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

1965 Ten Little Indians: I quite like this version!

As mentioned in the previous post, the end of the play version of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None leaves two of the characters alive: Vera Claythorne and Philip Lombard. In addition, they are proved relatively guiltless of their supposed crimes: if I remember correctly, Vera's "crime" turns out to have been a legitimate accident, and Philip is standing in for someone else.

While I admire the miniseries, I prefer this ending for two reasons:

1) Watching people survive is visually more interesting than watching everybody die.

One reason I probably don't take to horror beyond Supernatural and X-Files (low level horror) is that I find dropping bodies rather tedious. By the time one reaches the middle of And Then There Were None, the end result is a foregone conclusion. Visually, one is going to get a lot more corpses.

The miniseries pulls this off through the virtuoso performances of the cast members. Watching Toby Stephens lose it is, in fact, interesting. And based on the many, many images posted on the web, watching Aidan Turner walk around without a shirt on is also very interesting.

In all seriousness, the cast sells the drama from Charles Dance's gentlemanly quips to The Bletchley Circle's Anna Maxwell Martin's guilt-ridden demeanor. To use the book ending, one must have such a cast.

Absent a collection of unsettlingly good actors, plot becomes the only retreat, a dramatic truth that Christie understood. She was a talented playwright with an instinctive understanding that what works on paper doesn't necessarily work on stage. On paper, the intellectual a-ha (oh, THAT character was the murderer) is enough. Visually--not so much.

Paying off the viewers' anticipation with a visual treat--you thought they were going to die: voila! they didn't--works. It's the kind of twist that can be easily overused (take note, action and mystery movies), yet provides great satisfaction when handled properly.

2) The play version has a fascinating theme.

The theme of the book and of the miniseries is that dark truths underscore civilized behavior. The play retains this theme to an extent, but the survival of Philip and Vera throws a new issue into the mix.

Through Philip and Vera, Christie tackles a problem that underscores most murder mysteries. It is best summed up by Mark in Dial M for Murder:
Margot Wendice: Do you really believe in the perfect murder?
Mark Halliday: Mmm, yes, absolutely. On paper, that is. And I think I could, uh, plan one better than most people; but I doubt if I could carry it out.
Tony Wendice: Oh? Why not?
Mark Halliday: Well, because in stories things usually turn out the way the author wants them to; and in real life they don't... always.
Tony Wendice: Hmm.
Mark Halliday: No, I'm afraid my murders would be something like my bridge: I'd make some stupid mistake and never realize it until I found everybody was looking at me.

Agatha Christie created paper perfect murders and knew it. Her murders depend on people not strolling into lounges at inopportune moments or saying, "Hey, didn't I see you last year in . . . " or obstinately refusing to do the murderer's bidding (go fetch a coat, go fetch a doctor, go fetch a priest, allowing the murderer to clean up the crime scene).

I sometimes entertain myself by imagining how a Christie murder could be prevented--some of them are remarkably easy to sabotage. In Death on the Nile, all anyone has to do is not leave Simon alone in the parlor.

Pierre's surprise at learning that Poirot will be on the 
train. From 1974's Murder on the Orient Express,  
another film with a remarkable cast. 
Christie knew this--minor characters are often killed off precisely because they wander into murder scenes at the wrong moment. More than that, she demonstrates a commonsensical appreciation of the tendency of human nature to act according to plan right up until it totally doesn't.  The timetable for the murder in Murder on the Orient Express shifts when Poirot ends up on the train. The murderer's plan to frame another person in The A.B.C. Murders is thwarted by an avid domino player. In The Body in the Library, a suspect unwittingly shifts attention to the true victim through a drunken act.

In reality, the murderer's plan in And Then There Were None to kill off his victims in accordance with the nursery rhyme (Ten little ______ [soldiers/Indians/etc.] went out to dine/One choked his little self and then there were nine) would fall flat: some of the ten victims would refuse the invitation; at least one of his victims would attempt to cobble together a makeshift boat or decamp to the other end of the island. The skipper would decide to return early despite being instructed not to. Someone would send up flares. The coast guard would pop by . . .

In addition to all his unreliable victims, the murderer could be wrong in the first place, the twist that Christie utilizes. He could misidentify a tragedy as a murder as he does with Vera. He could fail to anticipate that one of his potential victims, Philip, already committed suicide (Philip's best friend takes his place out of curiosity). People are fallible, and there are truly no such things as masterminds.

In the current climate of far too many MASTERMINDS and ULTIMATE BAD GUYS on television, I find it refreshing to remember what the Queen of Mysteries herself knew: Sometimes, the bad guys just get it wrong.

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