The Cinematic and Cultural Legacy of Agatha Christie’s 1939 Breakthrough And Then There Were None
Hailed a masterpiece, lauded the best selling mystery novel of all time by critics who’ve never heard of Sherlock Holmes, And Then There Were None was a whodunit crafted long before its spawn of copycats and 80 years later its genius puzzles a new generation of rooftop sleuths.
Published in 1939, the premise of this prototype to the modern era of slasher films is simple yet enthralling, a lightning fast read concerning ten strangers lured under sketchy pretenses to an island mansion for the weekend where, hunkering against the assault of storms and cold lunchtime animal tongues, they resort to fighting for their lives from their mysterious and unaccounted for “host,” who snuffs them off one by one in manners that parallel the pattern of a children’s nursery rhyme/ high octane nightmare pressure washer. It’s only a matter of time before someone breaks out the old, “The killer is one of us!”
Claustrophobic paranoia ensues.
It’s a quick little book— my favorite copy, a brutalized paperback published under its original UK title “Ten Little Indians” — is a fast-paced 172 pages and one of the few books that, once started, I literally could not put down. (Coincidentally, I purchased that copy at a used bookstore long before I met my boyfriend who, years later, flipped open the front cover to show me his signature scrawled in the upper left corner, that very copy once belonged to him. Small world.)
How did Christie’s tiny novel influence the horror/thriller genre for decades to come? Complete with isolation, red herrings, a final girl, a nefariously repurposed teddy-bear clock, and a higher body count than Friday the 13th, Christie’s formula to this day influences and inspires contemporary thrillers, mysteries, and horror, from sweeping variations to overt knock-offs. We don’t realize it, but the formula has even infiltrated the mainstream of popular television with programs like “Survivor,” “The Bachelor,” and “American Idol” where contestants are eliminated one by one, a theme that draws significant audiences to competitive reality shows. Who’s next? Who survives?
Not surprisingly, the 1945 film adaptation — which has its share of chilling moments, most notably the ball of yarn tumbling through the upstairs railing (it’s public domain — YouTube it!) — signs off with an upbeat and, when taken into context, insultingly absurd ending that finishes on a flat note of comedic fail. Because surely he story’s original ending would savage the delicate purity of the moviegoers of yesteryear.
“I prefer the term ‘eccentric.’ But, yeah — I guess you can say I’m a little… nutty.”
— Killer’s introspective coming out in “Urban Legend” (1998)
These days there’s not so much a cinematic resurgence of Christie’s plot as there are newer and stranger interpretations; much like toadstools these sporadic, shameless knock-offs spring up overnight and underrated. Numerous contemporary film and television series have borrowed Christie’s plotline, knowingly or not, from films like “Don’t Blink” and “Devil” to MTV’s Scream series.
“Identity” (2003) is a major motion picture with a startling twist on the old blueprint. Not content to settle for just the obligatory shock ending, the film’s midpoint surprise cranks the WTF factor into hyperdrive. Set on a barren stretch of highway in the southwest where an innocuous motel is the only shelter from a ruthless storm that’s washed out both sides of the road, ten strangers converge, and, yeah, you know the drill. Starring John Cusack alongside my personal favorite actress of all time, Clea Duvall, it’s a fresh and intense retelling of Christie’s greatest hit.
In 2016 the BBC produced a highly acclaimed, cinematographically breathtaking adaptation, a two part, four hour miniseries that I encourage everyone everywhere to drop everything and look into at this very moment. GO!
Meanwhile in the States two notable visions, both entitled “Ten,” surfaced on the lower side of the mixed review spectrum, which says nothing about their entertainment value, thoughtful production quality, and their infectious good time.
This first “Ten” is an ambitiously surreal indie art film featuring an all-female cast, set with painstaking detail in the early 1970’s in a mansion on Spektor Island off the northeast coast. None of the characters, all strangers to one another, are given names, they’re only credited as “The Musician,” “The Rebel,” “The Doctor,” and so on. None are who they seem, and one, maybe more, is a murderer. With its slow burn and ubiquitous pig motif, it’s a film you’ll either love or loathe.
Another “Ten,” a YA novel by Gretchen McNeil turned film, delivers all of the elements of the original yet with teenagers and a budget that runs neck-and-neck with a Taco Bell order for two. This rendition is teeming with improbabilities, which says a lot considering its source, and polished though it may be. it just doesn’t strive to be anything higher than lackluster.
While “The Killer is One of Us” trope may be one of many in horror’s slasher subgenre, it’s an obligate and exclusive fundamental in the mystery business. Knowing that every character thrown into the mix is a suspect triggers the strongest impetus for the reader to keep reading — curiosity.
Beginning with “Scream” in 1996 and fizzling out around 2010 once the golden age of remakes had finally run its course, horror — particularly slashers which, during the eighties, were shunned by critics as well as livid boycotting housewives — turned mainstream overnight. Suddenly, young, relatively established actors were being cast in these films, earning them a pretty penny. And while the hulking, near-invincible iconic figures will always be around, the preferences of contemporary audiences definitely trend toward the “Whodunnit?” horror and its safe, reliable premise: A group of isolated young people with no means by which to contact the outside world, are offed one by one. Sounds like the most pedestrian and soulless concept ever committed to celluloid. True, perhaps, but keep in mind the mountains of revenue generated by this genre.
It’s debatable whether or not classics like “Halloween” or “Black Christmas” would ever have been made if not for “And Then There Were None.” In any event, its a brilliant story and will always be a priceless addition to pop culture.