A Haunting in Venice: how the horror whodunnit remixes Agatha Christie’s novel

Sliced red apple on a black background.

A Haunting in Venice is radically different from Agatha Christie’s novel Hallowe’en Party. But different how – and what does it mean for the story?

World-famous detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) has retired to Venice in self-imposed exile. Then old friend and best-selling author Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) comes calling.

When Mrs Oliver drags Poirot to a séance on Halloween night, it’s seemingly to unmask fraudulent psychic Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh). But then a guest is murdered, and it looks an awful lot like the work of a vengeful ghost …

The story that follows is, for all kinds of reasons, worlds away from Agatha Christie’s 1969 novel, Hallowe’en Party. So how does the film compare to the book, and what do the changes reveal about their respective narratives?

The bones of the original story

In Christie’s original story, Ariadne Oliver finds herself at a children’s Halloween party where one of the kids is drowned while bobbing for apples. It’s a grim scenario, one made all the more disturbing because no one likes the victim, 11-year-old Joyce Reynolds.

The murder does at least bother Mrs Oliver, who fetches old friend Hercule Poirot to Woodleigh Common:

“It’s one of those places where there are a few nice houses, but where a certain amount of new building has been done. Residential. A good school.”

Woodleigh Common is in between eras. This is old England – rural, rich and very proper – but on the cusp of modernity.

It’s a fitting location for the story, not just because Christie always wrote about the monied but murderous classes, but because it speaks to the ageing Poirot and Oliver’s sense of alienation in the modern world.

That alienation is particularly apparent in how characters talk about or respond to children. Mrs Oliver is perturbed by the older kids, all of whom seem to be permanently making out.

There’s a similar tone of weary disdain to questions about whether Joyce’s murder was motivated by sex, not to mention backstories about promiscuous women who – as it goes – end up dead.

It’s almost a relief to say that none of this features in A Haunting in Venice. Only the faintest gossamer threads connect the two narratives: really, it’s just the names of some of the characters.

In Hallowe’en Party Joyce is bumped off for foolishly blurting out that she saw a murder. A Haunting in Venice transforms the character into sophisticated – yet equally disliked – psychic Mrs Reynolds.

This Joyce also sees a murder but, in a macabre twist, she sees it during a séance and well after the event itself.

Venice, city of ghosts

The Poirot we meet in A Haunting in Venice is similarly “an old man, filled with regret” (as Inception famously puts it). Yet, rather than rural England in the 1960s, this story takes place in Venice, Italy shortly after World War II.

It’s a telling switch. Rather than a city of romance, Venice in cinema signals “death, dread and despair” (my article in The Independent). Playing on the heritage of horror films like Don’t Look Now, in Branagh’s revamped story Venice is as crucial to the plot as Woodleigh Common is to the original.

If you’re watching A Haunting in Venice at the cinema, stay for the stunning end-credits aerial views of the city.

A Haunting in Venice shadows Don’t Look Now quite closely. Both feature a drowned child, a mother wounded by grief and a psychic who claims to speak to the dead. Both are fundamentally Venetian stories, inspired by or occurring in faded gothic buildings and among watery streets.

This Venice could have been tailor-made for Branagh’s ghost story, which comes complete with séance, scenes of possession and jump scares. As it turns out, the revamped title tells you exactly what lies ahead.

If anything, the story pastes on Venetian symbolism and genre prompts a little too liberally. The story takes place at night, that too in a haunted house. There are ghostly voices, tales of murdered orphans, and a creepy basement. Even the trailer cues up horror’s faithful standby: dead girl in a mirror.

Venice is a city of masks, particularly – though not limited to – carnival and the region’s plague histories. Unsurprisingly, masks feature in A Haunting in Venice too, though here clumsily relegated to Halloween trifles, an accidental add-on to an imported American holiday. But it’s not the film’s only American import.

A first-class ticket to a killing

Many films are far more global in scope than they used to be. I’m not just talking film settings and locations, though many action film franchises have long been like glossy travel brochures of world cities.

Alex Hess writes in The Guardian that the pressure of worldwide box office appeal is changing the kinds of movie villains we see on screen. Arguably, the same thing can be seen in broader – more bankable – casting and story decisions.

Ariadne Oliver is no longer a dotty, apple-munching English writer in A Haunting in Venice, but a sharp and witty American author. Either way, it’s not hard to spot the ghost of Agatha Christie in the character, not least for Oliver’s books about a “Finnish” detective.

Incidentally, the film drastically underplays Ariadne Oliver’s love of apples. This is her hero trait or tic; in the book, it sees her continually and absent mindedly munching apples. In fact, this is the significance – or at least, the ghoulish delight – of Joyce’s death in a bucket of bobbing apples.

There is apple bobbing in A Haunting in Venice, though a twist sees Hercule Poirot subjected to a dunking instead.

In any case, A Haunting in Venice’s more glamorous international casting matches its glitzy relocation.

While TV adaptations of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot have created a whole genre of “cosy, countryside murder mystery”, the big screen has long preferred the glamour of long haul destinations by first-class means.

Hence Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express, but also the secluded billionaire’s island of Glass Onion (Knives Out 2).

The ghost that remains

It’s interesting how often cinema’s tales of money and murder are wrapped in either fictional, idealised versions of the past, or the adoration of wealth and flawless beauty.

Arguably that’s part of the appeal of Christie’s novels to modern readers in spite of the more dated aspects of the fiction. In Hallowe’en Party that includes attitudes to mental illness, which A Haunting in Venice wisely revisits in slightly jarring ways.

Ultimately, though, next to nothing remains of Agatha Christie’s original plot. The book is a gateway into the franchise’s characters, class dynamics and sense of past. There’s Hercule Poirot … and that’s about it.

The book is one of those cosy countryside murder mysteries, with a cast of stock TV characters who simply don’t act, react or talk like real people do. Halloween here is a tolling bell of doom, but little else. There’s certainly no séance, ghosts or supernatural possession.

A Haunting in Venice is quite a different beast. This is more horror than whodunnit, a gothic mystery that unfolds in a candlelit palazzo one rain-lashed night.

Perhaps that’s just as well: the film isn’t entirely successful as a whodunnit – it’s lacks pace and, sometimes, sense. Ironically or not, Hallowe’en Party exhibits some of the same flaws.

Either way, having broken the chains of its source material, time will tell whether A Haunting in Venice opens the door to more Hercule Poirot adventures free of the creator’s legacy altogether.

A Haunting in Venice (2023), directed by Kenneth Branagh

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Picture credit: Nikolai Chernichenko