Although Agatha Christie is famous the world over for Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, her most adapted work is And Then There Were None, originally released under the rather repulsive title of Ten Little Niggers, only to be updated to Ten Little Indians, Ten Little Soldiers and, finally, the title we have today, which is also the strongest and most evocative on its own terms as well. Set in a lonely mansion on a rocky island off the Devon Coast, it’s about a group of ten strangers who are brought together for a weekend only to discover that there is a killer in their midst, who starts picking them off one by one. Ever since I first read it years ago, I have been waiting for a really satisfactory adaptation, since this is probably the single best case of the gulf between Christie’s talents as a storyteller and her talents as an actual writer. More than any of her other works, this eerie and mercurial story exceeds her capacity as a novelist, giving it a potential for adaptation that is striking even within her massively adapted body of work. To date, the best two versions I have seen have been Rene Clair’s film adaptation of 1945, and Family Guy’s parody adaptation of 2010 (“And Then There Were Fewer”), although there are many more that I would like to see, most notably the 1987 Russian adaptation by Stanislav Govorukhi.
I was excited, then, to find out that BBC One had screened a highly critically acclaimed version of the novel late last year. While the BBC has a strong history of screening Christie adaptations, they’ve been more or less limited to Miss Marple and Poirot, rather than the more narratively adventurous fringes of her body of work. While The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is arguably Christie’s single most innovative work of detective fiction, part of what makes And Then There Were None so compelling is the way it which it dispenses with the conventional relationship between detective and suspects altogether, forcing the reader to identify with all the figures on the island as both killer and victim, suspect and sleuth. In that sense, the novel plays like something of a forerunner to the slasher genre, presenting us with a group of pretty young things in a remote retreat who are periodically picked off by an anonymous killer, although in this case it’s not the post-WWII generation but the post-WWI generation who are the targets of the slasher’s gaze – the “vile bodies” and bright young sparks that spearheaded the sexual liberation, gender experimentation and the social liberalism of the inter-war era.
In that sense, the adaptation forms part of a more general revisionist attitude to the 1940s and 1950s prevalent in film and television at the moment. From films like Brooklyn to series like Masters of Sex, there has been a widespread dismantling of the “repressive hypothesis” that these two decades were determined by sublimation, concealment and misery – experiences that only the 60s could supposedly remedy. In an era in which LGBT marriage rights are on the agenda of most liberal democracies – where they haven’t actually been legalised – there is a nostalgic fascination with an era in which sensual expression was uncontained by marital, legal or public discourse. While it’s easy to idealise those times, they also form an interesting counterpoint to the present, and this adaptation forms part of that gesture, something that’s especially clear in one of the very few changes that the series makes to Christie’s novel in the characterisation of Anthony James Marston, the first victim on the island. Whereas, in the novel, he is simply presented as something of an irresponsible dandy, here he is reimagined as a polyamorous, polymorphous, polysexual whirlwind of pleasure – a testament to what might be described as pre-gay liberation, the paradoxical liberation of not being able to label yourself or your orientation in any fixed way. While his appearance in the series may be brief, he forces the older generation to face their complicity in post-war decadence, even if he affirms the distance between the generations at the same time.
In many ways, Marston’s fluid, flexible and porous screen presence sets the tone of the series as a whole, which often recalls Broadchurch in its oceanic sense of scale, taking us through one increasingly curvaceous pan after another, often set to swelling string music that makes it feel as if the directors are trying to capture the curvature of the earth in every shot. Where the novel is one of Christie’s most schematic – there is really not much difference in reading a plot synopsis and reading the novel itself – here there is a continuous effort to gather all the characters and spaces into a single lyrical curve, as if that were the only way to grasp the killer’s apparent omniscience when it comes to the island and all its nooks and crannies. In Broadchurch, that style painted a picture of the United Kingdom as inherently liminal, a single meandering, windswept coastline, but it’s even more attuned to the craggy island where this particular plot unfolds, which somehow seems to be contained in its entirety in every shot, even as its recesses and crevices become increasingly uncanny and unknowable. Of course, Broadchurch came first, but And Then There Were None has made me realise just how suited this style is to a more circumscribed location, as well as to a more circumscribed televisual format, with the three-episode miniseries structure also providing just enough time to draw out the novelistic potential of Christie’s vision without ensuring that it falls into a serial exercise, or a study in serial killing.
Unfortunately, in its anxiety to elevate Christie’s novel into something more than a conceit, this watery, aqueous aesthetic does sometimes drown out the conceit as well, which is a pity, since the conceit is so powerful, provocative and downright scary on its own terms that it deserves a little more attention than it gets here. Admittedly, this miniseries is one of very few adaptations to retain the austerity of the novel’s original ending, which – without giving quite away – poses considerable formal challenges to a visual adaptation of this kind. Nevertheless, this most recent adaptation has ultimately just enhanced my sense that Christie’s conceit still provides such a concise, efficient and resonant exercise in suspense that nobody – including Christie herself – has quite managed to fulfil it, or even knows quite what to do with it. As the 2015 version proceeds, it’s clear that the series creators are anxious to inject atmosphere and character development into the story, but the atmosphere, in particular, is so intense, and so anxious to make good on the conceit, that it doesn’t leave a great deal of room for the conceit to speak for itself. Among other things, that means that there is almost no downtime in the series, and virtually no reprieve from the endless melodramatic swells of neoclassical music. As anyone who has read the novel will know, some of the eeriest moments – or at least those moments with the eeriest potential – occur when the characters are left to their own devices in the house, or when they quietly and subliminally start to seek out the parameters and limit-spaces of the island.
For that reason, And Then There Were None has made me wonder whether the best way to adapt Christie’s mercurial novel is to introduce a bit of comedy into the proceedings, partly because there’s something inherently comic about such a self-contained conceit – or at least about the gap between such a self-contained conceit and any further textual elaboration – but also because comedy is a great way of introducing the kinds of bathos, downtime and relaxation that are needed for suspense to really thrive, which is perhaps why many of the very best horror films depend on comic asides for their full impact. In that respect, one of the most striking features about Rene Clair’s adaptation of 1945 is its continuity with his earlier Parisian comedies, as he draws upon the same group dynamics he brought to films like Under the Roofs of Paris, The Million and Liberty For Us! to craft a version of Christie’s novel that is as much late screwball as early slasher, thanks in part to a screenplay by Dudley Nichols, who wrote Bringing Up Baby, and brings something of the same taste for frenetic cross-purposes to bear on the group conversations that take place here.
However, it is arguably the Family Guy adaptation of And Then There Were None that is truest to Agatha Christie’s vision, at least among the versions I’ve seen. Released in 2010, “And Then There Were Fewer” is a feature-length adaptation of Christie’s novel – with nods in the direction of Clue – that ushered in the series’ first HD season. Directed by Dominic Polcino, who was responsible for some of the eeriest episodes of The Simpsons (“Sideshow Bob’s Last Gleaming,” “Bart After Dark,” “Dumbbell Indemnity”) as well as some of the best Family Guy film parodies (“Blue Harvest,” “Something Something Dark Side,” “Bill and Peter’s Bogus Journey”), and written by Cherry Chevapravatdumrong, also responsible for some of the best Family Guy film parodies (“Saving Private Brian,” “Ocean’s Ten and a Half,” “Friends Without Benefits”), the episode is nominally a parody, but instead uses parody as a way of luxuriating in an exercise in suspense and atmospherics that would otherwise be entirely outdated. In many ways, this forms part of a wider tendency within Seth McFarlane’s body of work, with both Family Guy and American Dad introducing suspenseful mini-narratives that are ostensibly presented as comic cutaways but, once again, use comedy as a pretext for indulging in an outdated mode without seeming too outdated themselves. On the one hand, what initially appeared to be a one-off cutaway in the first season of American Dad quickly became an ongoing, parallel thriller narrative that lasted several seasons, while one of the most recent episodes of Family Guy (“Peternormal Activity”) sees Peter, Joe, Quahog and Cleveland all pitch miniature thriller stories of their own, each of which is quite suspenseful and engaging on its own terms.
In broader terms, one of the signatures of Seth McFarlane’s comic universe – and Family Guy in particular – is an affectionate cataloguing and curation of 80s modes, of which suspenseful slasher horror is one of the most pervasive. In many ways, “And Then There Were Fewer” is the pinnacle of that tendency, partly because the arrival of HD allows the opening of Season 3 to indulge in the kinds of obsessive and forensic spatiality that characterise the best slasher films, as well as to indulge in an aesthetic grandiosity that finally makes it feel more like an animated film than a mere feature-length episode. With huge sweeping pans across landscapes and spaces, drone-like movements between macroscopic and microscopic spaces, and continual 360-degree and 180-degree rotational shots, the film collapses Christie’s plot into a spatial scheme and then alights upon HD animation as the best medium for fulfilling that scheme in a contemporary context. The result is both hilarious and eerie, and it’s no coincidence that the most quintessential Family Guy moments – the downbeat, banal and bathetic conversations – take place when the group split up to explore the mansion in pairs. So seamlessly do these scenes fuse low-key comedy and burgeoning suspense that there is no real need for cutaways and – more to the point – you don’t even notice their absence, which is quite extraordinary for a Family Guy experience that is about five times as long as a regular episode. Unlike the contemporary adaptation, the Family Guy parody recognises that Christie’s suspenseful scenario depends upon fusing a certain interpersonal banality with an extravagant and threatening spatiality, drawing upon its own distinctively downbeat banality to ensure that the animated spaces within which it occurs are as vivid and reticulated as any of those in the best Disney, Dreamworks and Pixar outings.
Of course, “And Then There Were Fewer” is not a direct translation of Christie’s story, which means that something of her austerity is lost in translation as well, even if this is the one adaptation out of the three mentioned that feels true to her scheme as a scheme. Perhaps the fascination of And Then There Were None finally lies in the way in which its conceit continues to elude any single or final expression, with the long list of adaptations more akin to serial continuations, as each subsequent version updating and continuing the story for a new audience and set of concerns. In that sense, what makes each version interesting it is incompleteness, and the decadent incompleteness of the most recent version feels just right for this current moment of late quality television.