Welcome to the second instalment of my blog series on adaptations of Agatha Christie novels and today I’m going to be looking at And Then There Were None. As you’ll see from my photographs here, this was based on Burgh Island off the Devon coast and very close to where I am. The causeway floods with the tide meaning you cannot walk on or off the island at certain times and Agatha Christie was inspired by this place to write And Then There Were None. Sadly, it wouldn’t really have proved adequate isolation for the purposes of this book as it isn’t flooded for very long so the guests could have walked off and, unlike in the novel where the island is said to be a mile off the coast, it is very easy to swim from the island back to the mainland. There’s even a water taxi which is an elevated platform raised up on a tractor that can take you to and fro when the tide is in and a very excellent pub, The Pilchard, where you can wait for the tractor or stay there and have a drink until the tide goes out. It is a wonderfully atmospheric place and I go there very often, not just to The Pilchard. It provided inspiration for this novel and Evil Under the Sun. Agatha Christie even had her own writing place there and bedrooms at the Burgh Island Hotel celebrate the author. It is all very evocative of the era. There is an excellent book all about the hotel and Burgh Island called The Great White Palace by Tony Porter, a previous owner who was responsible for bringing it back to all its art deco glory.
This is possibly Agatha Christie’s most famous book and is the greatest selling mystery novel of all time. It’s no surprise then that it is the novel with the most adaptations of it. However, I mentioned in my last post, which was noted by an eagle-eyed reader, that Murder on the Orient Express has the most ‘notable’ adaptations. There have certainly been more adaptations of And Then There Were None but sadly many of these are very far from notable. To include them all here would make this a very long post indeed and would involve a considerable number of unusual and not terribly good productions. So, I’m going to focus on the most notable and interesting adaptations of this book but do please let me know of any obscure ones or well-loved ones. After the last post, I had some wonderful messages telling me about French re-workings, spin-offs and gorgeous books all related to the original. I’m hoping to be sent many more!
I’d also like to add that, as a murder mystery writer myself, one of my least favourite things is of course spoilers. Sometimes unfortunately these are inevitable and I’m afraid this has been one of those occasions. I’ve found that the various interpretations of plotting, particularly approaches to the ending, have meant that it really is impossible to talk about this book and how it’s been filmed or staged over the years without mentioning key aspects of the plot and spoilers. I did think though that not many people would read a post about this book without having read it or at least having seen one of the adaptations. If you haven’t, I would advise you to stop reading now as it is one of, if not the most, ingenious endings of all time. Please read it. You won’t be disappointed!
At the very end of the novel in an epilogue that never sees the light of day other than in the book, Judge Wargrave writes the denouement in a message in a bottle that is later discovered after the police cannot solve the crimes. In that he says, ‘It was my ambition to invent a murder mystery that no one could solve.’ And that is exactly right. This is the ultimate murder mystery and yet there is no detective, everyone dies and it is entirely ambiguous as to who the ‘bad’ guy really is. It is not just a ‘whodunnit’ but an examination of the nature of justice itself, an examination of the darker sides of humanity. It is the story of a man who lures various people to an island and kills them one by one. They have all done bad deeds that have led to the deaths of others. In the last post, I discussed Poirot’s motivations and his inner conflict which is portrayed in very different ways in the various adaptations. Justice and whether it is seen to be done is a strong theme here too, particularly that moral, higher form of justice that often stands outside the law, which is sometimes untouchable by our legal systems. The judge himself tells us in his message in a bottle ‘confession’ that he began secretly collecting victims who had all committed some form of deliberate act that led to death but were ‘all quite untouchable by the law.’ In some respects, Judge Wargrave is the crusading moral avenger but this book is a much darker analysis of his motivations than that. Just as Poirot has been interpreted as being torn by the need to observe the law yet admit that the law can sometimes fail, the Judge appoints himself as the court, jury and executioner of these people who sit in the grey area of culpability. However, unlike Poirot, this judge relishes the role. As a judge he enjoyed watching people slowly approach their doom ‘suffering the tortures of the damned.’ He tells us, ‘I have a definite sadistic delight in seeing or causing death.’ And there is a sadistic pleasure he takes from this new cat and mouse game. If not, then why the game at all? It is entirely within his gift once they are on the island, to simply kill each person one by one without the need for poems and elaborate deaths that fit the wording of each line. He tells us, ‘I have wanted – let me admit it frankly – to commit a murder myself.’ He is torn, just as Poirot is, but in an entirely different way. He is hampered by his ‘strong sense of justice’ too but only that ‘The innocent must not suffer.’ In the book, we are even told that each death forms part of a detailed hierarchy of guilt. ‘Those whose guilt was the lightest should, I decided, pass out first.’ This is a careful structure that observes every detail. One aspect of which is often avoided. The judge himself, under his new warped moral system of guilt, is in fact an innocent as far as Edward Seton is concerned. If we believe that Seton was as guilty of heinous crimes as the judge tells us, that the judge influenced the jury for the reason that this man should be punished for his crimes, just as those on the island should, then the judge cannot be the tenth victim and his scheme is flawed. There must be ten victims. The book deals with this in that Isaac Morris is killed. This shady character is often excluded from adaptations and is not on the island. He in fact organises the secret purchase of the island and the administrative matters. He meets with Lombard to pay him to go. He is a drug dealer and was responsible for inducing a daughter of the judge’s friends to take drugs which led to her suicide. Again, a death for which this man could not be prosecuted but the judge hunts him down and kills him. Even Lombard says it in the book, ‘There are crimes that cannot be brought home to their perpetrators.’ The focus on the judge and his enactment of a justice that our system does not allow for is the very centre of this book but is so rarely at the core of the adaptations.
This is partly due to the fact that there are two forms of the story, both of which were written by Agatha Christie. The first is, of course, the book with it’s many layers of the nature of justice and guilt. The second is the stage play. When she was approached by people who wanted to adapt it, Agatha Christie insisted on writing it herself and took two years to do so. What she decided upon, however, was to change the ending and allow Vera Claythorne and Phillip Lombard to escape together and fall in love. She, and those staging the play, didn’t think audiences would be very attracted to a play that is so dark and in which every character dies. So we have two versions of this story and hence a multitude of adaptations springing from those.
The play version she wrote was first staged in 1943 and was noted for having a scary atmosphere, particularly with the storm raging around it. This was perhaps added to by the fact that the theatre it was staged in, St James’s, was bombed and it had to be moved. This play about isolation which heavily references the army and war was staged during the second world war with all the fear, isolation and suspicion of others that dominated England. An inmate of Buchenwald concentration camp wrote to Agatha Christie after the war to say they staged the play whilst in the camp and it ‘sustained them.’ The book itself was published at the outset of the war (1939) and remains a very strong theme throughout. Almost all the characters have some link to the military theme. The Judge himself is Justice Wargrave; Lombard is a Captain, of sorts; General Macarthur is an army man and, indeed his crime is to send a man out to death in battle; Emily Brent’s father was a colonel of the old school who knew Macarthur; Blore even considers being a colonel as his alternate persona; Mr U.N. Owen is referred to as ‘The Unknown Soldier’ in the book. These are characters who have been through one war and are being thrown into another. This is a world where death has been commonplace and so many lives have been lost that individual deaths have fallen through the cracks. Judge Wargrave is attempting to redress that. He is in some ways an avenging angel or demon. When Vera and Lombard are talking towards the end of the book, Vera says, ‘I read a story once – about two judges that came to a small American town – from the Supreme Court. They administered justice – Absolute justice. Because – they didn’t come from this world at all…’ Lombard replies to her, ‘Heavenly visitants, eh? No, I don’t believe in the supernatural. This business is human enough.’ Judge Wargrave would agree. When Emily Brent says Mrs Rogers’ death could be an Act of God, he replies, ‘Providence leaves the work of conviction and chastisement to us mortals.’
The most recent high profile stage adaptation of the novel was the Kevin Elyot version directed by Steven Pimlott in 2005 at the Gielgud Theatre, London and I was fortunate enough to see it. This version restored the book ending in which no one escapes and also decided that audiences could take a much higher degree of gore alongside that. Tara Fitzgerald was notably an excellent Vera, both glamorous and flawed. It was also a very classic stage set echoing the era. Sadly, it did not have a long run.
The first film version is also very evocative of a stage set, the interiors of the house having a distinct Mousetrap feel to them. This 1945 Rene Clair film used the play version with its alternative, rather more upbeat ending. The Dudley Nichols screenplay is overall a much more playful version of the story than the novel. Rather than being frightening or dark, this film is somewhat tongue in cheek at times. There is no real search for perfect human justice or the analysis of that. In fact, at times it has almost an element of farce to it, with the country house setting and the comedic fluting music. Rogers, the butler, gives a bizarre turn when he decides to get drunk and stumbles around serving dinner to the bemused guests before announcing he’s going to sleep in the woodshed. The cast is a good one with the wonderful Judith Anderson (who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Mrs Danvers in Rebecca) playing Emily Brent but even she has to deliver lines such as, ‘Very silly to kill the only servant. Now we don’t even know where the marmalade is.’ In this version it is her nephew who has died after she orchestrated him being sent to a reform school where he hanged himself. Barry Fitzgerald is a very soft, homely Judge Francis J. Quinncannon who dies with the words ‘Never trust a woman’. And Walter Huston is a stiff Dr Edward G. Armstrong. General Macarthur is renamed as he was for the original play, given that there was in fact a very famous namesake in America at the time, and is now called General Mandrake (played by C. Aubrey Smith). There are a multitude of deviations from the plot, including a secret ballot, snooker used as a metaphor and Blore being killed by a falling bit of the house. Perhaps the most astounding character is Prince Nikita who replaces the role of Marston. He is played by the Russian actor Mischa Auer who puts in a remarkable performance that borders on music hall. He staggers around shouting and dramatically plays the piano before he collapses dead. I personally find this film, even allowing for the fact that it was made towards the end of the war on a tight budget, very far from the book and a bit of a bizarre version. However, for many it is iconic. Reading through reviews, many say how wonderful it is, that it evokes an old school Hollywood glamour of yesteryear and it is many people’s favourite movie. One review I read said it was heaven and changed his life! I suppose there is a version of And Then There Were None for everyone out there.
There have certainly been a huge number of TV, film and audio adaptations that have taken the story in all manner of directions since that first film. The most recent audio version is a full dramatization in which Cyril (the dead boy who drowns as a result of Vera) introduces a number of the characters from beyond the grave. Geoffrey Whitehead is the stand-out character in this, playing the retired judge with just the right amount of gravitas and cruelty (not his first outing as a retired judge having played a wonderful one in The Worst Week of My Life.)
There have been a multitude of films made in different locations that not only play with setting but the storyline as well. Harry Alan Towers oversaw the production of three different versions in 1965, 1974 and finally in 1989. The first, in 1965 which was directed by George Pollock saw Shirley Eaton and Leo Genn amongst the cast marooned on a snowy mountain with the voice of Christopher Lee telling them of their fates.
The second outing in 1974, Towers set in the deserts of Iran at an abandoned hotel. This had an all-star cast including Oliver Reed as Lombard who supposedly killed a young woman pregnant with his child; Richard Attenborough as Judge Cannon; Elke Sommer as Vera; and Herbert Lom as the doctor. Charles Aznavour is Michel Raven an entertainer who was responsible for killing people when he was drink driving.
The final setting for these Towers’ films is a safari version in 1989 which saw Herbert Lom star again but this time as General Romensky. This film also follows the play version with the two escaping. Donald Pleasance makes an excellent judge in this version.
Over the years, there have been so many adaptations in all sorts of locations and all manner of new characters and plot twists. There have been video games, a wii version and graphic novels. Interestingly, the first film adaptation to keep the novel’s ending was a Russian version as late as 1987. However, the most notable adaptation of recent years has, of course, been the 2015 mini-series written by Sarah Phelps. This was not without its controversy.
It was shown over three separate episodes to mark the 125th anniversary of Agatha Christie’s birth and gained six million viewers. This version followed the book’s ending up to the point of all the characters being killed but it did not show the epilogue of the book with the police officers going through the dead people’s diaries and notebooks trying to work it out and the later finding of the message in the bottle from Judge Wargrave explaining what he’d done and how he’d gathered the victims. Instead, the judge sets it all out to Vera as she stands with her head in the noose.
Charles Dance gives a magnificent portrayal of Judge Wargrave with the perfect mixture of authority, dignity and threat. He has the ‘reptilian smile’ Agatha Christie gave him in the book. He is that ‘playful beast’ of the book, patiently watching and analysing their fear, ‘quite passionless and inhuman.’ ‘God Almighty’ as Lombard calls him. He sits in judgement and the room becomes his court room, just as it does in the book. He has, as Agatha Christie says, ‘the dispassionate stare of a man well used to weighing humanity in the balance.’ (Something that resonates for me and that I have seen many times as a criminal barrister.) Incidentally, when interviewed Charles Dance said he rarely reads the book before appearing in an adaptation as it’s very unhelpful and counter-productive when an actor comes on set with his well-thumbed copy of the book and all his ideas of what the adaptation’s character should look like.
It is a stellar cast for this production. Toby Stephens is a magnificent Dr Armstrong, with his erratic, nervous energy and guilt-ridden dreams. He is as Agatha Christie describes him in the book, ‘in a pitiable condition of nerves. He twitched and his hands shook.’ Also, ‘Every now and then he broke out into a torrent of nervous speech.’
Miranda Richardson is wonderful as the sanctimonious, religious Emily Brent and ‘thinks she’s God’s instrument.’ Her scene with Mrs Rogers, played wonderfully by Anna Maxwell Martin, is so painfully excruciating and awkward it echoes her vicious dealings with the girl whose death she caused. Again, as a character she is very quick to point out the reason for the girl’s death was ‘her own sin.’ This sticks fairly faithfully to the book. The girl drowns herself in the book rather than being hit by a train. It is undoubtedly Emily Brent’s fault but could she be prosecuted and found guilty? No. This fits the template for Wargrave’s actions in the book. However, that is not the case for all the characters.
Herein lies the problem with a number of characters in Sarah Phelps’s version. There crimes have been somewhat changed. For instance, the excellent Sam Neill takes on the part of General Macarthur (his name restored to the original). He plays it wonderfully and with the detached resignation that they will never get off the island. However, rather than send his wife’s lover to certain death in battle, he shoots him in the head. This is obviously a direct action for which he could be tried by a court and, at that time, hanged. This does not fit with the idea of the book that there are some crimes which lead to death and go unpunished because they are too much in a grey area or beyond the reach of the law. Perhaps it could not be proved but that is a stretch. In the book, the Judge finds out about the incident from two old military men in his Club. It was known about.
It is not just that character whose crimes are pushed up a level and therefore may not fit with the Judge’s scheme. Mr and Mrs Rogers in the book negligently don’t give medicine to the sick lady in their care because they stand to inherit some money from her. Mr Rogers goes for the doctor but it is too late. It is this doctor who puts the seed of the idea in Judge Wargrave’s head by casually mentioning the case of the old lady where he was convinced the restorative drug had been withheld but that it must happen often that ‘murder must be committed which the law was unable to touch.’ In the Sarah Phelps’s version there is the distressing scene of Mr Rogers smothering the old lady with a pillow and a great deal of vicious force. This is murder, pure and simple. There is no grey area for Justice Wargrave to mop up. They could very easily be prosecuted for her murder.
Blore’s crime in this version is perhaps the most vile. As a police officer, he viciously attacks and beats a young man who is gay until the man is dead in a custody cell. Blore at one point breaks down admitting that he turned the boy’s head to pulp by stamping on it. The viewer, for these purposes is the jury in Wargrave’s court or at least the public gallery and it is presented to us vividly. In the book, Blore commits an act of perjury which leads to Landor being sent to Dartmouth Prison where he later dies. It is undoubtedly, morally Blore’s fault but no jury in the land could convict him of the man’s murder. That is why Wargrave acts. Again, perhaps we can almost give the benefit of the doubt. In those days, would an officer have been able to get away with beating a man to death in the cells? That’s what we’re being asked but perhaps we are asked too many times with too many characters to stretch that thought – that these people would never be able to be punished in the normal manner. Blore’s punishment is to be killed by the polar bear rug, presumably covering the killer, instead of a clock falling on his head which is shaped like a bear.
Finally, there is of course Aidan Turner playing Lombard. In the book, he left people to die who undoubtedly starved to death. However, in this version he is seen prowling a village covered in blood having slaughtered them all. Again, we are asked to think this man indirectly committed a base act that the law does not provide for. Perhaps, given that he is a mercenary this would have been difficult to prosecute him for, but again it stretches our idea of what is ambiguous for the law.
Clearly, this is a much darker version than any that have gone before. The most controversial scene is the party scene in which Lombard, Vera, Dr Armstrong and Blore decide to get very drunk and take Marston’s cocaine. It’s a drug fuelled dance shot in a disorientating manner that sees them morph into laughing, vile caricatures. This was the BBC Christmas Christie showing close ups of the drugs being inhaled and a lot of people said it was very out of character for an Agatha Christie adaptation. In an interview, Sarah Phelps did note some points of disquiet that the BBC had where she had to back down, in particular one executive said a certain word was too far even for this dark version saying, ‘You cannot have c**t at Christmas.’
But does it go to far? That’s the question. I think not. It is all there in the book and this is a very dark book indeed. No one starts out as an innocent. No one survives. Agatha Christie very carefully sends them spiralling down into instinctive, selfish creatures with each fresh horror. Again and again they are referred to as animals. She says, ‘They were reverting to more bestial types.’ There is no shortage of alcohol swilling around, at least two of the crimes have been committed directly as a result of drunkenness. Drugs are openly referred to as leading to the death of more than one character (Isaac Morris and the daughter of the judge’s friends). At one point in the book when death is all around, Vera says, ‘We’re the zoo… Last night, we were hardly human any more. We’re the zoo…’
Indeed, many of the characters are in fact referred to as being animalistic in nature. Lombard in particular is more than once referred to as wolf-like with his long teeth. At the end, Vera says he has a wolf’s face with those terrible teeth. Previously, he is referred to as being like a panther. Aidan Turner plays it perfectly, that mixture of a laid back, laconic man who is ready to attack at any moment and won’t hesitate to kill. Again, his character’s relationship with Vera has been criticised but let’s not forget that Agatha Christie re-wrote the original book to be staged in a version where they fell in love and got away together. It is definitely an aspect of the book, as is the much talked about towel scene where they all strip down to have their rooms searched. Many viewers found this too gratuitous but it is most definitely there in the book. The men all strip in the book and their rooms are systematically searched. Vera is also required to wear only her red bathing suit whilst her room is searched.
Although there are some obvious deviations from the book, this is a meticulously put together version. The sets are beautifully designed and echo not only the time but the foreboding and isolation. For instance, the paintings hanging in the rooms are Holbein’s The Ambassadors, where we only see the skull at a certain angle and which heavily influenced the colour scheme for the library, and Merry-Go-Round by Gertler, showing the unnerving game of it all. The poems in each of the rooms are designed with a Whistler style edging that references the characters in the house. Each of the marvellous small, green figurines, reminiscent of Matisse, was commissioned and sculpted to represent each of the characters, so Marston is vanity, Wargrave’s is judgemental. Sadly, it wasn’t filmed on Burgh Island but then they would just have been able to swim to shore. It is set in Cornwall (Poldark country of course) and Harefield House in Hillingdon where beautiful art deco features such as the clock where made especially for the filming.
But primarily, in spite of some of the plot changes, I believe, it is faithful to the underlying feel of the book more than any other version. It is the only adaptation I have ever seen that is frightening and disorientating in the way the book achieves that feeling of desperation and isolation. As with the book, you are drawn into their prison like world and you are scared. Just like them, you feel that sense of nervous claustrophobia. Even if you know what’s coming next, it still shocks. You delve down to the bottom of these people’s moral condition, the kind of people who admit to these terrible, cruel crimes. But most of all you know that when the General says no one is getting off this island, he is right. That abandonment with nothing but death all around you, no heroes and no way out is very beautifully and perfectly captured.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at some of the adaptations of And Then There Were None. I’d love to know what you think. I very much enjoyed the various discussions last week and it’s fantastic to know everyone else’s opinion on the adaptations. So far, we’ve had a Poirot and a standalone, so I thought next week we really must visit St Mary Mead for one of my very favourite Miss Marple books – The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side. You can subscribe to an email alert from me when each one arrives by using the button on the front of my website if you would like to. Have a lovely week and thank you for reading.