As a massive Agatha Christie fan I was always going to watch this acclaimed BBC adaptation of her best and bleakest novel, and now I finally got around to it. I was pleased to see that while it threw in some extra gore, sex, social issues and swearing for the modern audiences, it remained satisfyingly loyal to the spirit of the book.
I was very surprised to learn that this stylish three-part miniseries is in fact the first English language film adaptation to stick closely to the original book ending. The only other version I’ve seen was the 1987 Russian adaptation, which was extremely faithful to the material including the ending (and rather terrified me as an impressionable teen). I had no idea that Christie herself adapted And Then There Were None for stage in 1943, and wrote a new crowd-pleasing conclusion which appeared in the later film versions, probably because the real world in 1943 was quite grim enough. I’m happy that this miniseries didn’t flinch away from the novel’s dark ending, since a happy ending would have probably left this fan spewing in disgust.
While you wouldn’t really classify it as horror, And Then There Were None is easily Christie’s most atmospheric and claustrophobic novel, with its story of ten strangers lured to a remote island by an unseen puppet master, who accuses every one of them of murder and proceeds to clinically kill them off one by one according to a nursery rhyme. Watching the miniseries you’re reminded once again that TV these days is no longer the movies’ poor cousin when it comes to visuals. It squeezes the maximum doom and gloom from its scenario, with the moody yet crisp cinematography, lavish but sinister 1930s interiors, and dramatic shots of the island huddling under the great stormy sky.
Production values aside, the main draw of the series is its fabulous ensemble cast which includes Charles Dance, Miranda Richardson, Sam Neill and Noah Taylor, all playing their parts to perfection and all getting their moments to shine. The two main standouts for me however were the actors I’ve never seen onscreen before, Maeve Dermody and Aidan Turner. She plays schoolteacher Vera Claythorne, who is the closest thing to the main protagonist and whose secret past is revealed in flashbacks throughout the miniseries. Vera is a watchful and haunted character who, along with the others, is more layered than her initial appearance would suggest. Turner’s Philip Lombard, meanwhile, is a former soldier of fortune and gun-for-hire, and unlike everyone else on the island he freely owns up to his past crimes. While monstrously cynical and brutish, he’s remarkably clear-eyed, keeping his sanity better than most, and supplies most of the series’ humour (and eye-candy).
Class and social hierarchies are a staple of Christie’s books, and here, as the characters are plunged further into the nightmare they can’t escape, they’re heightened even more so, along with observations on sexism, colonialism and homophobia. There’s also rather more blood, profanities and sexuality than in your regular cosy Christie TV mystery, as well as an unhinged scene which I could only describe as Cocaine Party at the End of the World. These probably annoyed some viewers though I personally wasn’t bothered. I was also fine with the slightly tweaked ending, since the way the novel reveals the mystery is thoroughly uncinematic and even the super-faithful Russian version was forced to make changes.
I did think that changing some of the characters’ past crimes to more explicit hands-on murders was a misstep, though I understand the desire to make them more visually dramatic. The fact that most of the past murders in the book are of indirect nature – such as not giving a sickly old woman her medicine on time – made them feel more like something an average person would be tempted by and capable of, and therefore more unsettling. That’s a minor complaint though and overall I thought that this was one of the best Christie adaptations I’ve seen.
P.S. While looking through the list of other film adaptations of And Then There Were None, I was amused to see a mention of a 1965 Indian suspense thriller that combines Christie’s plot with Bollywood comedy, music and dance. It sounds entertaining at the very least.
P.P.S. I was also inspired to re-visit the older Russian adaptation, which I found on YouTube. It’s inevitably more stiff and stagey in comparison but overall holds up pretty well! Even if some details are comical after watching the recent version, such as the tiny house which on the exterior looks like it couldn’t possibly accommodate ten people, compared to the big opulent mansion in the BBC adaptation. I also completely forgot that the sexy times in the BBC version, which I thought was just a modern attempt to jazz up the story, also happened in the Russian version, though with a lot more dubious consent.
P.P.P.S. Actually I do have another minor nitpick – the Ten Little Soldier Boys rhyme is never once read out in full! They drip feed it throughout the series, but it just doesn’t have anywhere near the same impact.