Light spoilers follow, but the identity of the killer is not revealed.
Lifetime's And Then There Were None, a TV adaptation of the famous Agatha Christie novel airing in two parts on March 13 and 14, is enormous fun: a lush, lurid, gothic fantasy of a murder mystery. It also has little in common with its source material.
The plot, to be sure, is more or less the same. Ten strangers arrive on a mysterious island at the invitation of an unknown host, only to find themselves accused of murder. At first most characters maintain their innocence, but one by one we learn that their guilt is undeniable. Prior to arriving on the island, each was somehow involved in the death of another person, seemingly without consequence — and one by one they are all picked off. In an eerie touch, the murders of the 10 strangers follow the form of the nursery rhyme hung in each room. (The poem, riddled with racial slurs in its original printing, is now called "Ten Little Soldier Boys.")
But Lifetime's adaptation makes a couple of major changes to Christie's original tale, resulting in a work that ignores what made the novel such a masterpiece while striking out on its own as terrifically entertaining TV.
Lifetime's adaptation recasts the novel's murders by proxy as explicit, blood-soaked crimes
In Christie’s novel, the murder each character is accused of is a kind of bloodless murder by proxy, a murder that is outside of the reach of the law. That they were not and could not be prosecuted or otherwise punished for their actions is what motivates each killer to take justice into his or her own hands.
A general sends his man on a mission to certain death. A police officer submits false evidence to sentence an innocent man to hard labor, which kills him. A mercenary abandons his guides in the East African bush with no food or water. "I suppose, in a way, it was murder," one character says. "But it didn’t seem like that at the time." The allegations against these characters are unquestionably morally evil, but they are not murders in the legal sense of the term.
In Lifetime's miniseries, the murders are almost uniformly bloody and violent and direct. The general shoots his man in the head. The police officer beats the prisoner to death in his cell. The mercenary slaughters his guides. The sense of remove that allows Christie’s characters to smugly imagine themselves innocent is gone. Instead, we are left with characters who know themselves unquestionably to be killers, and we are shown the murders in gory detail. The motive of the island killer, meanwhile, becomes far more opaque: Surely these victims are not beyond the reach of the law?
It’s a telling change, and it speaks to the larger difference between the source material and the show. Christie’s And Then There Were None is distinctive for the coolness of its atmosphere and the intricacy of its plotting. The author has no time to waste on establishing a gloomy, gothic murder house when she can simply say the house is perfectly normal and get to work planting clues and red herrings. You don’t read Christie to be thrilled; you read Christie to work out a set of logic problems. Her And Then There Were None is a puzzle-box mystery with a fiendishly complex plot and murders so remote and so bloodless they barely register as murders.
The miniseries’ focus is less on elegant plotting and more on a gothic sense of paranoia
Lifetime's adaptation doesn't care much about the logic of its murders; it is perfectly willing to muddle Christie’s impeccable plotting if it will make the story more exciting. What it does care about is making everything as grisly and graphic as possible, with blood and sex and gothic atmosphere dripping from every frame.
As the housekeeper, Anna Maxwell Martin turns Christie’s bland, nervous character into a twitchy masterpiece of Grand Guignol; she could easily be on vacation from the house in Crimson Peak. Where the characters in the book lock themselves into their rooms in unison — a moment that Christie coolly describes as "a little like a scene in a farce" — their TV counterparts break out the booze and the drugs and start dancing. Where Christie’s spinster killed her pregnant ward because she disapproved of fallen women, the TV version does it because of her repressed lesbian desires.
And Christie’s chilly little quasi-romance between Final Girl Vera Claythorne and the dashing Captain Philip Lombard is developed and sexed up — Aidan Turner’s Lombard broodingly rips off his shirt at every available opportunity, and Vera (a terrifically dour Maeve Dermody) leads him into her room for a midnight tryst. In this adaptation, the slow revelation of Vera’s sexuality is tied intimately to the slow revelation of Vera’s guilt. Where Christie's Vera seems never to have had so much as an impure thought, Lifetime's Vera has hidden depths.
"You seem to be under the impression that I am a particular kind of woman," she tells Lombard in part one. "I assure you that I am not. I do not like to be looked at."
"I think you’re pretending," he responds — and he is, we learn, correct. As Vera ceases to pretend that she is not responsible for the death of a little boy, she also stops pretending that she doesn’t like to be looked at. Instead she holds her dressing gown open. "Call me Vera," she tells Lombard.
None of these changes are bad, necessarily. In fact, most of them are enjoyable. The cast, ably headed by Charles Dance in fine form, is clearly enjoying the opportunity to throw darkly ambiguous are-you-the-killer-or-am-I-the-killer glares around the room whenever possible. The elaborate murder house we’re given in place of Christie’s ordinary residence is lavishly decorated and gorgeous to look at, and so are the lush, elegant costumes. But the throbbing paranoia of this miniseries owes far more to the horror tradition than to Christie’s bloodless, passionless logic puzzle.
The two-part And Then There Were None concludes with its hour-long second part on Monday, March 14, at 9 pm Eastern on Lifetime. The miniseries' two-hour first part will re-air directly prior, beginning at 7 pm Eastern.