With two previous star filled Agatha Cgristie films under their belt why did the filmmakers chose Agatha Christie’s A Haunting in Venice’ as their next film?
Oscar®-winning director/producer Kenneth Branagh (“Belfast”) and screenwriter Academy Award® nominee Michael Green’s (“Logan”) first Agatha Christie collaboration was 2017’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” and both filmmakers remember hoping at the time that there would be more films to come. Legendary author Christie did write 33 books after all. “It was on the Orient Express train that we first discussed ‘Death on the Nile’ and it was on the S.S. Karnak that we started talking about what the third film could be,” says Green. “I remember during a lighting set up just leaning over the balcony of the Karnak at what was the blue screen that would eventually become the Nile River, and just thinking about what the right move for the next film would be. And for some reason, the subject of ghosts was on my mind, which is when I remembered Agatha Christie wrote a book called ‘Hallowe’en Party.’”
First published in 1969, “Hallowe’en Party” is another title in the author’s popular Hercule Poirot mystery series. Often referred to as the Queen of Mystery, Christie is the most widely published author of all time. Her books have sold more than one billion copies in English and another billion copies in over 100 foreign languages. “Agatha Christie has the timeless, classic ability to present people in situations – often dangerous or criminal ones – where we recognize the characters’ humanity,” says Branagh. “The archetypes and also the very subtle readings of human behaviour are ones that we really respond to…her perceptions seem universal and familiar.”
While “A Haunting in Venice” is an adaptation of “Hallowe’en Party,” Green was also influenced by some of Christie’s short stories that touch on the supernatural. “There’s a collection of short stories published as ‘The Last Seance,’” says Green, “and its title story, ‘The Last Séance,’ is truly terrifying. So as much as ‘A Haunting in Venice’ is ‘Hallowe’en Party,’ it also has, in its DNA, Christie’s thoughts on the supernatural.”
The story audiences will watch unfold on screen, is somewhat different from Christie’s original book. “’Hallowe’en Party‘ was written late in Agatha Christie’s career,” explains Branagh, “and was essentially an English country house mystery. And given what we have done with the previous Christie adaptations and their exotic locations, Michael Green chose to make a big shift in the narrative and take the bones of Agatha Christie’s mystery and move it from England to Venice.” The new screenplay includes the change in setting and is essentially a ghost story taking place in a haunted house over one scary night. “It became more of a chamber piece with a smaller number of suspects, and Michael took the creative license to create a couple of additional subplots of his own,” says Branagh. “Michael’s draft reduced the number of people, transposed the setting from England to Venice, and set the majority of the story in the eternally, pictorially ravishing Venice, where he traps the suspects fairly early on, in a haunted palazzo on a stormy, scary night.”
“With ‘Death on the Nile’ we knew we were going to have a fidelitous interpretation of the book to screen,” says Green. “For ‘Hallowe’en Party‘ we felt that we’d hopefully earned the right to make some changes, just to tell a slightly different story that’s in the book. We have many nods to it, and it takes its DNA from it. But we were hoping that they would permit us to make the story a bit more dire, the original ‘Hallowe’en Party‘ novel takes place over several days, almost a week. ‘A Haunting in Venice’ happens on one haunted night. We move our location from the English countryside to haunted Venice and have a slightly different take on characters. More than a few changes, but we believe that it’s very much thematically in line.”
Fortunately, James Prichard, one of the film’s executive producers and Agatha Christie’s great-grandson approved of the changes to the story, as it still maintained the right tone and same spirit. “I was surprised initially,” Prichard says. “Michael talked about it a long time ago, and at the time I couldn’t quite see what he was trying to do and why he’d chosen this title as opposed to another more obvious one. But as time went on, he explained exactly what he was doing and thinking, and it is a very clever selection and execution. I think if we’d done another kind of similar adaptation of say ‘Evil Under the Sun’ or ‘Five Little Pigs’ or something like that, we’d have been accused of being boring.”
“One of the things that Ken and Michael have done is to create a depth of character for Poirot that my great-grandmother never did, really,” says Prichard. “I mean my great-grandmother didn’t really go into his psychological state at any point. He was actually fairly flat, I would say. But they have gone far deeper, digging into his background and what made him what he’s become. This is an interesting depiction of Poirot. I think it is Ken’s best performance as Poirot, and I think that the mystery challenges Poirot in a way that is interesting.”
“Our goal was always to try and produce that sort of knot-in-the-stomach, edge-of-your-seat experience for audiences,” says Branagh. “We wanted to take them to Venice and give them that vicarious thrill of being in this really quite beautiful, labyrinthine, electrifying city.” “There is nothing more haunted than a Venetian palazzo,” adds Green, “and the city just calls for mist and masks, and the creepy crawly, throw-a-body-in-the-river kind of feel. We wanted to take advantage and use the inherent spookiness and the magic and lustre of Venice, to make an unimaginably terrifying Halloween night.” Green continues, “When we talked about the story or the theme, the word ‘haunting’ came up a lot, so it ended up in the title. Haunting can mean a lot of things. You can be haunted by a spirit, you can also be haunted by your past. You can be haunted by ideas, you can be haunted by darkness. Poirot is oddly all of those things. In this film, he struggles with whether he believes in the actual supernatural. But at the same time, he is a man haunted by all he’s gone through, and he’s seen so much death. Death is so present that whether the ghosts are real or not, he hears them at night and he sees them during the day, and it makes his life very difficult to live.”
“’Death on the Nile’ was set in 1937,” says Branagh. “This film takes place ten years later. So there’s been a traumatic world war in-between, one in which Hercule Poirot will have travelled and been aware of the carnage and the devastation. It is a kind of despair that we find him in at the beginning of this film; a disappointment that another generation could have gone to war after the one that we saw in ‘Death on the Nile’ that he fought in himself. And it is part of his decision to hide in plain sight, to no longer be part of this world where violence, crime, and murder, have left him pessimistic about his fellow man. So, he goes to a city where he can be anonymous.”
The pool of potential suspects has grown smaller from film to film, which, when combined with the claustrophobic feel of the palazzo setting, provides an opportunity for the audience to spend more time with each character. According to Hofflund, “From the very beginning, we were interested in the idea of a creepy, scary, Agatha Christie movie coming out before Halloween. That combination of things felt really exciting.” “’Murder on the Orient Express’ dealt with revenge and ‘Death on the Nile’ dealt with greed,” says Branagh. “This film is about the supernatural. Whether there is anything on the other side of us: a ghost or a God…and whether Poirot now believes in it or not. That dilemma inevitably involves him, and us, being very, very scared.”
The filmmakers are in agreement that it is very hard to surprise an Agatha Christie fan, primarily because they have read enough books with enough endings that they are trained to find your ending. “But with this one, because we’ve taken the liberty of changing the story, these long time fans can have the experience of getting a new Agatha Christie story,” says Green. “This ending will definitely surprise them.”
related feature: A Haunting in Venice – REVIEW
Here’s producer and Agatha Christie’s great grandson Jame Pritchard at the London screening talking about and introducing the film…..