And Then There Were None. A 2015 TV Adaptation (Lorraine Josse)

And Then There Were None. A 2015 TV Adaptation

 

Published in 1939 and several times adapted, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None never ceases to intrigue both readers and viewers. Never will people get bored with this story involving ten complete strangers experiencing a completely lost island in an atmosphere of terror and suspense. Originally entitled Ten Little Niggers, the novel was first adapted for the screen in 1945 under the current title.[1] As Janet Morgan mentions in her biography of the author: “the first production […] was eventually made in 1945 by Twentieth Century Fox, as And Then There Were None directed by René Clair.”[2] This black-and-white production is in striking contrast with the 2015 TV mini-series directed by Craig Viveiros[3]. The two versions evidence major differences in the setting, the acting and the unfolding of the story. Before any screen adaptation, the novel – like many other Agatha Christie crime fiction hits – had been adapted for the stage, which explains the alternative version concluding with Vera Claythorne and Philippe Lombard falling in love and escaping together. As Janet Morgan explains, “Agatha had meanwhile begun to think of ways in which the closing chapter of Ten Little Niggers might be changed. The rhyme on which the story was based, had, in fact, an alternative ending, “he got married and then there were none”, and as she wrote to Max [her second husband] in 1942, she certainly ‘contemplated this as a possibility if I can do it my way…’ (…)”.[4] Comparing the two versions, it became obvious to me that – beyond the issue of the ending – Craig Viveiros’s production was definitely more appealing than René Clair’s.  This was achieved by including modern features, exploring understatements in the original story and directing actors to create genuine fear and mystery. I will support this view by detailing these three points.

An adaptation with modern features

Even though the whole setting takes us back to 1939, the 2015 TV mini-series involves unmistakable details indicating a 21st-century production with a much faster pace and sensory manipulation. Earl Stuart’s music is one of these elements. Blending classical and contemporary notes, his music takes part in building the frightening atmosphere and reinforces the fast rhythm of plot development. In other words, as compared to Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s 1945 film score, Earl Stuart’s upbeat tempo directly aims at accelerating viewer perception and heightening suspense. Among modern touches are also special effects that obviously could not appear in older motion pictures; these include soldier figurines collapsing in the opening credits, which grabs viewer attention with much more immediacy than a slow-motion list of names. Another special effect to be mentioned is the boat moving quickly towards the house—an obvious visual metaphor for the viewers’ eager involvement. Equally modern is the fast succession of scenes, which – most of the time – give prominence to the psychological inner stresses of the characters. Indeed, the program starts with a capture of Vera Claythorne’s blue eye, showing how she just woke up from a dream that recalled her past. While older film versions were usually inclined to present men smoking cigars, this BBC adaptation often zooms in on men smoking cigarettes—again, something shorter and quicker. Additionally, Viveiros modernizes his screen adaptation by including erotic impulses and sex scenes, which are definitely not to be found in Agatha Christie’s prudish novels. This even includes unexpected twists, for instance Vera Claythorne’s renewed affair with a former lover in episode #2—something quite beyond René Clair or the conventional morals of the 1930s.

Exploring understatements

As previously mentioned, Agatha Christie’s novels feature great heights of stress and passion but always in a straight-laced – or at least demure – atmosphere. No longer so in this 2015 adaptation. Though merely hinted at in the novel, the physical attraction between Vera and Lombard leads them to an affair in the TV program; the tension between the two characters is ignited in the scene taking place on the train when Phillip Lombard – right away – gazes at Vera Claythorne’s legs. Featured in the novel as well, this first eye contact between the two characters was introduced very differently:

 

Philipp Lombard, summing up the girl opposite in a mere flash of his quick moving eyes thought to himself. ‘Quite attractive—a schoolmistress perhaps’. A cool customer, he could imagine one who could hold her own—in love or war. He’d rather like to take her on… He frowned. No, cut out all that kind of stuff. This was business. He’s got to keep his mind on the job.[5]

 

On the contrary, Craig Viveiros’s version features a Philip Lombard quite unashamed of his lecherous gaze. The same physical attraction is even further revealed in later scenes showing Lombard gazing at Vera’s bosom.

The second episode begins with a capture of Mrs. Brent showing a greedy, nasty expression when sitting next to her maid Beatrice Taylor. The immediately following scene even creates an ambiguous relationship between the two women by presenting Emily Brent licking Beatrice’s finger and apparently ready to experience a secret – perhaps masochistic – affair. The novel presents Mrs. Brent only as a foolish pious woman, but the BBC program adds monstrous and hypocritical features to her character. For the duration of a whole scene, she feeds Vera Claythorne with the details of the crime her maid was accused of and for which she committed suicide; this scene also occurs in the novel but only unfolds as follows:

 

Beatrice Taylor was in service with me. Not a nice girl—as I found out too late. I was very much deceived in her. She had nice manners and was very clean and willing. I was very pleased with her. Of course, all that was the sheerest hypocrisy! She was a loose girl with no morals![6]

 

In this TV adaption, Mrs. Brent’s mean spirit is translated much more directly: with a physical blow, she throws her maid out of the room with distorted features of anger on her face.

Another type of understatement being made explicit is the expression of hatred, which the TV program renders pervasive among characters. It starts with Dr. Amstrong and Anthony Marston – the first murder victim – arguing violently and it erupts again later with the misogynistic statements directed by Dr. Amstrong at Vera Claythorne during another hefty argument. Their exchanges are much sharper in the BBC program than in the novel, even in terms of short single lines: “I am a doctor, you’re a secretary” (episode #2). While Vera’s hysterical features are not clearly stated in the novel, Dr. Armstrong uses the very word: “Hysterical women can be very annoying” (episode #1) and, discussing Vera’s behavior in episode #2:  “We can’t cope with hysteria on the top of everything else”.

Genuine fear and mystery

Beyond more explicitness, Craig Viveiros’s version goes to the core of suspense and relies on all members of the cast to increase the discomfort of viewers. All actors contribute to the overall “creepiness”, especially Maeve Dermody’s impressive performance. Choosing a brown-haired actress with changing hues – instead of René Clair’s straightforward blonde June Duprez – might even signal a preference for doubt. As TV reviewer Maureen Ryan puts it: “Dermody plays Vera Claythorne, a schoolteacher who, like everyone else arriving on a remote island on a gray, windswept day, conceals more than her fair share of secrets”.[7] Also striking is the succession of close-ups on the faces of characters, obviously designed to highlight a clear expression of the secrets guests on the island are trying to hide. Such close-ups are often followed by uncanny, disruptive images recalling their past. A good example is provided when a ghostly Beatrice Taylor appears in Mrs. Brent’s room. Servants alive somehow avenge this dead woman and butler Thomas Rogers (played by Noah Taylor) appears just as ghostly throughout. In Maureen Ryan’s opinion: “Taylor is melodramatic perfection as a creepy, obsequious butler”.[8] Always in tune with the characters’ state of mind and inner insecurities, the atmosphere frequently borders on psychological horror. As Maureen Ryan explains: “this adaptation of the novel is remarkably respectful of every character’s emotional state, no matter what each man and woman proves capable of, and it’s that sensitivity that gives the drama a growing emotional undertow as it swiftly progresses from one economical set piece to the next”.[9]

Conclusion

Though the recent BBC program seems to move away from the original story, it provides stronger characterization and takes suspense to higher levels of genuine discomfort, thereby unleashing Agatha Christie’s true potential. In fact, this 2015 production so often gives viewers an impression that all protagonists are equally guilty that the essence of crime fiction is revealed, namely cognitive doubt and fear.

 

Lorraine Josse

M1 Anglais

Institut catholique de Paris (ICP) / Catholic University of Paris

 

 

[1] Clair, René, Dir. And Then There Were None. Perf. Barry Fitzgerald, Walter Huston, Louis Hayward, Roland Young, June Duprez, Mischa Auer, C. Aubrey Smith, Judith Anderson, Richard Haydn, Queenie Leonard. Twentieth Century Fox and Studio Canal Film. 1945. Film.

[2] Morgan, Janet. Agatha Christie. New York: Harper Collins, 2017, p 234.

[3] Viveiros, Craig, Dir. And Then There Were None. Perf. Douglas Booth, Charles Dance, Maeve Dermody, Burn Gorman, Anna Maxwell Martin, Sam Neil, Miranda Richardson, Toby Stephens, Noah Taylor, Aidan Turner, Harley Gallacher, Charli Russell, Christopher Hatherall, Ben Deery, Margot Edwards, Rob Heaps, Tom Clegg, Daisy Waterstone, Catherine Bailey. BBC Thriller Television. 2015. TV Series.

[4] Morgan, op. cit., p 239.

[5] Christie, Agatha. And Then There Were None. New York: Harper Collins, 2015, p 5.

[6] Christie, op. cit., p .90.

[7] Ryan, Maureen. Rev. of And Then There Were None. Variety. 9 March 2016. <http://variety.com/2016/TV/reviews/and-then-there-were-none-review-1201721327/>. Web. 27 April 2017.

[8] Ryan, Ibid.

[9] Ryan, Ibid.


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