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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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).
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.