A Haunting in Venice is the latest entry in Sir Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Poirot-niverse,’ and he returns with a star-studded cast that includes Michelle Yeoh, Jamie Dornan, and Tina Fey – and executive producer James Prichard believes this adaptation is the most departure from author Agatha Christie’s source material yet.
Prichard is the CEO and chairman of Agatha Christie Ltd, which has been handling the literary and media rights to Christie’s works since 1955 – and best-selling is fully correct, with Christie believed to have sold over two billion volumes.
He also has the advantage of being Christie’s great-grandson, so he is uniquely able to give his expertise and insight into the works of a relative he knew firsthand.
The new film, with a new title, is based on her 1969 novel Hallowe’en Party.
It also includes her own mystery author character, Ariadne Oliver (played by Tina Fey), who is a friend of Poirot’s and frequently aids in his cases.
Prichard is under no misconception that Oliver was a self-referential fabrication by his grandmother – even though they are polar opposites in character – as a method for her for her to have fun with a ‘outlet’.
‘There is categorically a deliberate nod. My great-grandmother wouldn’t create a mystery novelist and put her in a book and not recognise that people are going to see that,’ he said
‘She puts in bits that I suspect are her, and she uses her as a device occasionally to say things that she felt or wanted to say.’
However, he is clear on where they diverge.
‘Ariadne Oliver is a very different person to my great-grandmother. She’s an extrovert, she’s quite loud, she’s quite controversial, whereas [Christie] was a very private person, a very shy person.
‘They are diametrically opposite in terms of character, but I think my great-grandmother enjoyed having her as an outlet to maybe say some controversial things, some of which she probably felt, some of which she didn’t feel, and probably no one knows which is which!
‘Some may be more obvious than others, but I think that’s part of the fun.’
He was especially pleased with Tina Fey’s appointment as former Saturday Night Live star and Mean Girls writer, which he described as “incredibly astute.”
‘Her interplay with Ken Branagh as Poirot is amazing. I think she’s worthy of Ariadne Oliver.’
Branagh’s ‘little grey cells’ remain crucial to A Haunting in Venice, having previously directed and performed as Hercule Poirot in 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express and then 2022’s Death on the Nile.
Prichard is happy with the collaboration, recalling how they were ‘overjoyed’ when the Oscar winner first stated he wanted to take on the role, which has previously been done to great acclaim by performers such as Sir Peter Ustinov and Sir David Suchet.
‘He has made the part his and this is his best performance as Poirot, and I think the film lends itself to that,’ shared Prichard, who also admitted that working with him often makes him ‘feel inadequate’.
‘He is one of the best directors on the planet [and] he is one of the best actors of his generation. He’s one of the most intelligent people I’ve met, and he also seems to work harder than almost anyone – and that combination is pretty humbling and makes you just feel useless, frankly!’
Alongside these attributes though, Prichard is most grateful for his ‘respect of my great-grandmother’s work’ as well as the dedication that ‘comes through on screen’.
‘We are really lucky that we have a great core team that has enormous levels of trust now. That’s why we were able and willing to do what we’ve done with Hallowe’en Party, which is a departure from the previous two films, and perhaps even from anything we’ve ever done on screen before,’ Prichard added.
Agatha Christie Ltd and the late author’s family, to some extent, have always been involved ‘very closely with every project that has been made with my great-grandmother’s name attached to it since she was alive’.
However, the bulk of his role as the film’s executive producer, as well as for Agatha Christie Ltd, Prichard explains, comes at the start.
As he puts it, the producer doesn’t find watching filming on set to be ‘a great spectator sport’.
‘And I would be completely wrong to be backseat driving Ken as he made a film,’ he pointed out.
‘We feel very firmly that we should be there at the beginning of a project in its setting up: the choosing of the story, the choosing of the direction of that story, the treatment, and the script.’
Michael Green is also on his third adaptation of Christie’s book for the big screen, most notably in A Haunting in Venice, which changed location as well as title, characters, and even the finale.
As someone who Prichard noted ‘deliver[s] almost perfect scripts with his first draft’, Green also inspires great praise from Christie’s great-grandson even if he jokes that it makes his role ‘almost redundant’.
Explaining how Hallowe’en Party came to evolve into A Haunting in Venice, Prichard notes that Green had the initial idea ‘quite a long time ago’ before he, Branagh and 20th Century Studios’ Steve Asbell pitched it to Prichard together.
‘Their vision was that having done two very big, traditional, fairly faithful adaptations of two big classic Agatha Christie titles in Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, they felt we should do something a little bit different.’
Specifically, they were looking at a ‘tonal’ change and ‘leaning into horror’.
‘The change of title shows that the film is a departure, so we’re not misleading people. And I think what we have achieved is exactly what we set out to, which is, in its essence, a very traditional murder mystery – what I would call a very clear Agatha Christie experience – but we have wrapped it in a horror cloak.’
‘I think people will be surprised by what they see but I hope they will be delighted by it, because I think it works incredibly well,’ he added.
‘Michael was very clear from the beginning that he wanted to change aspects of the story and very much change the ending. We have here what is, essentially, an invented plot by Michael.’
Prichard also warns readers attempting to connect characters from the novels with those in the film that it is “not necessarily a task that lends itself to a satisfying conclusion.”
Joyce Reynolds, played by Michelle Yeoh, is turned from a 13-year-old child into a strange and very controversial medium – as Prichard puts it, the only relationship is the names, as they are not the same person or performing the same part in the plot.
Yeoh was cast before her Oscar nomination, despite the fact that the buzz had already begun, and Prichard was overjoyed to see it turn into a win for her.
‘Lots of people are potential candidates for Oscars and never get anywhere near it, so the fact that she went on and won was a testimony to her talents as an actor but also incredibly lucky for us because we get both that talent and also the shared, reflected glory of having an Oscar winner in our cast!’
‘I think what she brings to this movie is extraordinary. Her performance is electric actually, it blows you away,’ he praised.
Prichard also describes Venice as a “genius choice” for the story’s new setting, noting that it is “appropriately glitzy” for a Hollywood picture but also has “a sense of mystique” that contributes to the tension and dread.
‘The damp canal streets, the way the water plays – and there’s a big storm in the film – that all builds up that atmosphere, that sense of the supernatural, that sense of something that we don’t quite understand.’
Three films in, and speculation about another Poirot adventure is understandable, especially when the team behind the films appears to be at ease.
‘Look, I don’t think it’s a secret that we would love to make more movies,’ Prichard revealed.
‘So, if this film earns its keep and 20th Century and Ken Branagh want to make more movies, I suspect I will be very happy to sign on whatever dotted line I need to sign on. But there is no firm plan for anything as yet.’
A Haunting in Venice is in cinemas now.