Of all the stories written and published by Britain’s crowned queen of mysteries, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None has had the privilege of being adapted, staged, filmed, re-adapted, re-staged, re-written, re-published, remade, and ripped-off more than any other tale in the literate world. And it stands to reason that it should: it is, after all, one of the most ‒ if not the most ‒ successful mysteries ever published. Originally published in its native country with a far less respectable title taken from an 1860s blackface song (you may look it up at your discretion and leisure), the tale soon received the more “classic” moniker it is best known today as, though many of the numerous film adaptations bear the name of another alternate heading, Ten Little Indians.
Even if you don’t know the story, you may very well know the tale: ten seemingly random individuals, none of whom are acquainted with one another, are invited to an isolated island for a weekend under entirely different pretenses. A recording announces that all of the visitors are guilty of murder in one form or another. Before the first sun sets, one of the ten drops dead; their demise eerily resembling a quaint old nursery rhyme. Unofficially, Agatha Christie’s timeless thriller has popped up on screen (be it silver or small) more times than most people would care to count. The first filmed adaptation ‒ René Clair’s postwar 1945 masterpiece, also titled And Then There Were None ‒ took an appropriately light-hearted deviation to the tale, as Ms. Christie’s 1939 novel was set in a darker, uncertain pre-World War II time.
While part of the alteration was due to Hollywood’s heavily-enforced Hays Office censorship code at the time, Clair’s drastically changed outcome was actually something which Ms. Christie had herself commissioned for a 1943 stage play. Amusingly enough, subsequent film, stage, and television adaptations ‒ a staggering number of which were all produced by Harry Alan Towers ‒ would only change the story’s locations (the iconic island setting later gave way to a ridiculous African safari locale in the most laughable 1989 Cannon Films production starring Sylvester Stallone’s less-appreciated brother, Frank, as the lead character), always retaining the increasingly unnecessary (especially as time marched on and things became dark once more) upbeat happy ending instead of trying to return to Christie’s much grimmer, original finale.
In fact, with the exception of an excellent, rarely seen ‒ but nevertheless highly recommended ‒ Russian adaptation from 1987 (the title of which, Десять негритят, reflects the racier, first-published book title), And Then There Were None has never been presented via moving picture form with its intended downbeat conclusion. Well, 76 years after the story first shocked readers around the world (the novel has been translated and printed in no fewer than 45 different languages globally), the BBC decided it was time to change that. And with nearly every other Christie story having been remade for television over the past 25 years (yes, I’m looking at you, David Suchet), it seemed only proper somebody finally give And Then There Were None its justice.
Boasting a well-rounded cast of seasoned veterans and fresher faces, the three-part BBC miniseries of And Then There Were None was a 2015 Christmas treat for Christie fans everywhere. Here, the likes of Charles Dance, Miranda Richardson, former James Bond nominee Sam Neill, and one-time 007 nemesis Toby Stephens (who looks like he has been slowly adapting into John C. McGinley) are among the more recognizable mugs (to us Yanks, that is) in this tension-filled variant. And I use the word “variant” here, ladies and gentlemen, for a very specific reason: though it is the first English-language version of the story to keep the original tone, certain creative liberties have been allotted to and exercised by its writer and director which definitely were not a part of Christie’s vision, I’m sure.
Unless, of course, Agatha Christie ‒ who, mind you, passed away in 1976 ‒ was a big fan of American horror movies from the 2000s which were just bad remakes of Japanese horror movies of the 1990s. For a good deal of the three-parter, as written by one Sarah Phelps (who never even picked up an Agatha Christie story before this project was handed to her), seems to focus on ghostly apparitions ‒ with an ethereal hand reaching out from a sink drain in one particularly disappointing instance (seriously?). Meanwhile, director Craig Viveiros (another newb on the block) seems to take too many liberties channeling his inner Hollywood as he all-but bombards viewers with “artsy” shots, flashbacks, and heaps of foreshadowing (to say nothing of ghostly images and an execution that is all too much akin to that Cannon version).
In a nutshell, this BBC adaptation of And Then There Were None is not 100% Agatha Christie. I suppose it’s virtually impossible to faithfully film the tale (although those Ruskies sure seemed to pull it off A-OK), and granted, you do (regrettably) have to make “old” stories slightly “catchier” for our easily-swayed contemporary audiences (so expect a few fripples and F bombs, kiddies). But once the story’s unknown assailant casually strolls in on a character whose life is (quite literally) hanging in the balance to explain the whole bloody affair in true James Bond villain style exposition (I guess Sam and Toby’s presence had an unwarranted affect on Sarah Phelps’ writing process, in-between her American remakes of J-Horror movies binge), I wanted to put my foot down on the ground just as much as the characters of said scene.
That said, I would give the this And Then There Were None a solid three-and-a-half stars out of five, were I to employ or endorse such a rating schematic. I don’t, however, so I shall just say this version of one of my all-time favorite mysteries is good on suspense (whether it be appropriate for this tale or not), its performances are all first-rate, the set design and costuming are both outstanding, but the project as a whole could have benefited from a more devoted director and writer. Acorn Media presents the tale on a 2-Disc Blu-ray set, with a selection of making-of bonus goodies accompanying the finale episode on Disc Two. For those of you who did (or will) see a much-better production than I did, these behind-the-scenes features (spoiler alert: everyone forgets there were earlier TV versions) will ultimately round out the experience.
Me? Well, they just made me want to dig out my old VHS of that Cannon Films atrocity, just so I could get my annual dose of Donald Pleasance’s unique form of overacting. Though I will follow that up with René Clair’s film, and probably the Russian version, too. Heck, I might even pick up the damn book and re-read that again! As for Craig Viveiros’ Sarah Phelps’ Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, well, I’ll revisit it again someday, I’m sure; once I get over the many unnecessary liberties that were taken for this above average (though most assuredly not definitive) adaptation, that is.
But I suppose it’d be in everyone’s best interest were you to give these ten doomed individuals a firm once-over and ultimately judge for yourselves.