And Then There Were None: Which Ending is Better? Part I


The 2015 miniseries Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None is quite astonishing. It uses the book ending rather than the play ending (Christie wrote both).

Generally speaking, I prefer the play ending for reasons that I will list in the next post. But I have to extend kudos to the 2015 miniseries for pulling off the book ending with plausible panache.

In the book, everyone dies. It is the perfect master-plan, carried out to perfection by the murderer. Vera Claythorne and Philip Lombard, the final victims, die when Vera kills him, then hangs herself. As the murderer states, The police will arrive to find ten dead bodies and no answer to how it all happened.

Still from Endless Night
If anything, the book proves that Christie was capable of a high level of horror/suspense. She accomplishes a similar sense of dread in Endless Night and in the unsettling novel Ordeal By Innocence. Both these books have been translated into superb movies, the first starring Hayley Mills and  Hywel Bennett, the second starring Donald Sutherland. Both movies closely follow their books and scupper the ridiculous notion that Christie had no appreciation or understanding of the dark side of life/literature.

For the play version of And Then There Were None, Christie altered the ending. The viewers learn that Vera and Philip are guiltless of the murderer's accusations (the murderer is killing off people who got away with crimes) and work together to outlive the murderer.

Vera Respectable
As stated above, the 2015 miniseries retains the book ending and for a depressing ending with no redeemable features, it holds up surprisingly well. One reason is the stellar company: Aidan Turner, Miranda Richardson, Sam Neill, Charles Dance, Toby Stephens . . .  Every character is perfectly cast. Maeve Dermondy as Vera delivers a masterful performance as the bad girl who pretends to be a good girl who is far more ruthless, far more of a survivalist, than any of the other characters except possibly Philip (Aidan Turner). And even he can't match her in the end. (Dermondy's portrayal of Vera's final desperate and self-serving bargaining with the murderer hopefully has won her some awards.)

Vera Less Respectable
The island setting is perfect (how I always imagined it!), and the time period carries a relevance that other versions fall to capture. It is 1938, immediately before World War II (the book was actually published in 1939). The world of civilized tea and deferential servants and "right" attitudes is about to be blow to smithereens. Vera exemplifies a veneer that time would have stripped away in any case. Philip, as the ruthless mercenary, proves the only likable character, not because he hasn't done bad things but because he willingly sees beyond not only Vera's front but his own as well. He is one of two characters to fully admit to his crimes without justifying himself. Unlike the first character, his admittance is the result of full understanding and acceptance: he knows who he is and what he has done. Within a few months, he would have made an excellent commando.

Lombard's ruthlessness is only slightly
undercut by the utterly charming
tendency of Aidan Turner's hair to
curl at the slightest hint of humidity.
The island strips away the veneer of the supposed cozy village that Christie is so often accused of creating* at the same time that it strips away the veneer of the characters' roles--there is a kind of pitying relentlessness in Christie's treatment. She maintains that these "victims" have done truly bad things yet they are not--with the exception of the mastermind--crazy or even particularly evil. Their motivations regarding the original crimes were human, petty, unintentioned (in some cases), deliberate (in others), occasionally the result of carelessness or indifference. They are real, relatable. People.

And they are executed nonetheless.

To be continued . . .

* Personally, I don't mind "cozies," but I get tired of people so fundamentally misreading Christie's books. 


Joe said...

If the ending of a mystery plot can be changed on a whim, doesn't that invalidate the story?

Katherine Woodbury said...

I think it depends on the type of change.

In the case of And Then There Were None, Christie retains the murderer and the murderer’s intentions as well as his plan and methods. She “merely” saves two of the characters’ lives. (The change does radically alter the theme between the two versions.)

With Witness for the Prosecution, Christie added a twist to the end of the play, a twist that was retained in the movie (great movie by the way). The twist is exciting (and actually quite funny in a dark humor kind of way) but in no way changes anything else about the story; it is the natural outcome of the characters’ temperaments.

When it came to adapting Appointment with Death, Christie actually changed the solution from murder to suicide. She played reasonably fair, backtracking between the book and the play to tweak clues. Still, I will admit, I find the alteration to Appointment with Death less satisfactory than the alteration to And Then There Were None.

And then there were books where Christie adamantly refused to change the ending, specifically the murderer’s identity, despite her publisher’s objections.

I suppose it’s the difference between writing a kind of epilogue and actually shifting the characters’ trajectories to force a specific ending—which latter approach brings me back to problematic television seasons :)

Joe said...

I'm reminded of Murder By Death.

Katherine Woodbury said...

I haven't seen it yet! I'm always meaning to (love my Peter Falk). Is it like Clue (with the several alternate endings)? Odder? Darker? Funnier?

Joe said...

Clue wasn't funny, so no, it's not like Clue. It's a comedy made funnier by the actors.

FreeLiverFree said...

One of the odd things about Christie is that a lot of her books and out look on life is as cynical, or more so, than many of the hard-boiled school of detective fiction. She's probably more cynical about human nature than say Robert Crais.

Christie seems to really believe that civilization is just a thin veneer.

Katherine Woodbury said...

Yeah, in many ways I think Christie would be in utter agreement with the end of Stephen King's article "Why Horror Movies" (although maybe not with the tone :):

The mythic horror movie, like the sick joke, has a dirty job to do. It deliberately appeals to all that is worst in us. It is morbidity unchained, our most base instincts let free, our nastiest fantasies realized . . . and it all happens, fittingly enough, in the dark. For those reasons, good liberals often shy away from horror films. For myself, I like to see the most aggressive of them . . . as lifting a trap door in the civilized forebrain and throwing a basket of raw meat to the hungry alligators swimming around in that subterranean river beneath.

Why bother? Because it keeps them from getting out, man. It keeps them down there and me up here. It was Lennon and McCartney who said that all you need is love, and I would agree with that.

As long as you keep the gators fed.

FreeLiverFree said...

I think this element might be what separates Christie from many "cosy" writers no matter how much they may have been influenced by her. Just as Tolkien's religious beliefs and in-depth creation of Middle-Earth is what separates him from various fantasy trilogies.