And Then There Were None – stories in which characters get bumped off one by one

SPOILER ALERT. If you have not read or seen the film adaptations of And Then There Were None or The Hunger Games or seen the films The Thing, Exam or Identity, then this article will ruin the end for you. You have been warned.
And Then There Were None –
And Then There Were None
Agatha Christie wrote the archetypal diminishing roll call story in 1939. It was originally published with a racist title (this was 1930’s England, folks!) which was then changed to a considerably less racist title and then again to the title we currently know it by.
In the story, ten people are invited to an otherwise deserted island where they are then bumped off one by one by an unseen assassin. The manner of their deaths more or less conforms to the couplets in a children’s nursery rhyme (although how “a big bear hugged one” equals having a clock dropped on your head is a stretch too far for me). The characters quickly realise that the U. N. Owen who had invited them to the island is in fact “Unknown” and that their mysterious host (and the killer) is one of their number.
After nine deaths, Vera Claythorne is the only left alive but she is not the murderer. How can this be? Realising that she will no doubt be charged and executed for the murders committed on the island, she hangs herself. Only in a postscript is it revealed that one of the earlier deaths was faked and that the justice-mad Lawrence Wargrave was able to carry out the last killings “from beyond the grave” before killing himself for real.
Agatha Christie is rightly considered a very important and very entertaining writer. However, she wasn’t really big on description or introspective analysis of human emotions. The characters arrive, get killed off one by one in rapid succession and the solution is revealed. It’s a short and pacy read and it’s no wonder that it has been adapted several times.
And Then There Were None. I mean Two. –
And Then There Were None (1974)
This is my favourite film adaptation of the novel. It’s relocated to the Iranian desert, it’s chock full of the celebrity international actors of the day (Gert Frobe, Adolfo Celi, Elke Sommer and Herbert Lom) and it has the alternative ending that Christie herself created for the stage version of her play.
I like it especially because of the Italian soundtrack and because Charles Aznavour’s character gets bumped off in the first ten minutes.
The alternative ending was a direct attempt to give viewers a happy ending but it does work. In the film, when it appears that Vera (Cylde not Claythone is this version) is the last one alive, Wargrave appears to drink poison and reveal his wicked and twisted plan BUT Vera  is not alone! The death of Hugh Lombard (Oliver Reed) was also faked and now there are two people left alive at the end to corroborate each other’s stories.
The film ends with Wargrave (Richard Attenborough) doing the most genuinely brilliant impression of a man choking to death I’ve ever seen. And he looks so disappointed to find his grand scheme undone. Poor fellow.
And Then There Were Two –
The Hunger Games
Have you read the book? Have you seen the film? If you’ve answered ‘no’ to both of these questions then you belong to a very rare group of people. You should form a club and have badges and a secret handshake. The latest Twilight/Harry Potter/(insert Young Adult book-film sensation here) is a simple story, lightly and clearly told and very entertaining. I’ve known grown men steal the book from their teenage daughters and sit up all night so they can finish reading it.
It has also been said more than once that Suzanne Collins novel is a knock-off/homage of several other stories. It is the American Battle Royale. It is The Running Man with the Schwarzenegger character played by a teenage girl. It is Predator with the Schwarzenegger character played by… oh.
Collins can deny having ever heard of Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale (for shame!) but it doesn’t matter. The trope had been well-established for decades and, besides, they are different books with different themes. As a book with a sympathetic central character and written for young adults, Collins’ biggest challenge was perhaps to get the heroine, Katniss, and her is-he-isn’t-he boyfriend to be the last two standing without either of them coming off as vile murderers. She manages it, although some might criticise how the reader’s sympathies are manipulated to achieve that end.
And Then There Was One –
Exam
British cinema can be divided into three main categories:
a)                Hugh Grant rom-coms set in an England that does not exist outside Richard Curtis’ head;
b)                Gangster movies set in a London that does not exist outside Guy Ritchie’s head and;
c)                 All the other ones (which you’ve probably not seen).
Exam falls into category c. Written and directed by Stuart Hazeldine, Exam follows eight job applicants as they sit the final exam for acceptance to the ranks of a major corporation. They are sat at tables in a sealed room and are given 80 minutes to complete the examination before them. All pretty straight forward until they realise their exam papers are all blank. What follows, in roughly real-time, are acts of vandalism, abuse, torture and death. One by one, the characters storm out, are bullied out, forcibly ejected and shot.
At the end, the successful candidate and the real nature of the exam are revealed. It’s real-time narrative and single set location add to the tension of the piece. It’s clever, if unbelievable, and it’s the only entry on this list of mine in which characters don’t have to die to be removed from the narrative.
And Then There Were Two (or is it One?)
John Carpenter’s The Thing
John Carpenter’s The Thing is an adaptation of the John Campbell novella, Who Goes There?, more than it is a remake of the 1951 The Thing From Another World. In this story, the characters are eliminated one by one by a shape-changing life-devouring alien being, dug up from the Antarctic ice and ultimately transported to a US science station. The alien is able to take on the form, memories and mannerisms of the individuals it devours and so the story has notable shades of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers about it.
However, on closer scrutiny, The Thing is more similar to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None in that it shares the isolated setting (and the helplessness and terror that goes with that) and also has a killer who is “one of us.” Even though the nature of the killer becomes known to the characters relatively early on, the alien’s chameleonic nature means that everyone is a suspect. The men at the science station eventually turn on one another and innocent people are killed.
The Thing is a superlative example of prosthetic special effects 80s body horror. We are treated to an hour and a half of alien-human hybrids, a chest cavity that bites off arms and a severed head that sprouts legs and runs away. In the end, two people are left alive, freezing to death in the remains of their destroyed home but are they humans or aliens? They finally surmise that they can’t both be aliens or else they would reveal their true natures to one another. Either one is alien and the other its final victim or they are both human and facing death by hypothermia. Nihilistic stuff.
And Then There Were One. I mean Two. I mean One. Oh, I see, there was no one there in the first place –
Identity
Identity starts out as an And Then There Were None clone with ten people trapped at a Midwest motel during a rainstorm. They include a petty crook, a limousine driver who used to be a cop, a cop who is clearly not a cop, the prisoner he is transporting across the country and a couple with their young son. In separate scenes in a nighttime courthouse, we are told that a serial killer is being brought to the courthouse that night for a final hearing before his execution.
What then follows is the standard bumping off of the characters by an unknown killer. Each corpse is found with a motel key in their hand, the first with the number 10 then 9, then 8…
SUPER SPOILER ALERT!!
And then Identity plays its major twist card which, depending on your tastes, is either brilliant or stupid. The serial killer prisoner is wheeled into the courthouse and he’s none of the characters we’ve met before. So what on earth do the two narratives have to do with one another? It turns out that our ten motel-based characters are the different personalities within the killer’s schizophrenic mind.
The doctor treating the killer has put him on a drug regime which is forcing his multiple personalities to confront one another. The intention is that a single personality will emerge but the big question is will the final surviving character be a good person or the psychopath who made the Multiple Personality Disorder sufferer kill and kill again?
In the end, it is a virtuous young woman who survives the carnage, protected from Ray Liotta’s not-a-cop by John Cusack’s used-to-be-a-cop. Having a pretty, white girl as the last survivor is perhaps the biggest cliché in these kinds of stories so it is at least refreshing to have the killer (who faked his own death) pop up at the end to dispatch her with a gardening implement.
And Then There Was One, possibly. Who knows? –
Ten To One
Oh, it’s revealed that this blog is another savage ploy to promote Pigeon Park Press’s collaborative writing project, Ten To One.  We’re currently gathering writers who would like to take part. The idea behind the project is that ten writers will write a novel together, each of them handling the chapters relating to one of the major characters. However – and here’s the twist – after each round of chapters, a character (and writer) will be voted off the project by a combination of public vote and judging panel.
We’ve not decided on what kind of narrative it is yet. It might be an And Then There Were None murder mystery but, more likely, it’s going to go into far more exciting territory. Time, space and all reality are ours to play with.
If you’re reading this blog before 31st March 2013, then you still have an opportunity to get involved as a writer. If you’re reading it after that date, you won’t be able to join us as a writer but you certainly will be able to keep up with news and stories related to the project.
To be kept up to date, ‘like’ our Facebook page at:  http://www.facebook.com/#!/TenToOneNovel
Interested in getting involved? Mail us at:  info@pigeonparkpress.com
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