THE BBC’S AND THEN THERE WERE NONE GETS IT RIGHT

 

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!)

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25 thoughts on “THE BBC’S AND THEN THERE WERE NONE GETS IT RIGHT

  1. Heeeey! I’m so glad you enjoyed this, Brad – I loved it, it’s restored my faith I the ability of TV companies to capture the essence and spirit of Christie’s plots and characters and I can only hope that everyone involved gets their hands on another of her standalones soon (they’d do a great Sittaford Mystery or Man in the Brown Suit I can’t help but feel). There’s a wealth of Christie that could do with being brought to public attention, and something that does it this well definitely bears repeating.

    I’ve not seen any of the other ATTWN productions, not sure what I’d make of the happy ending…almost curious enough to track one of them down, but then at the same time I’ve tolerated several poor Poirot and Marple interpretations and am okay not seeing it. Your high school production doesn’t end with…well, the original ending does it? Not that I’m doubting your commitment to purity, but it seems more likely you’d prefer to send people out with a smile on their face. Maybe use the original ending and then finish on a song?

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    1. JJ, I’m nervous about discussing my approach to the play on a public forum. Suffice it to say, I am striving for a purist’s approach. I will discuss what happened in person over tea!

      I was FURIOUS with the adaptation of Sittaford that featured Miss Marple and rewrote the ending. I suppose the original solution was too prosaic for modern producers, and yet it eliminated a fine impossible crime story for something much more sordid and non-Christie-an! I’d love to see it done right! And you’re forgetting the one book that needs this sort of loving care and, as of yet, has had NO adaptations: Crooked House! God, I’d love to see that one!

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      1. Well, now I’m even more curious! Will you be willing to discuss after it’s been staged? For all the blogosphere’s fanboys, geek girls and experts, how many of us have ever tried to stage a classical piece of detective fiction? More power to you.

        And don’t get me started on Sittaford retooled for Marple. I appreciate the character name carries a certain recognition factor, and I understand that fewer Aunt Jane novels and stories means there’s less of a canon to whore out utilise, but they could at least have had some respect for the source material. An absolute shambles, I was livid at the time and refuse to believe there’s any justification for changing it. Oh, so you know better than Agatha Chritie how to make a compelling mystery plot, do you? Yeah, no.

        And, oh my fur and whiskers, how good would a Crooked House adaptation by the ATTWN lot be?! That, sir, is a piece of genius. Who do we call?

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  2. Hey Brad! I was hoping you were going to post about this adaptation as I’ve wanted to chat with you about it.

    I have to say I am of two minds over this adaptation. It’s my favorite AND least favorite adaptation. (WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD) I enjoyed it for all of the reasons you have stated here – they get the atmosphere absolutely right and the flashbacks with Cyril are dead on. Visually, the film is beautiful. I thought the casting was strong (Miranda Richardson was great as Brent), and I loved the statues. I watched it in the three installments in which it was presented and loved it until the third part where they have the big debauchery and start snorting cocaine, and getting wasted.

    Now, I realize that my criticisms will end up making me sound prudish but it’s really not that. I just feel that some of the changes also change the tone of the piece. I understand the choice of the debauch, but it bugs me because in the searching of everyone’s belongings they’d have presumably found the stash of cocaine and been suspicious of anyone who would have had drugs on them. I also don’t think they’d all just take drugs even if they were scared out of their minds.

    Then they did the thing that they have done in a few of the other adaptations (and I suppose it works if you use Christie’s ending she wrote for the play): they had the “Hey, you’re young and beautiful and I’m young and beautiful; let’s sleep together” bit which never works for me psychologically. And in this one it is done in such a way (through the flashbacks of lovemaking with Hugo) to present Vera as this insatiable vixen (not quite as obviously sexualized as Shirley Eaton was, but it still felt off in a way). The thing I like about Vera in the novel is that she is the character we follow the closest. We can relate to her on some level and she seems to be caught up in this nightmare. Because we empathize with her for much of the novel, when we realize the truth about letting Cyril swim to the rock, we feel surprise and betrayal. The Vera (whom I believe was very well-cast) in this adaptation seemed to descend too quickly into her own darkness.

    My last criticism of the adaptation was the denouement and explanation of the crimes. I liked it at first, but after a bit, listening to Wargrave talk on and on while Vera tries to balance on the rung of the chair becomes tedious to watch. A friend and I watched it together and discussed the merits of this ending as opposed to ending it the way the novel does. Here’s what I came up with: I think they should have done the film in 5 or 6 installments and have the second to the last episode end with Vera hanging herself. That would be a great cliffhanger for viewers who’d not read the novel before and would keep them hooked. The last episode could be Fred Narracott taking the police to the island, the ensuing investigation, and then the finding of the message in the bottle. Then the last half of the final episode could focus on Wargrave, his plan, and the execution of it.

    My biggest question remaining after watching it was, “Are they going to mass produce and sell the 10 figurines?” Because I would buy them.

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    1. You don’t sound prudish at all, Matt! I think the producers/writer made choices about how they would show a group of people in this hopeless situation unravel, and many people, like you, disagree with the choice. Part of the murderer’s plan is to make those who are most guilty suffer more before they die, and I think these choices make that element work really well. It sacrifices any sense of surprise over Vera’s guilt, I guess, although I never doubted for a minute whether the killer had made a mistake over any of the guests. (That’s one of the things that infuriates me about the “happy” ending; this killer is not so sloppy that they would get two wrong!)

      I loved Richardson as Brent. She was young enough that she could play the repressed sexuality they gave her (and which others might be repelled by but which makes sense.) I loved Toby Stephens as the doctor, a part that is seriously underwritten in the play. I thought Aidan Turner was perfect as Lombard – not heroic at all but you still want him to be redeemed by his protection of Vera. And she was brilliant depicting Vera’s decomposition.

      I do agree that the final conversation was weak, not because of the murderer’s words – they were far more chilling an explanation than the words in the play – but watching Vera try to stand up straight became, well, silly. With all due respect to your idea, I think stretching it out and focusing away from the guests for a whole episode is too literary. It emphasizes the whodunit aspect at the expense of the psychological terror. That latter aspect is what I liked so much about this version.

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      1. Thanks for your response to my response, Brad! I see what you mean about the ending – tho’ perhaps if it were done economically, without spending too much time on the police investigation (a montage?), it would work. Especially going back to the guests on the island and seeing Wargrave’s behind the scenes work. This would give audiences unfamiliar with the work a bit more explanation as to how “he dunnit.” I agree totally that it is a psychological study, but people do still want to know the how and why. After all, it doesn’t detract from the novel – at least not to me. I found it very satisfying. But for a film, perhaps you are right.

        As for Richardson’s portrayal of Miss Brent’s repressed sexuality, that deviation didn’t bother me at all. It made sense (The director of the early film version must have agreed on a subconscious level – after all, he cast Judith Anderson in the role 😉 ) for the character.

        A note on Wargrave – I LOVED Charles Dance but I think his character was directed to be almost too likable in the beginning. I wanted to see more of the reptilian character of the novel as it would make him look less obvious to a viewer new to the story. They’d see how unlikable he was and think he was too obvious.

        As the other responder to your post mentioned, it does hopefully mark the beginning of more adaptations of other non-Poirot/Marple stand-alone novels. What would you like to see made next?

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  3. CH is so ripe for the picking, JJ! They could set it in the present, and Miss Marple could come visit her niece, Sophia, and . . .oh, wait! That’s been done to other adaptations already. CH is a virgin novel, never adapted before! Someone HAS to do it right for all of us who care so deeply!

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    1. Nah, what Crooked House really needs is Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot teaming up with Roderick Alleyn after Tommy (or Tuppence) is poisoned in his nursing home. Peter Kay could provide comic relief as Gideon Fell and at the end the whole things turns out to be a dream.

      If anyone makes this, you owe me, like, 50% of whatever profits you make. Also, may the sweet, vengeful spirit of Nicolas Cage’s Ghost Rider drag your burning soul into the deepest, dankest corner of Hell, you evil, evil b*stard.

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  4. Enjoyable review. I also liked the production and like you noted the differences between text and the adaptation but didn’t mind them too much (nothing can seem that bad after Partners in Crime, which the BBC annihilated earlier in the year). I watched a play production of ATTWN last summer and they kept to the original/ non-happy ending and it does work well on the stage, especially at the end when the audience members who haven’t read the book all audibly gasp when they realise who did it.

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  5. Kate, I’d love to hear your memories of that production! The problem with the ending is that you can’t be completely faithful to the book since 1) adding police would be ridiculous and 2) nobody wants to listen to a lengthy message in a bottle or even watch flashbacks based on those. So it ends up being a conversation between the last survivor and the murderer. I received a script of that from a friend in NYC who directed with the downbeat ending, and I plan on using that. But I would love to hear how this production did it!

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    1. Ah I might have misled you slightly with the phrase – original ending – as I more meant it wasn’t the happy ending version. The production I saw (think it was by a company dedicated to doing AC plays) had the judge and Vera, where the judge forces Vera to hang herself (intimating that if she didn’t he would kill her anyways) and he explains himself, though in a much shorter and effective way than the TV version. I’m fairly sure all the lines used came from the original novel itself. It was a clever production in that it was all contained within one room (with a background area seemingly opening out into the “outside” of the island). Although I think the removal of the soldier boys could have been done a bit better as the eagled eyed audience member could easily tell when the actors surreptitiously removed them.

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  6. I approached the TV adaptation of ATTWN with some trepidation as many recent TV adaptations of Christie have been real stinkers. But I was pleasantly surprised by this one, because a) they didn’t shoehorn Poirot or Miss Marple into it, and b) they kept the book’s original ending. I too would love to see an adaptation of Crooked House but I fear it will never happen; in today’s politically correct media climate, how could they possibly portray that kind of perpetrator and get away with it?

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    1. I hear you, Carol, and I think most of us were lying in wait to see how much the BBC would get it wrong! So this was a great relief. As for Crooked House . . . I would want it to be faithful to the period (post WWII), which might soften the blow of the killer’s identity, but that is probably why we have yet to see an adaptation. Who would one cast?

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  7. LOL! I can see them standing behind the director’s chair as he says, “Now, put the pellet with the poison in the vessel with the pestle,” and the mother cries out, “Smile, Louise!”

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  8. Christie’s book was dark — a fact with which no prior filmmaker ever came to terms — before now. Finally, the BBC captures the “innocence” of the times, the coldness of the place and the desolation of the “guests” as they fall, one by one. Performances were simply consummate and I feel that now I have seen THE definitive version. Also, Brad, did you notice that almost Dorian Gray like, the house itself grew colder and creepier as the story went on? Brilliant production.

    The Russian language version was also faithful to the plot, but turned poor Vera into a slut. The setting was much warmer and hospitable than it should have been.

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    1. There’s a wonderful moment at the beginning when Mrs. Rogers is throwing refuse from the kitchen into the sea through a gigantic hole in the ground. It’s as if the island is rotting underneath them. I loved this version, and it’s one time when I didn’t mind the back stories of some of the characters being altered a bit.

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  9. >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

    It may be based on Vera’s statement in the book, that they behaved more like the animals than humans. Nonetheless, the drug party is my least favourite part of the mini series, because it totally ignores the fact, that these characters are trying to stay alive. I can see what Phelps was trying to do, but it was not plausible enough for me to believe, that they would basically forget all carefulness.

    In spite of this, I like the mini series a lot. Almost everything else was excellent, except that I don’t think either Blore or the General would have gotten away with the crimes they comitte din the mini series.

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    1. I totally get the hesitation to accept the drug scene. It was bizarre, and I don’t necessarily feel the need to defend it. Yet one of the real strengths of this adaptation was that, for really the first time that I’ve seen ATTWN on screen, you really feel the effort these characters must expend to push away their crime from their normal lives. No stiff upper lip here! Committing murder has a definite effect on them all, and they all must wear a mask, some more or less successfully. The drug scene shows that mask slipping off them in a horrifying way. It was very “Lord of the Flies” to me. The problem was that it felt like it happened too quickly, considering the years they have all spent hiding the truth.

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