in Entertainment Weekly. Author Richard Montanari has written almost a dozen thrillers (see what I mean about the churning?) but the jacket flap summation did catch my interest. A serial killer in Philadelphia is targeting seemingly random children and posing their bodies as scenes from a dollhouse tea party. The plot is extremely contrived, and the characters are all familiar archetypes, which is something I generally expect from the thriller genre. Still, it was well-written enough to hold my attention, and at no point did the police work done to unravel the mystery seem laughable, as it does in so many other books. The Doll Maker is not great literature by any stretch, but if you're looking for a way to pass the time on a long plane ride, you could do a lot worse.

Cub - Jeff Mann (2014)

How much lenience should you give a book that isn't particularly good, but at least strikes out into territory that desperately needs some attention? Should I treat it like I do the Wachowski movies that turn out to be beautiful disasters? Or do I nitpick it as I would any other book? In this case, I'll split the difference. Cub is a teen romance story with gay protagonists. But instead of the usual delicate, pretty-boy gays pop culture usually gives us, these are beefy, hairy, hicks from the countryside of West Virginia. That segment of the population is sadly underserved, so Mann gets credit just for inclusion. That said, the story is by turns rote and needlessly off-kilter. By rote, I mean that all the traditional beats are there; anyone who's ever read a gay-themed story will recognize the signposts of Disapproving Parents and Religious Bullies. And by needlessly off-kilter, I mean things like making the protagonist a pagan, but never really goes anywhere with that thread, or delving into the romantic entanglements of side characters we haven't spent any time getting to know. So what do you do with a book that should get a C for style but a B for ambition? Split the difference!

The Miniature Wife and Other Stories - Manuel Gonzales (2013)

Sometimes, I fantasize to myself about attempting to write. In these fantasies, I never go so far as to delude myself into thinking I'd have the talent and patience to write a novel, but I tell myself that hey, I'd probably be able to crank out a few good short stories. It turns out I've been spoiled by all those great collections. If I actually wrote short stories, they'd probably turn out like this book: Fun and wacky premises that go nowhere in the telling. There was so much promise here. A story about a hijacked plane that circles the sky above the airport for decades. A man who has accidentally shrunk his wife and goes from pity to hostility. A man attempts to evaluate his relationship with the fellow survivors who are all trying to escape a zombie-filled mall. None of the stories are bad, but they're all somewhat shallow, never exploring the characters' motivations beyond the elevator pitch ideas I just summarized. This is one of those books I may circle back around to at some point to see if it strikes me any differently, but for now, it gets a shrug.

Station Eleven - Emily St. John Mandel (2014)

If I've sounded disappointed in this post so far, here's an opportunity to perk up! Station Eleven got a lot of attention when it was published, and I was immediately intrigued by its plot. At first glance, it's another of the many books to tackle an outbreak that wipes out most of the world's population. But this book sets itself apart in many ways, not least of which because it doesn't really focus on the collapse of society at all, but in the times just before and just after. Its characters are complex and relatable, and I found myself truly invested in how they would navigate a world that's totally alien to the one they were born into. The novel shifts back and forth in time, from an eventful production of King Lear on the eve of the outbreak to a band of survivors setting up a small settlement in the remains of an airport, and all of them are equally compelling. To mention much more would be to spoil it, but this is a strong recommend, and is likely to show up on my best-of list at the end of the year.

Heap House (Iremonger #1) - Edward Carey (2013)

Other books in this post got a less-than-enthusiastic grade, but this one stands out as the most disappointing in terms of meeting my expectations. At first glance, it had everything going for it. A strange, almost other-worldly house full of unusual characters, accompanied by dour illustrations that look like they came directly from Edward Gorey's pen had me so excited to crack this open. But the story just lands with a thud. Its premise is odd, but drew me in right away: There's a large mansion composed of discarded objects located in the middle of miles and miles of dump. The family that maintains the heaps are the Iremongers, each of whom is assigned a birth object that they must keep in their possession at all times, be it a letter opener or a bathtub plug. When an orphan is brought to the house as a servant, she sets off a chain of events that threatens the entire household's existence. Cool, right? Sadly, the coolest premise in the world can't save you if the execution is sloppy, and I just could not bring myself to care about a single character in this book. Reading it became a chore that I forced myself to complete. There are some good ideas in there, and a short bit with the family's matriarch was genuinely gripping, but overall, this book was simply was not entertaining, and there's no way I'm continuing with the trilogy.

The Doll Maker: B-
Cub: C+
The Miniature Wife and Other Stories: C+
Station Eleven: A-
Heap House (Iremonger #1): C

Animal Instincts

In the days leading up to seeing the new Disney animated movie Zootopia, I found myself sheepishly (no pun intended) admitting to people that I wasn't attending with any actual children, but was in fact seeing it as a group of four fully-grown dudes. I feel better now, though, because this may be the least kid-focused kids' movie I've seen in a long time. Sure, there are the usual kid-friendly messages like "Be Yourself" and "Don't Leap to Judgement", but the main thrust of the movie seems to be a warning about committing racial micro-aggressions, which is not what you'd usually see in a fun popcorn flick about talking animals.

Zootopia tells the story of Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a rabbit from a farm community who wants to be the first bunny cop in the bustling city of Zootopia. Once she gets through her academy training, though, she learns that her chief (Idris Elba) sees her as nothing more than a token member of force, good only for handing out parking violations. When Judy puts her career on the line to solve a series of disappearances, she blackmails a reluctant fox conman (Jason Bateman) into assisting her.

That's only the overarching plot, though. Like I said, Zootopia has a lot more on its mind than just being a generic cop buddy comedy for kids. It wants very much for you to understand the injustices that led to organizations such as Black Lives Matter being founded.

The Zootopia community is integrated, but its members are part of either the "predator" animal group or the "prey" group. Though the prey comprises the vast majority, they are given to fear the predators, worrying that their biological impulses will lead them to commit acts of violence against the prey. When a couple of predators do, indeed, strike at the community for an unexplained reason, the entire predator community becomes untrustworthy in the eyes of the greater populace. Sound familiar?

Though the message isn't subtle (there's even a scene where animals touch and carress a sheep's hair without permission because it's so strange and fascinating to them), Zootopia never forgets that it's a comedy. A scene in a DMV office staffed entirely by sloths had my entire theater's audience cackling out loud, me included.

Compared to a lot of outstanding recent Disney movies like Wreck-It Ralph, Zootopia doesn't quite stack up. But for a fun evening at the movies, you could do a lot worse. And maybe even leave learning a thing or two about society.

Zootopia: B

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