With all the controversy surrounding the renaming of problematic buildings, it seems fitting to draw attention to another bit of suspicious rebranding. Perhaps you’ve seen the BBC miniseries previewed above. “Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None,” is, of course, Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians—which was originally, notoriously, released serially in the UK under the title Ten Little Niggers. (This was the British music-hall version of the minstrel song.) Even in 1939, this title was considered too offensive for American publication.
Christie’s work is not known for its racial sensitivity, and by modern standards her oeuvre is rife with casual Orientalism. Even so, consider the sheer number of times the epithet is referenced in the novel. The remote isle where the characters are taken is now called Soldier Island—but you do the math. A copy of the rhyme hangs in each guest’s room. They’re constantly singing and reciting it. And then there are the figurines at the center of the table …
Of course, something that was considered racially problematic pre-1940 has not become less so with the passing of years. As the critic Alison Light has written, renaming the island actually did make a difference; in its initial form it
could be relied upon automatically to conjure up a thrilling ‘otherness’, a place where revelations about the ‘dark side’ of the English would be appropriate … Christie’s location is both more domesticated and privatized, taking for granted the construction of racial fears woven into psychic life as early as the nursery. If her story suggests how easy it is to play upon such fears, it is also a reminder of how intimately tied they are to sources of pleasure and enjoyment.
In the widely known “And Then There Were None” version, we’re merely faced with fantastic amounts of violence, and a rhyme so macabre and distressing one doesn’t hear it now outside of the Agatha Christie context. But if you do an image search for that original title, it jars, viscerally. And the story—of people being confronted with secret crimes from their past, and punished for them—is otherwise identical. It remains one of the best-selling books of all time; the latest miniseries has been an enormous hit in the UK. I’m sure it will qualify as cozy British comfort viewing here.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.