When US network ABC broadcast its adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots in 1977, it attracted a staggering audience of 28.8 million. This achievement was made all the more impressive by the fact that the network had no real confidence that a show about slavery would rate well.
A+E Networks never stood a chance of matching that figure with its updated version of the miniseries, but it will be delighted with the audience it achieved on Monday night. All told, 5.3 million tuned in to premiere of the eight-part drama, which aired across four sister channels – A&E, History, Lifetime and LMN. That figure is the best same-day debut for a miniseries since 2013’s Bonnie & Clyde.
Whether Roots can sustain that level of performance remains to be seen. An IMDb score of 7.1 suggests that the audience is either lukewarm about the show or polarised. The possibility of a polarised audience raised its head when rapper Snoop Dogg took to social media to complain about the number of black-focused films and TV shows that tackle slavery. “When are you going to make a series about the success black folks is having?” he wrote.
The show’s producer, Will Packer, rejected the criticism. In an interview, he said: “I don’t think we should get too comfortable as a country, as a society or as a race of people. I think this is a story that’s important enough that it should be told in repeated ways.”
The good news for Packer and A&E is that critics are on their side. Giving the show four stars, The Daily Telegraph applauded the “towering performance” of Malachi Kirby in the role of Kunta Kinte, while The Wrap called it “an enormously gripping experience” that is “spectacularly shot” and “exceptionally well acted.”
A&E can also take comfort from the fact that international broadcasters have bought into Roots in a big way. A&E Studios International has sold the show to broadcasters in more than 50 territories, including SBS in Australia, TVNZ in New Zealand, Thai PBS in Thailand, D’Live in South Korea, Atresmedia in Spain, HBO Europe, RTL in the Netherlands and Crave in Canada.
Another positive story for the A+E family has been Lifetime’s satirical drama UnREAL, co-created by Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro. The show didn’t have an especially strong debut but a shrewd piece of online streaming during the first half of season one helped it find its audience. You can see this in the numbers. Having drifted from 815,000 at launch to 550,000 for episode four, it then bounced backed to around 810,000 for episode five, also boosting its appeal to 18- to 49-year-olds. Subsequently it managed to bring in around 700,000 per episode.
Season two is about to air, but such is Lifetime’s confidence in UnREAL that it has just announced a third series of 10 episodes in 2017. A big part of the show’s appeal to Lifetime is that it is helping to bring down the average viewer age of the network – with a median age of 43.
Commenting on the commission, Liz Gateley, executive VP and head of programming for Lifetime, said, “UnREAL is that rare series that redefines a network. It not only reflects culture, but pushes culture forward by creating television’s first female antihero. The overwhelming fan and critical reaction set the bar incredibly high, but the writers and executive producing team, coupled with the outstanding performances by Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer, have taken the second season to even greater creative heights. We are thrilled about the new ground we will break with season three.” An added bonus is that the show is produced by A+E Studios.
Another leading female-skewing network, Hallmark, has also just announced plans to renew one of its key series. The show is Good Witch, which comes to the end of season two on June 19. Having established itself as Hallmark’s top drama with an audience of around 2-2.5 million per episode, Good Witch has now been given a third season by the channel. Set in the small community of Middleton, Good Witch tells the story of a good-hearted enchantress and her teenage daughter who shares her powers.
Elsewhere, Fear The Walking Dead seems to have fallen into a nice stable pattern for AMC. Now in the middle of its second season, it attracts between 4.4 million and 4.5 million an episode on its first showing. This then rises by a couple of million when Live + 3-day viewing is tallied up. Clearly these figures aren’t in the same league as The Walking Dead, but there isn’t a cable channel in the US that wouldn’t want to attract this magnitude of audience.
Finally, Canal+’s lavish period drama Versailles launched on BBC2 in the UK this week on the back of plenty of hype in the media. Having been described as a “bonkbuster” by The Sun Newspaper and the “most explicit” drama ever by The Daily Express, it’s no real surprise that the show attracted a healthy 1.8 million viewers. The acid test, of course, will be how the show settles once the audience has satisfied its curiosity about the sex quotient…
Telling the story of an African man sold into slavery in the US, miniseries Roots became a cultural sensation upon its release in 1977. Now, History hopes to make a similar impact with a remake of the iconic show. DQ meets the cast and crew.
There’s no denying that remakes are in vogue. From film-to-TV adaptations to reboots of classic television series, the 2016/17 broadcast season will be littered with a host of familiar stories and titles.
Some of the films getting small-screen versions include The Exorcist, Lethal Weapon, Taken, Emerald City (based on The Wizard of Oz), Training Day, Frequency and Time After Time.
And new versions of MacGyver, Prison Break and 24 will join long-running Hawaii Five-0 among the series enjoying a new life this fall.
Before then, however, US cable channel History has chosen to remake classic slavery drama Roots for a new generation of viewers, almost 40 years after Alex Haley’s iconic novel was first adapted for television.
Launching on May 30 and airing over four consecutive nights simultaneously on History, A&E and Lifetime, the A+E Networks series is described as a historical portrait of American slavery recounting the journey of one family and their will to survive and ultimately carry on their legacy despite hardship.
Spanning multiple generations, the story begins with young Kunta Kinte (Malachi Kirby, pictured top) who is captured in his homeland in The Gambia and transported in brutal conditions to colonial America, where he is sold into slavery.
Throughout the series, the family continues to face adversity while bearing witness and contributing to notable events in US history – including the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, slave uprisings and eventual emancipation.
“It’s pretty surreal on a lot of levels, coming back to the same project but on the other side of the camera this time,” says co-executive producer LeVar Burton, who played Kunta Kinte in the original 1977 miniseries. “Being present for scenes that I was a part of or witnessed 40 years ago, with a different cast of actors and technicians around – it’s like someone who’s been married several times! It’s kind of a weird experience. And one that is so fraught with pressure and a sense of responsibility. It’s always there, it never goes away.”
The original series was a critical and commercial hit for ABC. On average, more than 80 million people watched each of the last seven episodes, according to the Museum of Broadcast Communications. Some 100 million viewers – almost half the country – saw the final episode.
It also scored a host of awards, winning Emmys including Best Limited Series, Best Director, Best Music Composition and Best Writing in a Drama.
While the drama captivated a nation, it also proved a catalyst for people to learn more about the US slave trade and race relations, having a lasting impact in schools and universities less than 10 years after the battle for civil rights dominated the 1960s.
And that legacy is something the cast and creative team of the new Roots miniseries are only too aware of.
Anika Noni Rose, who plays Kizzy, says: “I don’t feel pressure (to repeat the success of the original adaptation). I feel a joyous responsibility, which is greater than just a responsibility to the original – it’s also a cultural responsibility. This story is owed to so many people who came before us, all of us. But it’s a wonderful thing to have the honour of telling a story of such an intense survival.”
For executive producer Mark Wolper, there’s an added element of responsibility in the fact that his father, David, produced the original adaptation. “We could not have taken on a more difficult, ridiculous notion than remaking Roots,” he says. “The equivalent would be remaking one of the greatest films of all time – we’re trying to do Casablanca again or Singin’ in the Rain. But in the TV world, we’re taking on one of the most successful dramas of all time.
“There’s a historical responsibility of telling the story even better than Alex did the first time because of all the work that’s been done since then to improve civil rights. There’s also a responsibility to represent cultural issues in America and globally now, with forced migration and slavery; a responsibility to the History channel, which has a brand and identity; to A&E Studios, which is producing one of its first projects. There’s a responsibility to the legacy of my father and what he produced. All these things on top of this project make it exciting – and scary.”
Although Wolper calls the new Roots a “completely different imagining” of Haley’s story, he admits it is a remake, adding: “But if you remember something being great and you go back and look at it now and think, ‘It’s not as strong as I remember it,’ you should do it again. If you remember something being great and you go back and it’s still great, you shouldn’t touch it.
“The original was made in the 70s. We have the capacity to make it better now, technically speaking. My son was the catalyst for me deciding to do Roots again. He did not respond to the original Roots and since it is a family event, I was disturbed by the fact the old one didn’t speak to him. It’s like my music, it didn’t speak to him, so that was the catalyst for me realising why we needed to tell this story again and translate it for a whole new generation, for a generation that didn’t know of it.”
Burton adds: “That’s the most compelling reason – to tell this story so that we don’t forget it, so it stays alive in cultural consciousness. It’s a sense of doing this important story more justice in a modern context.”
Rose was cast in the miniseries after meeting Wolper and finding out more about his ambitions for a new version of Roots. “I was satisfied in that meeting that it was something that was respectful, and that made a great difference to me,” she says, adding that she avoided watching the original series before or during filming.
“I had read the book as an adult just to read the book, but I’m a reader. I love to read. My parents had the book and I snatched it up and ate it, basically. So I re-read the book, which is not an easy read, to bring myself to this. In some ways, it was extraordinarily helpful just to know the genealogical history of the family, but this wasn’t necessarily immediately helpful in telling this story. Not all things we took with us and utilised.”
The cast also includes big-name stars Lawrence Fishburne, Forest Whitaker, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Anna Paquin, who also hadn’t watched the original, or read the book, when she signed up to play Nancy Holt.
“I’m just appropriately respectful of the fact that I’m not American, it’s not my story and it’s very important. I wanted to make sure if you’re going to tell someone else’s story, you’re doing it properly and in the appropriate way,” the New Zealander says. “Also, I wasn’t dying to play someone who was evil, so I was a little apprehensive about being white and in Roots. It depended on what I had to do, because there are some things I don’t think I creatively need to explore.
“So then reading the script and finding out she’s essentially a spy and essentially a deeply good person, which matters to me, was really fascinating. And then educating myself more about that period of time, I did a lot of reading and research. It was fascinating.”
Leading the cast, however, is newcomer Malachi Kirby, who stars as the young Kunta Kinte. “Malachi has an amazing intensity and he embodies both the fire and the heart of a warrior,” says Burton, who shot to fame in the same role and went on to play Geordi La Forge in Star Trek: The Next Generation. “Ultimately, you have to fall in love with Kunta; you have to root for him in order for the story to be successful. If you don’t imprint upon the hero in the opening chapters of the story, you don’t care what comes next.”
Filming took place in Louisiana last summer, with Rose describing the shoot as “physically gruelling.” She recalls: “It was Louisiana in August. It’s not nice in August. It’s unkind, actually, but that serves the story because the time wasn’t nice and they were essentially living August in Louisiana every damn day. But it wasn’t one of those things where we tried to make it gruelling so we could talk about it later and talk about our struggle as artists, it was just how it happened to be. It allowed it to be even a truer tribute to the people whose life this was.”
Wolper says Roots became “the most difficult and complex thing” he has undertaken in his 35-year career as the production team strived to realise their ambitions of creating four distinct films that will air on consecutive nights.
“We were shooting some of them simultaneously, on different continents and on a very rushed schedule because our broadcast partner wanted to air it this May,” he explains. “So it was enormously complex, with the added burden of the responsibility to the show, what it represents, its history, the legacy – all these things contributed to making it supremely difficult, challenging and emotional.
“One particularly emotional day was when we were shooting a significant sequence that was in the original Roots, which is where Kunta Kinte is whipped into submission to say his new name. LeVar was on the set that day, watching as Malachi went through the identical thing he had to experience 40 years earlier. That was very powerful and emotional.”
It also puts into perspective one of the most difficult aspects of filming Roots for television – how do you balance the importance of the story on screen with the desire to entertain viewers?
“Where we are now is because of where we were yesterday and where we are tomorrow is because of our knowledge of both of those periods of time,” notes Wolper. “That’s part of the responsibility of the show. But let’s not forget, it has to be good, it has to be entertaining as well – otherwise the lessons I hope are seeped into it won’t translate. Nobody will see it, nobody will respond to it. So you have to balance the experience with the knowledge you’re trying to share with people.”
But in another 40 years, will there be a need or a desire to retell Roots for the next generation?
Burton says: “It’s incredibly unlikely we’ll have to tell this story again in 30 or 40 years’ time, given that we told this story 40 years ago and looking at where we are today.”
Wolper adds: “But given where we might be 40 years from now, we still have to tell the story again because we might fall into the same trap again. You have to keep telling stories – that’s how you protect yourself from making the same mistakes.”
Rose concludes: “That’s why African villages would have griots. They would go from village to village to tell stories of the history of a people, to keep it a living word so you can move forward and hopefully not make the same mistakes again. And that’s the power of story.”
London-based producer and financer Nevision has teamed up with Danish production company Good Company Films (GoodCo) to co-develop a new TV drama for the global audience.
The project in development is 10-part drama Midnights, which the partners describe as “a political thriller set in a present world that is both familiar and strange, about Nordic immortals who discover that they are dying amid the emerging Cold War in the Arctic.”
Midnights was created by Anna Reeves and will be produced by Stinna Lassen and Vibeke Windeløv. The executive producers are Ole Søndberg and Anni Faurbye Fernandez, who formed GoodCo in autumn 2014 along with Lassen and Windeløv. Søndberg is best known for starting Yellow Bird Films and for producing the Swedish and English versions of Wallander, the US version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the Millennium Trilogy based on Stieg Larsson’s novels. Fernandez was previously CEO and executive producer of Yellow Bird.
Also involved in the project is Nevision-backed About Premium Content (APC). APC will help source pre-sales and will handle international distribution for the series outside Scandinavia. Laurent Boissel, APC’s CEO, said: “Nevision and APC together are able to offer a bespoke studio-like solution where the producer’s independence and creativity is fully preserved.”
Nevision executive chairman James Cabourne added: “GoodCo is a very exciting company with a team that has an amazing track record in producing quality drama that resonates with a global audience. The success of Wallander is testament to this and we are excited to be partnering with GoodCo on Midnights.”
Elsewhere in the world of drama, Australian pubcaster ABC has renewed legal drama Janet King for a third season. The new eight-part run from Screentime Australia will go into production this year for 2017. It focuses on the life of a female prosecutor who returns from maternity leave to find her workplace even more demanding than when she left. DCD Rights distributes the series.
Sticking with the subject of drama distribution, there have been a few notable stories this week. BBC3 in the UK, for example, has acquired Cleverman, its first drama purchase since the channel moved from traditional broadcasting to online streaming.
A six-hour series from Australia’s Goalpost Pictures and New Zealand’s Pukeko Pictures, Cleverman follows a group of non-humans battling for survival in a world where humans feel increasingly inferior and want to silence, exploit and kill them.
Sue Deeks, head of programme acquisition at the BBC, described the series as “incredibly original and ambitious.” The show, which is distributed by Red Arrow International, will be available first in the US (SundanceTV, June 1) and Australia (ABC, June 2). The UK screening of the show will come later in the year. Henrik Pabst, MD at Red Arrow International, said the series “is one of the biggest and most ambitious shows to come out of Australia and speaks to a growing world audience unafraid of adventurous TV.”
In Canada, meanwhile, public broadcaster CBC has just announced a summer schedule that includes UK political thriller Undercover (written by Peter Moffat) and Danish financial crime drama Follow The Money. The latter, which comes from the successful DRTV stable, is being aired at 21.00 on Saturdays. This seems like a bold move for a non-English-language drama, though it has already aired on BBC4 in the UK. Other non-Nordic markets to acquire the show include Belgium and the Netherlands.
Also significant is the news that Amazon Prime Video has acquired new AMC show Preacher for the UK, Austria, Germany and Japan. The show is distributed internationally by Sony Pictures Television (SPT), which has also sold it to Viaplay across the Nordics, OSN across the Middle East and D-Smart in Turkey. AMC has an international channel of its own that could have acquired Preacher, but presumably SPT was able to extract more international revenue by putting together a multi-partner plan.
The news that US on-demand service Acorn TV has added two UK dramas to its programming line-up underlines the increased demand for scripted shows in the VoD space. They are police procedural Suspects, totalling 17 episodes, and Cilla, a three-part biopic about popular UK entertainer Cilla Black.
As we have noted in recent columns, this is a busy time of year for US channels as they unveil their plans for the summer and autumn seasons. Today’s headliner is Turner Broadcasting’s cable channel TNT, which has ordered a series about the life of a young William Shakespeare. It has also greenlit a pilot called Civil. Both are part of a wide-ranging channel overhaul that has involved a significant increase in scripted investment.
The Shakespeare series, Will, is written by Craig Pierce and follows the life of the young playwright in London. This being US television, the 10-part production will be a contemporary version of Shakespeare’s life played against a modern soundtrack. The theatre scene in 16th century England will be treated as though it was the punk rock revolution of its time.
“Will has an energy and style that is unlike anything else on television today,” said Sarah Aubrey, executive VP of original programming for TNT. “Shakespeare was a 16th century rock star, and Will captures what that must have felt like for the young writer and his fans. We are delighted to be working with such an extraordinary team of executive producers and cast in putting a fresh, bold spin on the story of Shakespeare.”
As for Civil, the backdrop is a fiercely fought presidential election that plunges the US into a modern-day Civil War. It is written by Oscar nominee Scott Smith (A Simple Plan) and directed by Emmy nominee Allen Coulter (Damages, Nurse Jackie). Other new dramas coming through at TNT include Animal Kingdom, Good Behaviour, The Alienist and Tales from the Crypt.
Also in the US this week, some cancellation news. First, A&E has shut down its Omen spin-off Damien after a single season of 10 episodes. The decision comes after poor ratings, with the show starting moderately and fading to around 400,000 by the end of its run.
Showrunner Glen Mazzara confirmed the cancellation on Twitter: “This hurts to say but #Damien will not be getting a second season. Thank you from all of us to our amazing fans.”
Bates Motel aside, A&E hasn’t been having much luck with original scripted content recently. The Returned was cancelled after one season while Unforgettable has also bitten the dust (though after a longer run). A&E cancelled Longmire after three seasons and then had to stand by and watch as Netflix picked up the show and commissioned a couple more seasons.
Also, Showtime has announced that the current season of House of Lies will be the last. Commenting on the show, which stars Don Cheadle, Showtime president and CEO David Nevins said: “House of Lies is a comedy that has frequently been ahead of the curve. The core cast of Don Cheadle, Kristen Bell, Ben Schwartz and Josh Lawson is one of the best comedy teams on television. They have brought the series to an incredibly satisfying conclusion with the historic final episode shot in Cuba.”
In ratings terms, the show is averaging around 350,000 – significantly down on season four and very poor in comparison with most other Showtime titles. The decision to cancel will have been made easier by the encouraging start made by Showtime’s new financial drama Billions.
With reports this week that Sony Pictures Entertainment is planning a TV series based on the Angelie Jolie spy movie Salt, now seems as good a time as any to round up developments on the movie-to-TV adaptation front. At least 20 such projects are in production, development or distribution.
Limitless: Based on the 2011 movie starring Bradley Cooper, Limitless debuted on CBS in September 2015. After a strong start, CBS gave it a full season order of 22 episodes and started selling the show around the world. Currently 15 episodes in, the show is attracting around 6.4 million viewers on debut night and 9.8 million after time-shifting is factored in. This should be enough to guarantee renewal for season two despite being some way off the launch episode (14.2 million viewers including time-shifted).
Minority Report: A much-hyped but ultimately unsuccessful remake of the Tom Cruise movie that ran on Fox in autumn 2015. Initially awarded 13 episodes, the run was cut to 10 after poor ratings. It bowed out with an audience of around two million, but not before it had been sold to networks in the Middle East.
Rush Hour: Based on the popular movie franchise that paired Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker, Rush Hour is another CBS reboot about an off-the-wall LAPD detective being required to work with a straight-laced Hong Kong police officer. The show will premiere on Thursday March 31 at 22.00 and has been picked up by E4 in the UK. CBS plans to give the show a big promotional boost by marketing it during the popular March Madness College Basketball tourney.
Training Day: Another CBS project, this is a reboot of the 2001 film that starred Denzel Washington as a corrupt narcotics cop and Ethan Hawke as his rookie partner. In the update, an idealistic young African-American police officer is partnered with an experienced but morally ambiguous Caucasian detective. This show, produced by WBTV and Jerry Bruckheimer, is currently moving towards a pilot, which will be directed by Danny Cannon.
Uncle Buck: This is an ABC reboot of the 1989 cult comedy starring John Candy. In this version, which was given a greenlight to series in 2015, the cast will be black, with Mike Epps playing Uncle Buck, “a fun-loving but irresponsible guy who needs a job and a place to stay. By happy coincidence, his nieces and nephews’ nanny has just quit and his brother- and sister-in-law need his help. His unconventional personality just may make him the right fit for the family.” No details yet on launch date.
Lethal Weapon: The massive 1980s/1990s film franchise, starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, is being adapted for TV by Fox. In February 2016, Fox gave a formal pilot order to the show, which focuses on a former Navy SEAL who suffers the loss of his wife and baby and moves to Los Angeles to start anew as a cop. Matt Miller (Forever) will write the TV adaptation.
Rambo: Fox is planning a TV series entitled Rambo: New Blood, based on the iconic Sylvester Stallone-starring movie franchise. Stallone won’t be involved in the new project, which is from Entertainment One and Avi Lerner’s Millennium Films. There are no details yet as to where this is in terms of development.
Fargo: Based on the Coen Brothers movie of the same name, Fargo has already seen two critically acclaimed series aired on FX. In November 2015, midway through season two, FX ordered a third season from series creator Noah Hawley. “Year two of Fargo is an extraordinary achievement and, given Noah Hawley’s masterful storytelling, we can’t wait to see where the third, all-new version of Fargo takes us,” said FX Networks’ Eric Schrier.
Cruel Intentions: NBC is planning a remake of the cult 1999 movie that was loosely based on Les Liaisons Dangereuses. The show, which has now been taken forward to pilot, will pick up 15 years after the movie left off and will focus on the teenage son of two of the film’s main characters. The original writer and director of Cruel Intentions, Roger Kumble, is attached to the pilot episode as director.
Taken: Based on the surprise hit movie franchise starring Liam Neeson, Taken the TV series is a modern-day prequel in which we learn how CIA operative Bryan Mills developed his “particular set of skills.” Homeland executive producer Alexander Cary has been signed up to write, executive produce and run the Taken TV series. Perhaps not surprisingly given the success of the movie franchise, NBC has given this show a straight-to-series order.
Time After Time: Based on a 1979 movie (itself based on a book), ABC’s new Time After Time series imagines HG Wells pursuing Jack the Ripper forward in time using his famous time machine. The project is from Kevin Williamson and has now been taken forward to pilot. In a similar vein, The CW is backing a TV adaptation of 1990 sci-fi time travel movie Frequency. In the CW pilot, the central character becomes a female police detective.
Haywire: A 2011 action movie starring Channing Tatum and Gina Carano, Haywire is another movie reportedly getting a TV remake. The Steven Soderbergh-directed film tells the story of a secret agent on a revenge spree after her agency betrays her. This project is in early development with Relativity TV.
Behind Enemy Lines: In September, Fox announced plans for a series based on the 2001 movie of the same name, which starred Owen Wilson and Gene Hackman. Fox’s show will be a high-octane military thriller about an American flight crew shot down while on a secret mission over the jungles of Latin America. The show is from 20th Century Fox Television, Temple Hill and Davis Entertainment, which produced the original version. At time of writing there was no further news on the project’s status.
The Notebook: In August 2015, it was revealed that The CW had teamed up with author Nicholas Sparks to revive romantic movie The Notebook as a TV series (Sparks was the author of the original book, also a big success). A pilot is being written by Todd Graff, who will also executive produce alongside Sparks and Theresa Park. “The Notebook is a very well-received book and motion picture. It is going to be set after World War Two. At this point, the pilot is not done,” said CW president Mark Pedowitz in 2015.
The Exorcist: In January 2016, Fox ordered a pilot based on the 1971 novel/1973 movie of the same name. The one-hour drama pilot is described as “a propulsive, serialised psychological thriller following two very different men tackling one family’s case of horrifying demonic possession, and confronting the face of true evil.” Jeremy Slater is the writer-producer, with James Robinson, David Robinson and Barbara Wall on board as executive producers.
Damien (The Omen): Damien is an upcoming A&E series based on The Omen horror film series, which centres on a small boy born of Satan and adopted by an affluent US family. Scheduled to launch on March 7, the TV series follows Damien Thorn, now a 30-year-old war photographer who has forgotten his Satanic past. Ann Rutledge (Barbara Hershey), who has protected Damien all his life, will now help him embrace his antichrist destiny.
Friday the 13th: Continuing the trend towards horror movie remakes (remember that Scream is already up and running on MTV, with a second season coming on April 20), The CW is planning a TV version of iconic film series Friday the 13th. The series adaptation will be written by Steve Mitchell & Craig Van Sickle, co-creators of the 1996 NBC series The Pretender.
And Then There Were None is Agatha Christie’s seminal murder mystery – but just how was this story of 10 strangers stranded on an isolated island brought to the screen?
It was first published in 1939 as the world stood on the brink of war, but Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (ATTWN) remains the celebrated author’s most popular work.
More than 70 years after it was written, the chilling murder mystery is still the best-selling crime story of all time and was recently voted Christie’s most popular novel.
And now it’s been given the television treatment after BBC1 and US cable network Lifetime partnered to bring it to the small screen – but just how did Agatha Christie Ltd (ACL), producer Mammoth Screen and writer Sarah Phelps adapt the story?
And Then There Were None sees 10 strangers brought together on a mysterious island, but as they wait for their hosts, they find themselves cut off from civilisation. The guests then start to die, one by one, according to the rules of Ten Little Soldier Boys, a nursery rhyme that ends with the words: “… and then there were none.”
The ensemble cast includes Douglas Booth, Charles Dance, Maeve Dermody, Burn Gorman, Anna Maxwell Martin, Sam Neill, Miranda Richardson, Toby Stephens, Noah Taylor and Aidan Turner.
Best known for her “cosy crime” stories featuring Miss Marple and Poirot, it was time for people to see the other side of Agatha Christie, says Hilary Strong, CEO of ACL. “And Then There Were None is probably Christie’s seminal book,” she says. “Sarah did an amazing adaptation but the book itself is very dark and brutal. We haven’t changed the tone of it. That’s how she wrote it.”
Mammoth’s executive producers Karen Thrussell and Damien Timmer have a long history with Christie, having previously produced Poirot for ITV. Thrussell says that with no detective at the centre of the plot, ATTWN immediately stands out as “amazingly different and inventive.”
She adds: “It’s a dark, dark book – the original slasher thriller – but it’s also very psychological. It was absolutely the one we most wanted to do. So we got in touch with Sarah, who’s one of our favourite writers. I don’t think she’d actually read Agatha Christie before and I think she was knocked over sideways actually reading this book because it’s not what you expect from Christie.”
Phelps describes the story as “remorseless. You thought you knew what this woman (Christie) was about,” she says. “Her mind was absolutely extraordinary. You kind of forget that. Agatha the writer and Agatha the brain get lost in Agatha the brand. I was profoundly shocked by it in a really exciting way. That’s what I really hope comes across. It’s brutal.”
When writing the book, Christie worked backwards, starting at the end when everyone is dead and the police arrive too late, penning it over two years. Phelps similarly approached the adaptation as a puzzle, trying to make sure all the characters’ whereabouts were known when another person died and yet ensuring that each remained a suspect.
“You have to build it inside your head and let the characters walk around it,” she says. “I took the dog on really long walks and stamped around to get the atmosphere of it and then I sat down and threw everything I had at it and hoped for the best. You can find yourself thinking, ‘Well, in the book you know this person’s there because you’re told.’
“When you put it in a three-dimensional setting, you need to make sure that when a murder happens, viewers know where everybody is and yet they could all legitimately be the murderer of the person that’s just died. You can bash your head against the walls a couple of times thinking about how to solve that. But that’s part of the fun. And if you can make those reasons characterful, then it’s dramatic.”
The reveal in the original text was also saved for two epilogues at the end of the story, meaning Phelps also had to find a way for the story to be resolved on screen – one of several changes she made to Christie’s novel.
“The two epilogues tell you everything that happened after the event and how it was all planned, giving insight into the process of doing it. But you don’t want to finish your drama and have a couple of epilogues, so you want to pull that into the structure of the drama itself,” she says.
“There are little things we changed slightly to facilitate bringing that stuff into the body of the drama. I changed one of the crimes just because I wanted the character to have a much closer connection to it; I wanted to actively make him a murder victim rather than somebody who did something and then death just happened. I wanted them to be active agents in the destruction of another life.”
Craig Viveiros was brought in to direct the series, while production designer Sophie Becher was often found trawling antique shops and junk markets to find props that were authentic to its 1939 setting.
“Sophie very much wanted to keep the style as Sarah had written, with the house on the island very white and modern,” Thrussell says. “There’s a theme of deterioration as the show goes on because you start with a slightly more optimistic lighting set-up, the characters get to the house and it’s rather nice and the food’s excellent.
“Then gradually as it descends into chaos, it gets darker and their appearance becomes dishevelled and not so neat. There’s that progression that’s been carefully tracked throughout. We also did that that with the music – it got more experimental as we went through. It was a bit of a journey.”
Having aired in three-parts on BBC1 over Christmas, ATTWN will also appear as two 90-minute instalments on Lifetime in the US in spring.
Joel Denton, MD of international content sales and partnerships at Lifetime parent A+E Networks, says joining forces with the BBC for the miniseries was a “no-brainer.”
“For Lifetime, it doesn’t get much better,” he says. “Sarah’s retelling of a book we all think we know but actually don’t quite know is extraordinary. For us, looking at a piece like this as an event and Agatha Christie as a brand, along with the great cast and two great storytellers, it was a no-brainer.
“We’re excited to be able to use the brand, which still means a lot in the States. Rob Sharenow (Lifetime’s executive VP of programming), who bought the show very early on before he’d seen anything from Sarah, knew the book well. He’d read the book as a child, loved it and they just needed some hooks – which are the cast as well as Agatha – to be able to market it to the audience in the US.”
Strong says the show was always conceived as a coproduction in order to bring together the high-profile cast they wanted from the outset.
“It was never going to be a cheap thing to do so we started talking to America very early on in the process, even before Sarah had written the script,” she explains. “Working with Joel at A+E and Lifetime was a revelation because, at the same time as we were trying to ensure the world saw a different side to Agatha Christie’s work, Lifetime was also trying to move away from its very female audience, so it was a real brand match in terms of what we were trying to do.
“This is a BBC show written by Agatha Christie – it’s very inherently British. A+E and Lifetime needed a cast that resonated with their audience so we got them an extraordinary cast. Charles Dance, Aidan Turner looking very different to Poldark, Sam Neil, Burn Gorman – it’s just a fantastic team of people and they worked so well together. They loved it.”
With the story literally coming to a dead end, there’s no chance of a second season – so why was this adapted for television and not made into a movie?
“What I love about TV is you have time to explore things,” Thrussell says. “One of the things Sarah did beautifully was to really get to know these people and I don’t think you could do that in a two-hour film. What’s brilliant about TV is that you can explore the longevity of things. I don’t know how you’d do it justice as a film. TV is great for character development, that’s what makes it interesting.”
With a big-screen remake of Murder on the Orient Express, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, due in November 2017, ACL is continuing to find ways to bring Christie to new and younger audiences.
“We would love to make more TV in the future but we will do it very carefully and very sparingly,” Strong adds. “We don’t want to have a thousand Christies in production. But I’d love to adapt Witness for the Prosecution next.”
It’s been a topsy-turvy week for US showrunner/screenwriter Carlton Cuse, who is currently working with cable channel A&E on two scripted series, Bates Motel and The Returned.
A few days ago, he learnt that the former had been greenlit for seasons four and five, but the latter – an adaptation of French zombie drama Les Revenants – has been cancelled after a lacklustre debut.
The Returned is a rare failure for Harvard-educated Cuse, whose shows tend to run and run. His first big success was Nash Bridges, which aired on CBS from 1996 to 2001.
A small hiccup came in 1998 with the quickly cancelled series Martial Law, also on CBS, but it seems churlish to even mention it when you consider that Cuse would later become one of the key architects of ABC’s Lost, arguably the standout drama series of the last decade. Although Cuse wasn’t involved as a writer in the pilot or the early episodes of season one, he co-wrote a number of episodes in the second half of its freshman year and then took on additional writing duties in seasons two and three.
By season four, he was penning the all-important opening and closing episodes in partnership with Damon Lindelof – a role he kept until the show ended in 2010. The final episode earned Cuse and Lindelof an Emmy nomination.
Bates Motel, a prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller Psych, launched in 2013 and marked the start of an incredibly prolific period for Cuse. In 2014, his vampire drama The Strain debuted on FX and in 2015 came A&E’s The Returned. He’s also working on Colony for USA Network, a thriller about life in LA after a mysterious foreign occupation and the efforts by the proxy government to crush the resistance movement. Initially greenlit as a pilot, it secured a 10-episode order in February. And as if all of this isn’t enough to be getting on with, he also found time to create a 2015 pilot for Amazon Studios called Point of Honor.
With so much good stuff to Cuse’s name, what went wrong with The Returned? At first sight, you might argue that Cuse had too much on his plate – with four series at various stages of production and development. But that seems unlikely given that Cuse typically shares creative responsibilities with a strong partner, thus easing the workload. In the case of The Returned, for example, he worked alongside Raelle Tucker, who established her credentials on HBO’s hit vampire series True Blood.
It is more likely, perhaps, that The Returned arrived in the US too late, with ABC’s Resurrection – another show about the dead coming back to life – hitting the market in 2014. It’s also just possible that we’re starting to see flaws in the scripted format model, at least in terms of foreign dramas being adapted for the US market.
While the success of Homeland, based on Israeli drama Hatufim, has proved that this model can work, the growing number of scripted format failures suggests transplanting shows is not such a safe bet.
While no one likes it when one of their shows doesn’t work, Cuse is unlikely to be too downbeat about the loss of The Returned. In a profile by Variety, he observed philosophically how “in Hollywood, it’s impossible to get the temperature of the porridge just right. No matter what your intentions are, Hollywood has a 90% failure rate. I had to put a few different irons in the fire because I didn’t think everything was going to work.” To his credit, Cuse is currently running at a higher success rate than most.
There is also news this week concerning another of the US industry’s hottest talents, John Ridley. After winning an Academy Award in 2013 for 12 Years a Slave (Best Adapted Screenplay), Ridley has been riding high with American Crime, a series he created and wrote for ABC. ABC is clearly very impressed with Ridley because it has renewed American Crime for a second season and this week also ordered a pilot from him, entitled Presence. It will be produced by ABC Studios.
In development for the 2016/2017 season, Presence is about a former army counter-insurgency operative who starts a new career as an unlicensed private investigator in LA. There are also reports that Ridley is working on a secret project with ABC Studios’ sister division Marvel Studios.
Ridley, soon to turn 50, is something of an eclectic talent. Have started his adult life as a stand-up comedian, before going on to write episodes of shows including The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Subsequently, he has written and directed movies, produced TV series and penned numerous books. His novel Spoils of War became the acclaimed David O. Russell movie Three Kings.
On the subject of novelists-turned-screenwriters, the big story of the week in the UK is that Irvine Welsh (who will forever be referred to as the author of Trainspotting) is working on a 6×60’ series called Too Much Rock N Roll. Backed by producer Keo Films and distributor Content Media, the drama will tell the story of Anthony and Christopher Donnelly, who were born into Manchester’s notorious gang culture but went on to launch an internationally successful fashion label.
The factual drama, which continues Keo’s recent push into scripted series, is based on the Donnellys’ autobiography Still Breathing, which was published in 2013.
Welsh and long-time collaborator Dean Cavanagh are co-writing the show, having previously worked together on projects like Good Arrows, Dose and Wedding Belles. In a joint statement, Welsh and Cavanagh said: “We’re really excited to be involved in telling the story of the Donnelly Brothers for the screen. We’ve been offered many true-life stories over the years but what attracts us to this story in particular is the fact that Anthony and Christopher are unbeatable – they won’t take no for answer – and we’re going to capture that spirit. It’s something we relate to, having spent decades working in the business that is ‘show’ and all the attendant bullshit that comes with it. Anthony and Christopher are stand-up lads and so are we. Hopefully this is the start of a long and creative partnership.”