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Adapting ‘And Then There Were None’

Agatha Christie was the master of crime writing – she produced so many genius books yet, within her impressive bibliography, it’s still possible to pinpoint a masterpiece. That book is the 1939 classic And Then There Were None, perhaps the most ingenious thing she ever wrote, carefully and perfectly plotted, and it’s a book that has inspired crime fiction ever since. It’s the world’s best-selling mystery, so it’s probably no surprise that it’s seen a lot of adaptations. Here’s a look at some of the best and some of the most interesting.

You’re probably familiar with the plot, but here’s a little refresher just in case (spoilers included). Ten strangers (eight guests and servants) are invited to a large mansion on an isolated island by a mysterious host whom none of them know. At dinner that evening, a phonograph record of their host, U.N. Owen, accuses each of them of being guilty of murder. They initially pass it off as a cruel joke but, by next morning, three of the ten are dead. A search of the island turns up nothing, and they realise that one of the party must be the murderer – but how is that possible when the novel ends with all of the suspects dead?

Christie and the producers thought that the original ending wouldn’t work for theatre – it’s really grim and, on a practical level, there’d be no-one left to tell the story

The first adaptation of the book was created by Christie herself, as the author translated her work to the stage. The 1943 play was largely the same as the book (although General Macarthur became General McKenzie, likely because General Douglas MacArthur was a significant wartime player), but it boasts a very different ending. Christie and the producers thought that the original ending wouldn’t work for theatre – it’s really grim and, on a practical level, there’d be no-one left to tell the story. She altered it, making both the final two suspects Lombard and Vera innocent of their crimes, and they escape and fall in love in what is a much happier ending. It filtered into the public consciousness too, with many adaptations choosing the more upbeat climax.

In 1945, we saw the release of the film And Then There Were None, and René Clair’s was long considered the best adaptation. It is largely faithful to the book but boasts the play’s ending, and the censorship requirements of the time mean most of the murders happen offscreen. It tweaks the backstory of Lombard, making him a friend of Lombard secretly called Charles Morley, thus enabling him to be a more sympathetic character, and it makes Vera responsible for the cover-up of a murder rather than the crime itself. Generally, the film still holds up – it’s enjoyable and well-acted, and Clair’s directing generates a sense of dark humour that works really well.

The general plot of And Then There Were None filtered into a lot of TV, including a special episode of Family Guy and a horror series called Harper’s Island

George Pollock’s 1965 film Ten Little Indians (a less offensive version of the novel’s original title, which I shan’t repeat here) relocates the action to the more fashionable Swiss Alps, and includes both a love scene and a fist fight, additions that feel very much as though they had the audience in mind. It’s certainly a more effective film than the painfully slow 1974 film of the same name, while a 1989 version drops it in an African safari for some reason. There’s not much to love in these latter two films, so any purists would do well to steer clear.

The next adaptation of interest appears in a number of strange places – Agatha Christie: And Then There Were None was released on PC in 2005, and ported to the Nintendo Wii in 2008. You play as Patrick Naracott, an original character, in this point-and-click game, which is in some ways close to the book and in some ways, radically different. There are four possible endings depending on which of the two final suspects survived. It also completely changed the identity of the killer to a new character, Gabrielle Steele, a famous actress disguised as one of the earlier victims.

The general plot of And Then There Were None filtered into a lot of TV, including a special episode of Family Guy and a horror series called Harper’s Island (I’d recommend this if you haven’t seen it – it’s really good). But the book itself has only seen three TV adaptations: in 1949 and 1959, and then a really successful recent version in 2015.

This is an adaptation that is unafraid to embrace the darkness of the original book, and it’s the first English-language adaptation to end with everyone dead

Written by Sarah Phelps, the three-episode miniseries is largely faithful to the book with a few small changes, both of which I think enhance the text. It uses up most of the first episode establishing the characters and their backstories, meaning even the deaths of the quickly-killed carry some weight, and it concludes with a scene in which the murderer speaks with the final victim before their death. This is an adaptation that is unafraid to embrace the darkness of the original book, and it’s the first English-language adaptation to end with everyone dead.

There are reports that a new film version of the book coming, inspired by the success of crime films like Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express and Rian Johnson’s Knives Out. Supposedly, it will retain the original time setting but also offer a “fresh take”, so we’ll have to keep our eyes peeled to see whether it will be another essential offering. But, that another version is being made speaks to how captivating this story is. It’s a true classic, deserving of its status as one of the masterpieces of crime fiction, despite the uneven slab of adaptations that followed it.

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