Today, Hartford Books Examiner offers a book-to-film analysis of Agatha Christie’s classic whodunit, “And Then There Were None.”
First published in 1939, “And Then There Were None” remains the bestselling crime novel of all time and has been translated into more than 50 languages worldwide with sales in excess of 100 million copies; further, the title was voted “World’s Favourite Christie” in a global vote to mark the author’s 125th anniversary. The New York Times noted: “The whole thing is utterly impossible and utterly fascinating. It is the most baffling mystery Agatha Christie has ever written.”
The premise itself sounds simple enough in theory: Ten strangers are invited to an island getaway by an unknown host under false pretenses. As the reader soon learns, each has a shameful secret—and each has been marked for death. As the characters are eliminated one by one, a ruthless killer taunts those who remain by following the methods outlined in a nursery rhyme—and by systematically, and symbolically, breaking a figurine after each murder. Set in 1939, against the backdrop of pre-World War II England, this story is a take on the locked room mystery, in which crimes are committed under seemingly impossible circumstances that would appear to preclude the culprit’s escape.
“And Then There Were None” stands out among Christie’s vast body of work for its somber tone and ingenious, complexly plotted storyline and ending. Unlike her “proper detective” novels featuring beloved protagonists Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple (among others), there is little in the way of charm and nobody to save the day. Rather, the notion that judgment is inescapable permeates the narrative, and the characters find themselves increasingly desperate and paranoid as they realize just how isolated they are. Further heightening the gravitas is the author’s exploration of each character’s past, and how their decisions have come to define them.
Though “And Then There Were None” has been adapted for stage and cinema many times in the past, a recent BBC production— seen on Lifetime in the United States and now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Acorn—marks the first time that the story has been filmed for television. Written by Sarah Phelps and directed by Craig Viveiros, the project clocks in at nearly 180 minutes over three episodes and features a stellar ensemble cast of young and veteran actors. Further, it follows Christie’s story admirably, maintaining theme and tone (both of which have been altered in previous retellings) without being old-fashioned.
The setting is deeply atmospheric, evoking an immediate sense of adventure and invitation that soon turns foreboding. Equally impressive are costume and set design, which capture the look of the times without relying on long held conventions (e.g. Art Deco style decor, as seen in the TV series Poirot). The filmmakers have done a superb job of bringing Christie’s slights of hand to the screen, delighting in the ability to show what she could only tell. And while the methods and motivations of, and for, murder stay (mostly) true to the source material, extended backstory is developed through flashbacks that expand on the author’s vision. Semi-explicit violence coupled with drink, drugs, and sex will appeal to a younger audience but aren’t overly gratuitous. Ultimately, this adaptation pays homage to modernity while steadfastly maintaining the core essence of Agatha Christie’s original story.
Regardless of the generational gap, “And Then There Were None”—both book and film—resonate, given that we are living in times of equal uncertainty.