And Then There Were None
Agatha Christie, 1939

After giving my sophomores nothing but short stories for the entire first quarter, I wanted to start them off with an easy book to get their endurance up before we moved on to some literary novels.  One of my colleagues in my credentialing program had recommended this one, which I’d read for my “Advanced Reading” class back in seventh grade, and the audiobook to which I had listened to during my cross-country drive in 2018.  It seemed like a good fit, as we were in the middle of talking about open and closed plots, and you could hardly find a more closed plot than this one, as Christie has the killer spend page after page tying up every loose end in the confession that makes up the second epilogue.  But I don’t think I’d teach it again.  We spent way too long on open and closed plots this year—​it’s not an important enough topic to be worth so much of our limited time.  The kids tended to love the book once the murder mystery got underway around page 35, but that meant that I had to listen to a lot of complaining until they got there.  And this just isn’t the richest narrative you’re going to find!  It’s not much more than a puzzle box.  Yeah, there’s the theme of guilt to poke at, and some characterization to examine, and the book lent itself to an interesting opening exercise in which I had students come up with their own scenarios similar to those in the novel—​i.e., in which people are responsible for deaths but cannot be held legally liable for them—​and then debate the culpability of each other’s characters.  The teacher who recommended the book told me that she focused on genre conventions and then had her kids write their own mysteries based on a formula she laid out for them, but that didn’t fit with the rest of my year plan, so I skipped that (except to show my students some relevant pages on TV Tropes).  But without that culminating assignment, this amounts to a lot of class time invested without much payoff, so next year I think I’ll go straight to a short literary novel without this warm-up.  Assuming the schools do open next year.

And Then There Were None
Agatha Christie, Sarah Phelps, and Craig Viveiros, 2015

While doing some research before assigning And Then There Were None to my sophomores, I discovered that the BBC had done a three-hour adaptation of the book just a few years ago, so I checked it out.  Apparently it was critically acclaimed, but while it was certainly watchable, it didn’t seem to me to add much to the source material.  There are some mildly interesting moments early on to highlight the indignities heaped upon Vera for being a woman in 1939, but other than that, the changes generally hurt more than they help: turning so many of the characters into outright murderers throws away a key aspect of the premise (that the killer gathers together people who have taken lives in such a way that the law couldn’t touch them), and the ending—​i.e., the way the last verse of the poem is handled—​is ridiculous.  Spoiler: Rather than sending a message in a bottle, the killer walks in as the final victim is choking in the noose to deliver an abbreviated confession, and they have a pleasant conversation.  “You see, it was at that moment that I realized something about myself…”  “…urk gurgle why are you blrt glrf doing this gurgle urk…”

Clue
Anthony Pratt, John Landis, and Jonathan Lynn, 1985

My colleague who suggested that I teach And Then There Were None also mentioned that she wrapped up her own ATTWN unit by showing her classes the movie Clue.  I had actually read the novelization of the movie before I saw the film, back when I was, I dunno, eleven? twelve? thirteen?  Something like that.  I spotted it at the Canyon Hills Library, checked it out on a whim, and thought it was really funny.  When the movie popped up on cable I taped it, and it became one of the movies my brothers and I ended up watching over and over: not quite as often as Rocky IV or Pee‑Wee’s Big Adventure, but somewhere in that ballpark.  Anyway, when my lockdown companion and I were looking for something to do, this popped up on one of her streaming accounts, and it seemed like an appropriately light offering to serve as a distraction from the news of a world turned stupid and contagious.  (I suppose it says something about our culture that a story involving several violent murders is considered a light comedy.)  It didn’t hold up very well, I’m afraid.  My sense of humor has evolved since I was eleven, and society’s sense of humor has evolved since 1985.  “It’s funny because he’s groping her against her will!” doesn’t really garner a lot of laughs these days, though it will get you 63 million Republican votes.  Also, the screwball comedy with lots of rapid-fire back-and-forth wordplay has a weird rhythm to it—​it’s the sort of thing that works better on the page than on the screen.  Of course, establishing the rhythm in a comedy is always a tricky business when you don’t have a live audience or at least a laugh track, since you don’t know how much space to leave for laughter.  Too little and the audience misses stuff, too much and you end up with weird gaps.  It might be easier when you’re dealing with a theatrical release rather than home video, because as the audience numbers go up, the more likely it is that someone’s laughter will fill the space.  But who knows when movie theaters will ever open again?

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