And Then There Were None
Adapted by Sarah Phelps for the BBC
First shown 26 December 2015
The nation sits back on Boxing Day, stuffed full of turkey and chocolate, to
watch nasty, brutal murder. Classic stuff.
And Then There Were None is a rarity. It does not take place in cosy Christie-land, where the church clock chimes three as arsenic is served for tea. There are no glamorous parties, no girls with shingled hair. The key to Christie’s enduring appeal is partly escapism. The reader wants to be part of the settings of Death on the Nile, Murder on the Orient Express, or The Body in the Library – seeing the pyramids, drinking cocktails in the dining car, having afternoon tea with the Bantrys. And there is an essential safety to Poirot or Marple, or to any of the novels with a one-off hero or heroic young couple. It’s the same logic as Shakespearian tragedy, and the detectives play the same role as Fortinbras in Hamlet or Albany in Lear. There is disturbance (the murder), followed by uncertainity and chaos. Then our heroes turn up and order is restored: the murderer is caught, possibly the Young Lovers get together, and things carry on as they always have been.
And Then There Were None closes with everyone dead and a houseful of bodies.
Any adaptors set themselves a challenge. An inferior story can be rescued by nice costumes, a few minor rewrites and some featured guest stars. And Then There Were None is already a good story, but a fundamentally unpalatable one: it’s a nasty tale about nasty people, but one that ramps up the tension and sends chills up the spine on every re-reading. To make it more audience-friendly, Christie herself injected a Young Lovers subplot into the first theatre version: a decision that is justifiable to make a feel-good play, but one that hasn’t stood the test of time*. An adaption doesn’t just have to stay true to the appeal of the original, it also has to find something new to say, to do something in its chosen medium (TV, film, play, e.t.c) that couldn’t be done on paper.
So, does it work?
We begin artistically. Shots of waving corn, followed by a close-up of
somebody’s eye. Quick, thrilling cuts introduce us to the characters.
Including the intro, it takes two minutes before we hear a line of dialogue.
For a moment, it seems like classic Christie: sunlight, a beach, a glamorous young girl with vermilion lips. Then we switch to the present day: dark colours, rain, and a thin, haggard girl standing in front of a window, sucking on a cigarette. It’s honestly a shock to find it’s the same person and we know, immediately, that this is not going to be a nice story. This shows us in a matter of seconds what would have taken pages on paper. Even before she enters a grotty office to take the post of secretary on Soldier Island, we already know how far Vera Claythorne has fallen.
Television can show us things that we can only infer from paper. Actors can bring new aspects to characters, aspects that were only implied in the original. Aside from a few clever visual gags – a close-up of the blind pull on the train makes it look like a hangman’s noose – we get to see things that there wasn’t space for us to be told in the novel. Our introductions to the characters are in little, telling vignettes, with an imperious Wargrave getting Blore to carry his suitcase as they arrive on the island, Lombard’s predatory eyes forcing Vera to move seats on the train, Marston’s car running Dr Armstrong off the road.
Quite sweetly, we also see a couple of sympathetic moments from General
MacArthur. He’s quite thinly-sketched in the book, but Sam Neill gives him a humanity with his shy, earnest, pompous smile and the quietly chivalric way he chats to Vera after the boatman is rude to her. He even gets a small moment of heroism, staying calm while the others lose their heads as the action heats up.
Anthony Marston is another cipher-in-the-book who becomes real on screen. Douglas Booth combines boyish good looks with charming, ruthless narcissim and is easily the most enthralling character in a scene.
Marston ran over two children and didn’t stop. When this is revealed, he asks ‘Who on earth are John and Lucy Coombes?’ with an air of pure bewilderment. A two-dimensional cut-out on paper is transformed into a glossy, arrogant rich boy who talks of ‘simpatico’ great chums, flings himself down on the chairs, leers at Vera, yet through all this maintains an air of childish innocence. His delivery of ‘Let’s be pals‘ as part of his ‘apology’ for running Armstrong off the road is BAFTA-worthy.
It’s an exceptional piece of casting. The same must also be said of Aiden
Turner as Lombard, who somehow manages to be dashing and sleazy at the same time. Lombard is clearly, unapologetically evil but enrapturingly so. Not once but twice we get a male-gaze from his angle directed at Vera. She shrugs it off, but it’s deeply threatening. The narrative makes it clear from the off that everyone on the island is guilty and every action, scene, shot and expression makes us feel part of the unsettling atmosphere.The lighting is cold, as are the big, empty rooms of the house. We see the bloodied bodies of children run over by a car. Wide camera angles mean the large house is made to look tiny against the expanse of the
island, the characters are small on the screen. Lines like “She’s been dead
about 14 hours…tell the others not to expect too much in the way of
breakfast” speak volumes in 19 words.
That said, there are some missteps. Anna Maxwell Martin is a lovely looking woman with a rare, aristocratic, almost ethereal beauty. No amount of shaking hands and unflattering glasses will make her suitable for the role of browbeaten, meek, grotty skivvy Mrs Rogers. Emily Brent in the novel is a bitter, sexually frustruated, plain woman with a religious mania.
The unstated backstory in the novel is that Emily Brent found solace in
religious mania and self-righteousness because she was an ugly woman, inside and out, who was unable to attract friends or family: someone who lashed out at the world because the world did not want her. And in this role they cast Miranda Richardson.
With all the acting in the world this doesn’t ring true.
Somehow, Richardson carries the portrayal off – it isn’t the Miss
Brent from the book, but the imperious, high-strung Lady of the Empire is a new and fascinating character in her own right. The same sadly cannot be said of Mrs Rogers. Bowed and scuttling, this portrayal is capital-A Acting and would work on stage. On screen, in close-up, it’s far too unsubtle and quite frankly unbelievable. There isn’t dramatic tension if a character starts the story so close to a nervous breakdown as Mrs Rogers clearly is; there’s nowhere to take the character. Both Mr and Mrs Rogers are too near parody, and you never forget for a moment that these are actors playing parts.
Fortunately, everyone else is so good that, for the moment, it doesn’t really matter.
*The flip side of this is that turning a ‘cuddly’ Christie into a cold story
doesn’t work either. The David Suchet Murder on the Orient Express is a case in point. The novel is the high point of cosy Christie: it has a genuinely
moral heart to it and takes place amongst fur coats and cocktails. The
adaption has the cast huddle shivering in a freezing train carriage while sympathetic characters break down and threaten murder, ending with a crisis of faith from Poirot of all people. None of these are inherently bad ideas, they just don’t fit with the theme of the original.