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While I do not usually use this blog to discuss television, the recent BBC adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None raises interesting issues, particularly in contrast to the 1945 film version, directed by René Clair. The central question is not so much the degree of fidelity to the original as it is what the emphases say about the motivation for any adaptation.

The two versions are obviously very different. Clair’s film takes the usual approach to cozy detection fiction by treating murder as an intellectual game in which the viewer (or reader) plays cat-and-mouse with the storyteller. The tone is light and playful; any suspense or danger is trimly contained within well-mannered expectations.

The BBC version, on the other hand, is a slowly moving, brooding, repetitive exercise in dread. Since it is a “whodunnit,” the filmmakers cannot depict the murders, but the bodies, when discovered, are bloody and gruesome enough to remind us that there is nothing playful about violent death. No doubt the filmmakers thought this humorless approach was more “serious,” but glum solemnity is not necessarily profound. In fact, anxious with neurotic details as they may be, the characters here are no deeper than Christie’s stereotypes, just unhappier. The actors fix one expression, flash back to their characters’ personal atrocities, then gloomy visual mayhem flows from the screen in a cascade of formal fireworks and retributive admonition.

The results are not necessarily inferior or superior, just drenched in guilt. The literal-minded “realism” at work demands that every story remind us of life’s grimmer realities. There is enough violence in Christie’s book to justify such emphasis. The question is why anyone would want to treat an escapist thriller as a horror show, especially since some of the changes, such as one character’s burst of vicious homophobic violence, are far uglier than anything implied in the book.

The easy answer is that we live in times so terrifying that there can no longer be innocent escape. The sanctimonious one is that we should be forced to recognize the suffering of others, even if they are fictional. Both explanations overlook that Christie wrote her book just before the outbreak of World War II, and Clair made his film just at the end of it. So it is difficult to claim that our times are markedly more horrifying.

The better answer may be that people want to be horrified in a masochistic expiation of guilt. Superficial psychology allows people to wallow in sordid details and thereby believe they are confronting some unpleasant truth, while still conveniently evading their own hypocrisies and misdeeds. When the final four survivors indulge in a booze and coke bacchanal, for example, it’s as if a list of contemporary vices is being checked off—while also providing the viewer the pleasure of smug recognition. Making the implicit explicit, however, merely substitutes specious sophistication for insight. It’s psychology dressing up formulaic fiction, pop culture longing for the abyss.