“He Went And Hanged Himself And Then There Were None.”

A while ago, I heard that BBC had done a miniseries adaptation of And Then There Were None and, more importantly, that it was based on the book itself, not the play, which meant that it had a much higher chance of including the original ending and not the Total Bullshit Ending. Obviously, I was very excited, especially after seeing this cast: Toby Stephens, Charles Dance, Burn Gorman, Miranda Richardson, Sam Neill, etc. I mean, it wasn’t the dream cast Mek and I selected four years ago (which wouldn’t have been fully possible now, anyway, with Alan Rickman’s passing), but it was still a damn good one.

I figured it’d be quite some time before I had the opportunity to see it, not living on the right side of the pond, but Lifetime just aired the miniseries, so obviously Mekaela and I had to watch it.

attwn cover

This probably won’t be a particularly long review, since I hadn’t actually been planning on writing one. But you know me. (Well, you might.) I always have at least a few things I want to say.

DISCLAIMER:

It’s been a while since I’ve picked up the novel, but I first read it when I was about eleven, and it left a huge impression on me; thus, I am very much judging this as an adaptation, not merely its own work. Fair? Possibly not, but that’s just how it is. Also, only very mild spoilers until we hit the actual Spoiler Section. Then all bets are off.

SUMMARY:

Ten strangers visit a small island under various different pretenses, but turns out they’ve all secretly been invited for one reason: to be accused of murder and get executed ONE BY ONE. And to make it really interesting, they’re getting murdered in accordance with a totally weird and horribly racist nursery rhyme.

NOTES:

1. So, you’ll be happy to hear: they (mostly) stick the ending.

Every adaptation makes changes. They have to; there’s no way of getting around that. But sometimes those changes are thoughtful and make sense, and sometimes you’re just like, What the effing eff? Honestly, I’d say I had both reactions to this particular miniseries, but I am happy to report that they at least stuck to the spirit of the original ending, which is really what I wanted to see. The miniseries as a whole is probably a B for me, but I’m inclined to up the grade merely because the last five minutes aren’t utterly ridiculous weak sauce, like virtually every other adaptation.

2. When it comes to thoughtful changes–and by thoughtful, I mean “Holy Shit, Of COURSE You Did, Thank GOD”–creating new names for both the island and the poem is obviously a sound one. Soldier Island is fine. Indian Island is not, and that’s actually the less problematic option when you consider the original and breathtakingly racist N-Word Island. Likewise, let’s just go ahead and keep killing off Soldier Boys in that poem, shall we, rather than the alternatives? I mean, Jesus.

3. My biggest problem with And Then There Were None is that it very rarely feels particularly tense.

It looks tense enough. It just doesn't FEEL tense.

It looks tense enough. It just doesn’t FEEL tense.

The miniseries focuses heavily on the psychological aspect of the story, specifically the guests’ guilt, which–interestingly–almost makes the miniseries feel like a ghost story for a good long while. (And don’t even get me started on how excited I am by the idea of And Then There Were None as a ghost story. Ugh, stop it, brain, stop it; you already have a zillion projects.) But the miniseries is so enamored of its hallucinations and flashbacks (of which there are a few too many for my tastes, like I probably only need to see little Cyril running on a beach so many times) that it forgets it’s still telling a story about a group of people who are in fear for their lives.

Look, guilt is fine. And the book itself isn’t exactly a horror novel so much as a particularly macabre murder mystery . . . but there are still aspects of the horrific about it, and despite a character becoming hysterical here or depressed there, I never really feel like these people are in fear for their lives. There’s no real tension when they turn corners, when they barricade themselves behind locked doors, when they pick up what could quite possibly be a poisoned cup of tea. And because of this, I think, the majority of deaths feel absurdly abrupt, not in a shocking OMG sort of way, but more like poor editing.

Last week, my friend Cory directed me to this Tumblr post linking hurt/comfort fanfiction to horror stories, which led me to this Youtube video that talks about how horror games create cycles of tension, and while it’s mostly stuff I already instinctively knew, it’s also been on my mind because I never really bothered putting into words before. And Then There Were None reminds me of it, a little, because the miniseries never quite manages to bring much sense of anticipation to the story, and without the anticipation, the murders themselves feel almost commonplace, like, Oh, so, looks like another character died. All right, let’s move onto the next scene. And while I was never bored watching the miniseries, I was never fully engaged, either; it ought to be claustrophobic and tense, and instead I found it rather . . . sedate.

4. Well, except for that scene where certain characters lose their godamn minds and decide to bust out the booze and the music and the fucking cocaine while someone is running around, trying to kill them. Yeah. If you’re wondering, this is the primary adaptation change where I was like, “Um, what the EFFING EFF?!” Because like I said, it’s been a while since I read the book, but I’m pretty sure I would have remembered Agatha Christie’s Cocaine Party. (Man, that’s a band name right there.) And seriously, this is the second movie I’ve watched in the last couple of months where people who are imminent danger of being murdered are just like, “Screw it! Let’s get wasted!” I understand despair just fine, but good God, doesn’t anyone have survival instincts?

5. On the plus side, the acting all around is pretty great. I’m definitely struggling with who to pick for MVP. Charles Dance and Miranda Richardson are both excellent, as always, but I’m not sure if either have quite enough screen time. Aidan Turner and Toby Stephens both give very solid performances, but I’m not sure that either role is particularly difficult. I’m kind of leaning towards Maeve Dermody and Burn Gorman, myself, but I keep going back and forth on it. By the end of this, I’ll probably just have picked one out of a hat and called it a day.

6. Finally, here is the (er, edited) poem/nursery rhyme from the book:

Ten little Soldier Boys went out to dine;
One choked his little self and then there were nine.

Nine little Soldier Boys sat up very late;
One overslept himself and then there were eight.

Eight little Soldier Boys travelling in Devon;
One said he’d stay there and then there were seven.

Seven little Soldier Boys chopping up sticks;
One chopped himself in halves and then there were six.

Six little Soldier Boys playing with a hive;
A bumblebee stung one and then there were five.

Five little Soldier Boys going in for law;
One got in Chancery and then there were four.

Four little Soldier Boys going out to sea;
A red herring swallowed one and then there were three.

Three little Soldier Boys walking in the zoo;
A big bear hugged one and then there were two.

Two little Soldier Boys sitting in the sun;
One got frizzled up and then there was one.

One little Soldier Boy left all alone;
He went out and hanged himself and then there were none.

I’m typing it out here because I think the miniseries would definitely have benefited from someone reciting the whole thing out loud for the audience at least once. Part of the fun as a reader is going through the book wondering, say, how the killer is going to kill someone with a big bear, particularly when there are no bears or zoos on the island. Bizarrely, the miniseries never bothers to do this, so if you haven’t read the book and memorized the poem yourself, you never really gets the chance to get in on the fun.

Also, you’d think the characters themselves would try and analyze the poem more in order to avoid dying, wouldn’t you? Oh, what am I saying: these people don’t care about surviving until tomorrow! They have coke parties to attend to!

For more on adaptation changes, as well as the ending, continue below.

SPOILERS

SPOILERS

SPOILERS

SPOILERS

SPOILERS 

And Then There Were None is a fairly faithful adaptation of the novel, all things considered, but a few deviations worth mentioning:

A. In the novel, Blore (Gorman) is guilty of giving false testimony in court, resulting in an innocent man going to prison, where he dies. In the miniseries, he essentially stomps a young gay man to death. I don’t particularly mind this change, nor do I really mind that General MacArthur (Neill) shoots his wife’s lover in the back instead of sending him out on a suicide mission (although it does feel a tiny bit silly).

B. I do mind the weird shot of Emily Brent (Richardson) creepily touching her young maid’s face, however, because it has a bizarre, almost predatory lesbian vibe to it that I’m like, “Uh, no? How about we don’t do that? Ever?” I mean, maybe that’s not what they were going for, since the rest of the story rings true with the novel: Brent, as devout as she is merciless, turns her pregnant maid away and feels no pity or guilt when the maid kills herself. But if I wasn’t supposed to read squicky-molesty vibes from that shot, I have no idea what they intended or why they included it.

C. I’m a bit torn on Blore’s death. On one hand, I can see why killing a dude by dropping a bear-shaped clock on his head is not the most cinematic (or even particularly thorough) way to murder someone. On the other hand, just stabbing a dude in the chest with a kitchen knife, and then dropping one of those horrifying bear skin rugs on his feet just feels a little lazy. See also: stabbing Emily Brent with her monogrammed knitting needles.

D. Dr. Armstrong (Toby Stephens) is rather more agitated and hysterical than I remember him being.

I seem relatively collected here, but don't be fooled: that's not the norm.

I seem relatively collected here, but don’t be fooled: that’s not the norm. I beat a gong like no one’s business, though. (Not a euphemism.)

I actually found him pretty enjoyable to watch; not having STARZ, I primarily know Stephens as Mr. Rochester from one of the various versions of Jane Eyre, and this is definitely different than that. Seriously, the scene where he’s freaking out and ringing the gong to rouse everyone? Yeah, that’d probably be me. There’s no dignity to be had when people are being murdered all around you.

E. I’m pretty sure Vera and Philip don’t actually hook up in the book because, you know, of course they don’t. Making out in the miniseries doesn’t bother me at all; I was, however, a bit disappointed with the beach scene where Vera shoots Philip. It’s the one that stands out most in my mind from when I first read the book, where both characters think the other is the bad guy, and Little Carlie is yelling at them, “No, damn it, one of the dead guys isn’t actually dead!” The scene from the miniseries is more or less accurate to the novel, but it feels like a particularly lackluster translation to me.

Finally, the ending:

Seriously, this cannot be stated enough: I AM SO HAPPY EVERYONE DIES. (Yes, I’m aware how that makes me sound. But come on: the ending is what MAKES And Then There Were None. You can’t just slap some happy ending on it where two people are secretly innocent and run off to be in love with each other. That just ruins the whole story.)

Also: I totally understand why they did what they did, with Wargrave (Dance) revealing his identity to Vera (Dermody) before killing her. It’s a great scene, actually, probably the most dynamic one in the whole miniseries, with Charles Dance being his usual amazing self, and Maeve Dermody speaking in this literally and progressively more strangled tone, revealing the cold-blooded monster that was always lying within. I understand why no one wanted Wargrave to throw his Exposition/Great Master Plan in a bottle and chuck it to the sea, and I also figure there’s a limit to how long Wargrave can realistically monologue before Vera just dies; nonetheless, I do kind of miss hearing all the details about how he did what he did and which order he chose to kill people in and so forth. Not to mention the scene at the end of the novel with the two completely stymied cops going like, “But . . . but . . . nothing makes sense!”

That being said, this is a pretty solid ending, and while I missed the extra exposition, I can’t really fault the miniseries for cutting it.

CONCLUSIONS:

Enjoyable. I certainly feel like it had faults (unlike, apparently, everyone else–I just read, like, five glowing reviews from people who were considerably more impressed than I was), but it’s easily the best adaptation this novel has ever had, and some of it was quite well done.

MVP:

I think I’m going to give this one to Maeve Dermody. That last scene in particular was great. But Charles Dance was a serious consideration, as well as Burn Gorman (who surprised me by providing some nuance to a not particularly nuanced character).

TENTATIVE GRADE:

B+

MORAL:

If you’re on a mysterious island and someone has accused you and everyone else there of murder, and then, rather suddenly, two people separately die . . . don’t believe anyone who tries to convince you that only cocaine and “fear” are to blame. You are being hunted. You are going to die. Light a godamn signal fire, and either convince everyone to stay together at all times, or find a weapon and barricade yourself in your room. For Christ’s sake.

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6 Responses to “He Went And Hanged Himself And Then There Were None.”

  1. Teacups says:

    Maeve Dermody’s in this? Welp, I guess I’m gonna have to watch it, then. She’s had my heart since her terrific performance in croc-thriller Black Water. (Of course, the rest of the cast doesn’t hurt either.) I’m glad you liked her, too. 🙂

    The “let’s get wasted under dire circumstances,” thing can work for me, but generally I think you have to get across that the characters are bored enough, pessimistic enough, or foolish enough to do so. The Ruins (the book, not the movie) had a good scene of that type, but I’m struggling to think of any others for the time being.

    • That’s funny. Maeve Dermody is possibly the only actor in the main cast who I wasn’t familiar with prior to seeing this. Clearly, I’ve been watching the wrong croc-thrillers. (Actually, I have. I’ve seen Primeval, after all.)

      Okay, that’s a fair point. It COULD work for me, but hasn’t yet. (I’ve only seen The Ruins, though, never read it. The movie was actually better than I expected it to be, but I also remember almost nothing about it now.)

      (Oh, and I will respond to your Teen Wolf comment at some point, but it might take me a bit, since I need to work on tackling all those issues in the actual review that I’ve been procrastinating.)

      • Teacups says:

        I knew all of the ten except Douglas Booth, although I had to look up several of them to figure out where I knew them from.

        Maeve Dermody was actually in the second episode of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, although it wasn’t my favourite role of hers. (That’d be Griff The Invisible – I think that movie had some problems, mostly around the third act, but her character and performance were great.)

        Black Water is pretty good if you can overlook the bad special effects. They had a low budget, so the directors spent a week in northern Australia getting all the crocodile footage by themselves, then one of them edited it into the rest of the movie (filmed much closer to home) on his laptop. The green screen really sticks out in places.

        Anyway, she only had one other role to her name when I saw that, so I’m very proud that she’s now the main character in a big BBC production with actors like Charles Dance. I’m glad you liked her so in this.

        I watched this over three nights with my housemate who didn’t know the story at all, and had no idea what was going to happen. So that was interesting; I knew the basics via pop cultural osmosis and your review, but her top theory through most of it was that it really was a ghost story and these people were being killed by their victims. I can see where she got that from, given the hallucinations running rampant. Her secondary theory correctly picked the judge (he was “too calm,”) at least up until his supposed death. She ended up falling for Vera’s innocence, too, right up until the flashback wherein Hugo confronted her.

        I can sorta see what you mean about the tension. I’d describe the mood as more ominous than tense. Like you knew everyone (or almost everyone) was going to die before it happened, just because of the foggy cliffs and threatening music. Still, I actually did know that everyone was going to die, so it’s not like I can give an unbalanced view on that.

        I read that in the book, like the General or Blore, Lombard didn’t directly kill all those people – he left them to die in the wilderness, with no supplies. Or something. I have to say I think I’d find it more interesting if no one on the island is a direct murderer – although a few of them did deliberately set their victims up for death.

        RE: Agatha Christie’s Cocaine Party, I had the biggest problem with Lombard joining in, since he seemed the most practical and the most driven to survive. Armstrong, and even the cop, did seem to be in a irrational enough state that they could go “Screw it! Let’s get wasted.” I’m not too sure about Vera. What I could’ve seen everyone doing was taking cocaine to stay awake, although that would’ve meant no drinking.

        Unsurprisingly, the book of The Ruins was significantly more interesting than the movie, though the movie wasn’t bad.

        The play ending does sound rubbish, and I too am glad everyone dies. I’m going to read the book, and I guess I’ll judge then how happy I am with the changed ending in this one. On it’s own, I thought it was good – I too loved Vera’s last scene, wherein she finally sheds her ingenue-ish mask.

        Don’t worry about Teen Wolf – I’ve been meaning to reply to your last Arrow comment for yonks, but I haven’t even started because I’m behind on the show. I heard the William bombshell finally dropped, and it all sounded so tiresome that I haven’t been able to make myself watch it yet.

        • It’s funny you should mention that about Maeve Dermody because some channel I never knew I had just started Miss Fisher reruns, so I threw it on for background noise, looked up at one point, and was like “. . . hey! I know that girl!” (I was interested in watching Griff the Invisible but never got around to it. Maybe I’ll check it out at some point, despite its third act problems.)

          I love that your housemate assumed it was a vengeful ghost story. Based on the presentation, it seems like the most reasonable assumption, especially if you didn’t know anything about the story. (I still want to write a book like that. I even started planning it out, before I forced myself to move back to more immediate things. Oh, so many ideas, so little focus and time.)

          Yeah, I agree: Lombard and Vera seem like the mot unlikely to actually be at the cocaine party. Though I love the idea of them using cocaine in a practical way.

  2. Satsuma says:

    Unfortunately I missed the miniseries, though I have seen clips and montages on the Net. I have read a fair number of Christie books, including ATTWN, I’m glad the series didn’t go for the (semi) happy ending of previous movie adaptations, and was faithful to the original ending of everyone dying at the end. Though a little awkward with having the Judge confess to a half-strangled Vera. Though showing the Judge actually directly killing Vera by taking her chair away, seemed more realistic than the book, in which he just manipulates her into hanging herself.

    However, I think that perhaps it would have worked better to just show a mysterious figure, perhaps just a leg, kicking Vera’s chair out, so we know the real murderer is still on the loose, then later revealing his whole scheme by a letter-flashback. After all, the clips I’ve seen of the flashbacks-hallucinations that reveal the guilt of the “victims”, struck me as well done.

    I’m of mixed thoughts about how the series made many of the victims’ crimes so much worse than the book. Sure, it makes the flashbacks gorier, BUT it seems most of the original crimes could still have been shown in a gory fashion. Indeed, the victims of Marsden, the doctor, Emily, and Vera, whose crimes are not amped up, aren’t shown to have died clean deaths.

    Now, I suspect they were just trying to save money by having the General shoot his wife’s lover, that saves them from having to show a dramatic battle death for the guy, hire extras, etc. But it still doesn’t make sense how the General got away with such an obvious murder. And they certainly could have shown the Roberts’ prior employer desperately demanding her medicine, or maybe clutching her chest as she has a heart attack, and have the Roberts just coldly stand by doing nothing. I think most viewers would have understood their crime was horrendous, even if they didn’t involve direct killing.

    BTW, I’ve seen other versions of ATTWN, and the whole “Vera and Philip hook up” subplot was actually first created by Agatha Christie herself, in her own stage adaptation, and has been used in pretty much all other adaptations since, though most have not been as graphic as the latest version. Certainly OOC for Book!Vera, who obsesses over Hugo until the end. But not a completely new concept for the screen adaptations.

    I will admit, though, that Vera being happy to hook up with Philip does take away somewhat from why she is supposed to be so evil in the original book. The Judge states he saved the worst killers for last, to maximize their suffering. And why is Vera so bad, as bad as Philip, whose kill count is so much higher? Because she goes beyond merely having no remorse for her crime. She actually pities herself and sees HERSELF as the victim, she’s all “poor me, why did Hugo leave me, I killed for him!” I think that’s why (at least per Dame Agatha) she was such a repugnant character.

    A change that I actually did like, was the change in the Edward Seton character. Seton in the book killed someone just for money. But the TV version came across as a younger version of the Judge himself, with similar motivations for killing. So, I can buy that the Judge actually does feel guilty for sentencing Seton to death, because he sees him as a kindred spirit, and when he shoots himself, he actually sees it as deserved punishment. (The Judge actually has a 10th victim in the book that we only find out about at the end, but this always seemed forced to me because it didn’t fit the rhyme at all.)

    On the other hand, the whole gay subtext seemed a little forced, similar to how GOT made the Faith Militant into a gay-persecuting horde. If Emily had just been presented as secretly envious of her maid for getting to have sex, or even was secretly crushing on the maid’s lover, that would still have been believable, and established her as a hypocrite.

    I also saw a clip of Blore’s flashback, and that also seemed to suggest a subtext of homosexual attraction that he suppresses by beating the guy to death. Now, I am sure SOME homophobic people are secretly repressing homosexual urges themselves, but I think it’s way too simple to say ALL of them are.

    Agree that the whole Cocaine Party was ridiculous, and that it was definitely OOC for Philip. This is the same Philip who keeps reminding everyone else they’re all being hunted. I can see him just raising an eyebrow at the others and retreating to his room, maybe even whisking Vera along. Maybe he’d use the cocaine to stay alert, but not to just get high and forget about the crisis he’s in.

    • If you’re interested in watching the whole thing, I’m pretty sure it’s coming out on DVD soon.

      Ultimately, I think I’m okay with the Judge confessing/bragging about his plan to a slowly strangling Vera, but I do agree with you that the changes in some of the flashbacks didn’t seem necessary. Perhaps they just wanted more direct murders, but I’m not convinced they needed them. Like you said, standing by while refusing to give life-saving medicine is its own brand of awful. I also agree that having the General shoot his friend in the back is a little bit silly. I mean, they weren’t even out in the middle of some battlefield far from others. They were in his tent! And yeah, Lombard is definitely the least likely to be at cocaine party. I think that was a misstep.

      Even in the novel when she’s obsessed over Hugo, I can see where people might draw a Vera/Phillip connection, so it doesn’t surprise me to hear you say that Christie wrote it into the play. (I still hate that she changed the ending, though. I’d say I understand why she had to do it, but people have been watching Hamlet for centuries, right? Surely people are used to going to the theater and watching basically every character die.) I don’t think Vera’s happiness to hook up with Phillip in the miniseries takes away from the awfulness of her character for me, but I can see what you mean, about seeing herself as the victim in all this.

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