onsdag 27 januari 2016

Christie's Terrorised Ten (or nine)

I approached BBC's new adaptation of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None with a certain wariness. The screen writer, Sarah Phelps, has been known to mess around with fundamental elements in the works she's adapted in the past (turning Oliver Twist into a thug in the making, for instance, or Miss Havisham's manner into that of a - poisonous - little girl lost). What would she do to Christie, who is apt to be underrated, when she sometimes gives the impression of wanting to improve on Dickens himself? However, I needn't have worried: The Beeb's And Then There Were None is a success. Some plot elements have been tampered with, yes, but not to any disastrous effect. There is only one change I take serious issue with.

The plot of And Then There Were None concerns ten people who are lured to an island and stranded there, while being picked off one by one by a ruthless killer. The motive is clear from the off: all of the ten are accused, in a gramophone recording, of having caused one or several deaths. The murders are a form of insane retribution: at the same time, the killer seems to be enjoying himself (I will call the murderer "he" out of convenience, but it may of course be a she). The victims are killed following the pattern of a nursery rhyme (called "Ten Little Soldier Boys" in the adaptation, completely understandably considering the original title). After a while, it dawns on the prospective victims that the murderer is not some lunatic hiding on the island, but must in matter of fact be one of them.

Christie's novel is rather an unpleasant one, but it is extremely cleverly constructed. One of the clever touches is that the killings of which the victims are accused are of the kind that they would never be convicted of in a court of law. They are indirect murders, with the odd accidental death thrown in. This gives the reader something to ponder while trying to figure out which of the ten is the one who wants to do the rest of them in. Are the actions the luckless island visitors are accused of really the equivalent of murder? How responsible are they for the deaths they are charged with, and would we put them in the same order depending on their "degree of guilt" as the murderer (the guiltier he thinks they are, the longer they have to wait before they're killed off)? Is there a clue somewhere hidden in the more vague or unsatisfactory accusations? After all, the murderer clearly feels himself to be morally superior to the rest of the crew - does this mean that he considers himself innocent, for some reason, of the charge against him? The fact that the ten suspects/victims are not hands-on murderers who've actually stuck a knife in someone is one of the main points of the novel.

Unfortunately, it is lost in the adaptation. Here, several of the indirect killings have been changed to actual murders. This is a real pity, especially as some beautiful indirect murder scenarios are done away with as a consequence. In the novel, the servant couple Mr and Mrs Rogers failed to give their former employer her medicine at the right time, resulting in her death and a nice legacy for them. In the adaptation, Rogers (considerably more Gothic than in the book) simply smothers the old lady with a pillow. On screen, General Macarthur is seen putting a bullet in his wife's lover's head; in the novel, he ingeniously sent the young man on a suicidal mission, with no-one - except a suspicious fellow officer, who of course had no proof - any the wiser about the fact that it wasn't an honest mistake. With several bona fide murderers among the ten, who would look more at home in Cards on The Table's Mr Shaitana's collection than U.N. Owen's (the murderer's alias), the plot loses an interesting dimension and the question of "degrees of guilt" doesn't really become an issue.

Having said that, the TV adaptation works very well as a thriller rather than as a clever conundrum. The focus is, as it should be, on the victims, and how they cope with the nightmare situation they've landed in. Mercifully, there is no "they had it coming" gleefulness over the proceedings. In spite of the fact that the story is divided into three whole hour-long episodes when the novel is only 220-odd pages long, the tension is kept up. The casting is absolutely spot-on, from the smaller parts (or are they...?) of Douglas Booth as reckless but eye-poppingly gorgeous Anthony Marston and Anna Maxwell Martin as the cowed Mrs Rogers to the more substantial ones. My personal favourite was Burn Gorman (Guppy in Bleak House) as the shifty copper Blore, sometimes funny when trying to salvage his dignity in trying circumstances ("I was in the lavvy if you must know"), sometimes clearly a man dangerously easy to underestimate. It's a shame that his role in the death of Stephen Landor is not only changed but also poorly motivated, but Gorman makes the best of it, and I doubt many could have grieved for the fate of Blore's allotment as convincingly. Casting Aidan Turner aka Ross Poldark as Philip Lombard is no audience-ingratiating move on the part of the BBC - well, not wholly; he's precisely the right type for this part, and as a bonus, he's allowed to shave as Lombard. I hadn't come across Maeve Dermody before, but she's exactly as I imagine Vera Claythorne: deceptively demure, but when it comes down to it a right calculating little minx. Ooh, and did I mention Charles Dance as the wintry judge? I could go on and on.

After having watched this atmospheric nail-biter, which does not belittle Christie's story or her characters, I feel more positive in view of Phelps's rumoured involvement in one or several episodes of Dickensian. I wonder if original TV drama would not suit her better than adaptations, though. And I still would not trust her or anyone else than Andrew Davies with adapting Dombey and Son - a question which remains sadly academic.