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+


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