Doc On The Box – And Then There Were None

And Then There Were None – you might have heard of it. One of Agatha Christie’s most famous works (and not just for the various name changes), it’s a tale where it’s best to know absolutely nothing about it whatsoever going into it. But a lot of people do know lots about it – regardless, the BBC chose to adapt it over three hours as one of their centrepieces of the Christmas TV schedule.

And Then There Were NoneFor those of you who might be unaware of the plot – ten people, all of whom have some sort of secret, find themselves on an island with only themselves, ten statues of soldiers (which look more like something sculpted by Lord Percy in Blackadder II, “Money”) and a poem that contains a sinister countdown. And then the countdown starts, as viewers try and work out a) who’s next; b) who’s doing it and c) when Aiden Turner is going to take his shirt off again…

A surprisingly faithful adaptation, especially given P*****rs In C***e earlier in the year. While the ending is necessarily tweaked to spell out exactly what has been going on, it is tweaked in an extremely effective way. The final sequence was extremely well done, with the reveal of the true nature of one of the characters teased out in a compelling, convincing way.

The script was effective, with the nods to modernity (basically swearing and a bit of debauchery as the last four decide to basically say sod it to the killer) fitting with the tone of the piece. And the tone never wavered from the menace of the book. The performances were uniformly excellent (with some big name actors – well, in the UK at least – biting the bullet early) with great work form Aiden Turner (sorry about the shirt comment), Maeve Dermody, Burn Gorman and Toby Stephens.

But… and be warned, we’re dancing around spoilers here…

One aspect of it that was a little problematic is unavoidable with such a good cast. Now, I know what’s going on in the tale as I’ve read the book before, and I’d love to hear from anyone who came to this completely fresh, but the performances were too convincing. Basically, the killer is either someone hiding on the island (and I did think that the flashback sequences helped this theory a little) or one of the ten. If it’s one of the ten, then there aren’t many characters who could convincingly be the killer – the performances are too authentic to be somebody pretending to panic. On the page, this is much easier to hide, but on the screen in front of us, I’m not convinced that the misdirection would have fooled me.

But that’s a niggle because even knowing what was going on, this was a mesmerising bit of television. Unfortunately, I’m not sure what else from Christie’s non-series canon could work this well – Endless Night maybe, although Marple nicked that one – but hopefully people who saw the show and want more might choose to pick up more of Dame Agatha’s fine work. Of course, starting from the best is problematic, but there are plenty of other crackers out there. If I could recommend a few:

Poirot:

Miss Marple:

Others:

That should get you started…

 

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40 comments

  1. Haven’t watched it yet – but I did feel that some of the promotional shots/trailers made it pretty obvious who the perpetrator was. It’s not one of my favourite Christies – too dark for me – but I was pleased to hear that they kept the original ending.

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    • There were some short face-to-camera TV stings and the first two I saw both featured the perpetrator. I later realised that there were quite a few different ones although the look on the face of that first one did have “murderer” written all over it.

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  2. I enjoyed watching it, but you are right in suggesting that the perpetrator is not as well hidden as it is in the book. I saw a play version earlier this year which was brilliant, especially considering it mostly had to take place in one room in the house. I thought the killer was better hidden in the play version (although you could all see the different actors trying to secrete soldiers in their pockets) and it was great at the end when people who didn’t know the story all gasped at the end when it realised who it was.

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      • Not sure. Have never heard of the happy end version. But in this one Vera is already fairly suicidal and the MURDERER returns to the stage not dead and finally pushes her over the edge verbally though also suggests she ain’t going to be allowed to live anyway. He also explains his crime and then after Vera also commits suicide via syringe.

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      • I think the majority of versions post book have the final couple surviving after confronting the murderer. Certainly that’s the case with the Hollywood film. I wasn’t aware they’d changed the play back to the original. Certainly that ending is very similar to the televised one – if memory serves, there’s no final confrontation in the book…

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      • No the final couple definitely don’t survive (that would be such a rubbish ending!). I think all the dialogue from this production actually came from the novel itself. I think the reason adaptations put in a final confrontation is because the letter at the end of the book would probably be a tad of an anti-climax in a visual format.

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  3. I liked the fact that they went back to the original ending, rather than the play version (or previous films, with the exception of a Russian adaptation, if I’m not mistaken – although now I wonder whether the message of the Russian film of ‘we will find you and punish you in the end’ was not more sinister than I thought at the time). I too thought it was pretty obvious who the perpetrator was, but my husband, who did not know the story, did not guess, so maybe I was just predisposed to see clues and hints where there were none.

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  4. I haven’t read the book but did guess the ending, about halfway through. That didn’t spoil things for me though, thought it brilliantly performed, atmospheric and very well directed.

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  5. I haven’t seen the third episode yet, and though I thoroughly enjoyed the other two, I was a little let down by some details. What I loved from the book (slight spoilers) was that the killer was hunting murderers “the law couldn’t touch”. And here in the flashbacks to each person’s crime, all the murders were a lot more explicit. I also liked the methodicalness of trying to figure out whodunnit, the very thoroughness of the investigation as put forth by the Judge, and I felt that was also lacking. But this was one of my favorite books of all time, so nitpicking is to be expected I suppose. Excited to watch the third episode!

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    • By emphasising the aspect of “who the law couldn’t touch”, it really flags up the killer, doesn’t it? I think most of the crimes here are untouchable – some by lack of evidence, some by cover up and some by no direct criminal act – but it’s noticeable that there really isn’t much justification for any wrongdoings in the villain’s original crime…

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      • I think that in the book it was hinted at that he had something against the guy who was killed and everyone thought the guy would actually be let off… can’t remember exactly though since it’s been awhile! I just remember being really surprised at the book’s ending regardless. Then again, I read it in 8th grade for the first time so maybe I would have known better now…

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      • According to the book, the murderer is the only person innocent of the original crime, though many people believed otherwise

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  6. I ended up recording this and catching just the ending (not a problem as I know the original story very well) but do want to watch it. I think i know what you mean about the murderer being sort of easy to spot but I always though the misdirection was very clever in the book and I don’t think, coming to it cold, that i would see though it – I would assume I was wrong and that it must be somebody else and then be genuinely surprised. Great to know that there is still an appetite for doing something like this seriously without always resorting to camp (though sometimes I do enjoy that approach too – depends on the story).

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    • I thought that the pacing of the flashbacks did present a good candidate for the “someone else” theory and if I was going into it cold, then I think I might have fallen for that suspect (although it would need some explanation for the motive for nine out of the ten victims). It’s one of those tales where you need to know nothing about it going in – absolutely nothing…

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  7. While I’ve heard this is the first English-language adaption of Christie’s book to keep the original ending, I’ve been hearing of other changes made to the book that may make me nostalgic for all the other “Ten Little Indians” movies. Hope I’m wrong, but I think there’s a reason why this will eventually be shown on the Lifetime network in the United States and not PBS or BBC America.

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      • Santosh, if you have actually seen the new version, you have me at a disadvantage. I own a copy of Desyat Negritat and the two problems I have with it are that the Russian title is translated as “Ten Little N******” in English. It may well be that the Russian word does not have any of the offensive connations Americans like myself associate with it, but it still bothers me. Also, aside from the title, the English subtitles are very, very, VERY bad. If you know the book, you can probably figure out what the characters are REALLY saying, but other than that it’s a hindrance. I hope that some American or British producer comes by and gives this film the treatment it deserves.

        While I would personally prefer an ending closer to the book where it will appear to the police that an impossible crime has been committed, the ending is still very powerful. One of the other changes they made in the Russian version I thought was brilliant, especially in light of the many version where Vera and Lombard fall in love. When the number of people on the island are finally down to three, Vera and Lombard do have sex, which doesn’t take place in the book. But the sex is very animalistic—almost close to rape. The morning after, Vera discovers that Lombard’s gun—which he claimed was stolen—is now back in his possession. Their night of intimacy actually makes her MORE afraid and suspicious of him than ever before.

        I look forward to seeing this new version eventually on Lifetime, but I suspect it will still wind up being in second place behind Desyat Negritat.

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    • @Santosh

      You mention that in this version, Vera and Lombard have sex. Considering that this also happens in the Russian version—which I think is a stroke of genius—I’ll withhold judgement until I see it. Either it will intensify the terror or it will make things seem ridiculous. It could go either way.

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  8. In the book, the first victim is actually Isaac Morris who is killed before the events of the island.However, this is not there in any of the film adaptations.

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  9. There is also a change in the manner of use of the gun by the murderer at the end. There is a logic behind this in the book. The murderer knows that some of the guests are maintaining diaries recording, among other things, the order and manner of the victims’ deaths and where their dead bodies are placed and the murderer acts so that there is no contradiction.

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  10. […] Kudos is due all round: not just for Sarah Phelps’ faithful but not slavish script, but also Craig Viveiros’ effectively restrained direction, the superb musical cues and, of course, the wonderful cast.  Far from wishing to tear it down in any way, I thought I’d use it as an example of just how well something like this demonstrates the appeal of the Golden Age puzzle plot, and how by both sticking to (and in some cases overturning) the often-derided conventions of such old-fashioned stories it became even more successful than might have been anticipated given the recent, er, non-success of P******* in C**** (full credit, I stole that from Puzzle Doctor). […]

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  11. Now that it’s Easter I finally saw part one of this movie. I have mixed feelings. The acting is good, and there are parts that I like, but that also makes what I *don’t* like all the more frustrating. This is good, but it COULD have been better.

    I need to go to bed now. I’ll comment later when I have more time and also when I have seen the conclusion.

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  12. Can’t believe that I waited this long to see the ending of the film. I think that part of it was that I was afraid that they would somehow mess up the ending, but also because the ending from the book is a bit painful, even if you know that it’s the better one. The pain is softened by the fact that in this version, the last victim truly deserves their fate, and any sympathy I may have had for this character evaporated once this was made crystal clear.

    You can nitpick here and there, but I owe both the cast, crew, and especially telewriter Sara Phelps an apology. Any deviation made from the LETTER of the book helps keep the movie true to the SPIRIT of the book. Although the entire cast was outstanding (I think Aidan Turner’s Lombard was the weakest link), I want to single two people out. Normally, the role of Ethel Rogers is a truly thankless task. Her only role up to now in the play or film was to explain to Vera Claythorne that neither she nor her husband have seen the Owens, and to faint once the record of accusations is played. Anna Maxwell-Martin does a great job in a role that has been expanded for this mini-series, and she steals almost every scene she is in. Also, the great Sam Neill as General Macarthur. It’s easy while reading the book to think of Macarthur as an old fogey, and wonder if he really has gone ga-ga. Neill turns Macarthur into a man of flesh and blood. A man truly haunted by his crime even before the murders start taking place. This is the first movie where I can understand exactly WHY Macarthur is willing to embrace his own death.

    Another person I want to give credit to is the actor playing the killer. This book is so well known that it seems silly to keep this name a secret, but unlike Lucasfilm/Disney who have no problem screaming out Darth Vader’s true identity for kids who have never seen the FIRST Star Wars, the estate of Agatha Christie seems to have the notion that there’s a first time for SOMEBODY to read this book or see the movie, and for their sake, it’s best to have spoilers. I knew from the bat that this character was the killer, but while this actor while not going out of character, portrays this person in such a way that it isn’t as easy to pick this person out as you might expect. I also noticed how there were several meetings between the killer and the final victim through the film which set up the final confrontation.

    This might just be the best filmed production of this story by Agatha Christie. The reason I say “might” is because I still have a great deal of respect for “Desyat Negrityat” But at the very least, this is worth every penny that I paid for the Blue-Ray.

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  13. One more thing, and I have to be very careful to avoid spoilers even though this ending is very well known. There are a lot of people who prefer the “happier” ending from the play rather than the darker ending from the book. I think this production helps set up the “unhappy” ending even better than Desyat Negrityat because it really spells out just how cold-blooded the final victim’s crime was, and once you see that, any sympathy the viewer has for this person evaporates.

    One last question about an early scene which is missing on the blu-ray but which appeared in the Lifetime version I saw on cable. Since this scene is EARLY it contains no spoilers, but I am curious to know if it appeared in the original BBC1 version. On the blu-Ray, Macarthur walks to the beach, quickly glances at his feet, and then the scene cuts to Vera Claythorne packing her things in the bedroom. In the Lifetime version, Macarthur starts to imagine the voice of his wife reading a love letter to Henry Richmond and this time when he looks down at his feet, he sees blood pouring over them.

    If you did NOT see that on television last Christmas, then it means it was cut for British television and that scene was allowed for American TV. (Of course, there are other scenes and bits of dialogue that were cut or altered for the American cut.)

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  14. I just saw this. Unfortunately, I found it dull, plodding, and ham-handed. Not only that, but there were implausibilities in the script that were not in the book, as far as I recall, though it’s been a long time since I reread it. In particular, a pivotal scene is just not believable, though it might get by with someone who didn’t already know the identity of the killer. Another implausibility was the way the General’s death fit into the poem, though I don’t recall how that’s handled in the book. Anyway, as far as I’m concerned, the Rene Clair version is still the one to see.

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