Inspirations – Mystery and Travel: Death on the Nile novel (1937) and movie (1978)

This post is part of the Little Bits of Classics & Christina Wehner Agatha Christie Blogathon which celebrates the 126th anniversary of the birth of Agatha Christie. With 85 novels written and between 2 billion – 4 billion copies sold, Agatha Christie was one of the most successful and prolific writers of the twentieth century.

If you haven’t discovered Agatha Christie, Death on the Nile is a great book to start with.

AgathaChristie

Death on the Nile takes place in the setting Agatha Christie knew best – a world of high society which dined in the finest restaurants and vacationed abroad. The author had spent much time in the Middle East in the 1930s accompanying her archaeologist husband, Max Mallowan, on digs, and had holidayed in Egypt, giving authenticity to the novel’s descriptions of grand hotels, luxury steamers, moonlit riverbanks and ruined temples.

The novel begins in England, where beautiful American heiress Linnet Ridgeway has purchased a country home. Linnet’s penniless friend Jacqui de Bellefort visits, asking if Linnet can give Jacqui’s fiance a job on her estate.

When Hercule Poirot enters the story, he is not acting as a detective, but enjoying a meal in London. He observes the devoted Jacqui and Simon at a nearby table, just before they visit Linnet.

To the surprise of the social set, it’s Linnet who weds Simon a few months later. The beginnings of the murder mystery are set in motion.

Arriving in Egypt for a cruise, Hercule Poirot finds himself at the same hotel as the honeymoon couple. Strangely Jacqui is also there. Heartbroken by Simon’s desertion, Jacqui has decided to follow Linnet and Simon, casting a shadow on their happiness.

What happens next? There’s a cruise down the Nile, a close shave in an ancient temple, moody sunsets, embezzling lawyers, an international agitator on the run, an eccentric authoress of saucy romances, high society jewel thieves and no less than three murders.

Hercule Poirot at last discovers the unlikely murderer. Death on the Nile is a whodunit, but it’s also a love story, a tragedy and a reflection on wealth, power and envy – Agatha Christie at her best, transcending her genre.

Movie Poster for the 1978 Universal Studios film of Death on the Nile

Movie Poster for the 1978 Universal Studios film of Death on the Nile

The 1977 movie of Death on the Nile is a treat. Lois Chiles and Simon MacCorkindale are a stunningly beautiful Linnet and Simon. Mia Farrow broods as Jacqui. Peter Ustinov is an impressive Hercule Poirot, and the supporting cast (of potential suspects) includes Bette Davis, Maggie Smith, Angela Lansbury, David Niven, Jane Birken and Olivia Hussey. There are some subtle changes from the book, with the omission of some characters and the combining of motivations, but these won’t affect your enjoyment of the film or the book.

A tense but stylish moment in the 1978 movie

A tense but stylish moment in the 1978 movie

Some other fun facts about the film:

  • The scenes were filmed on location in Egypt and at Pinewood Studios.
  • The haunting music was written by Nino Rota, a composer who had worked with the directors Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti and Franco Zeffirelli, and wrote the score for Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films.
  • The tango scene in the luxury hotel was choreographed by Wayne Sleep.
  • The costume supervisor was Rosemary Burrows, who later worked on A Passage to India, Master and Commander and Harry Potter.
  • The costume maker was Germinal Rangel, who made the costumes in Sofia Coppola’s sumptuous Marie Antoinette.
  • Look out for Lois Chiles’ silver evening dress and her glittering shawl. You will covet Mia Farrow’s divinely slinky gowns and very glamorous daywear. And Simon MacCorkindale’s dressing gown is incredibly stylish!

“Most of the great love stories are tragedies,” muses Hercule Poirot on the last page of the novel. It could be said all of Agatha Christie’s great works are much more than whodunits.

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17 thoughts on “Inspirations – Mystery and Travel: Death on the Nile novel (1937) and movie (1978)

    • You should definitely read some of her novels Alex! I don’t read much crime fiction or whodunits, but I love Agatha Christie and think it’s amazing how she kept up such a high quality output year after year. She led a fascinating life, so she really knew the settings she describes. I’d recommend Death on the Nile, And Then There Were None or Endless Night (a great psychological thriller she wrote in the 1960s). She’s an inspiration for any writer!

  1. I want to see this! Your review is the second Peter Ustinov/Poirot film that has been highlighted today and they both sound sensational – costumes, cast. Bette Davis, Angela Lansbury, Maggie Smith – in the same movie!

    It’s interesting how you bring out how she could transcend her genre. Without belaboring her point and writing something as large as War and Peace, she could infuse her stories with these vast themes, like the tragic romance. I’m curious to read the book again, now. 🙂

    I’m so glad you could join in this celebration of Agatha Christie!

    • Thank you Christina for organising the blogathon and inviting me to take part! I will look forward to reading the reviews of the other films and books. The Peter Ustinov films were fabulous and it’s amazing how many high quality actors and creative people were involved. It is interesting to see how the writers of the film adapted Death on the Nile. Reading the original book, I realise that some characters were omitted in the film, and their motivations were given to other characters (Tim Allerton and his mother, and Signor Richetti don’t appear at all in the film; Cornelia Robson’s character is combined with Rosalie Otterbourne). Nevertheless the film works really well. Agatha certainly deserves a 126th birthday celebration!

  2. “Death on the Nile” was a perfect selection for the first of the Peter Ustinov Poirot films and they certainly gave it every care in every detail. As watchable the second or third time, when the whodunnit factor has been eliminated. Of course, if you come to the movie after reading the book (who doesn’t love a Christie?), it is still marvelous to see everything come to life.

    I really enjoyed your look at the book and the movie, especially the pedigree of those who worked behind the scenes on the production. Most impressive.

    It is Christie’s versatility as an author that keeps fans returning. She could be tongue-in-cheek or introspective, play with puzzles and play with souls.

    • Thanks for your comments! So true – I have watched the movie so many times, and even though I know who did it, it is still so enjoyable. (It’s also a great movie to watch in the middle of winter, because of all those sunlit scenes!). I thought I would look up the production cast for this post (what did I do before iMDB and Wikipedia?). I hadn’t realised so many illustrious people were involved.
      Indeed Christie is a fabulous writer!

  3. Great post! Death on the Nile is the book I always recommend to people who want to try Agatha Christie for the first time. It’s such a great plot and Jacqui is a brilliant character. This is also my favourite adaptation for so many reasons – it looks beautiful, the supporting cast are wonderful, and Mia Farrow gives one of her great performances of vulnerable, slightly unstable women. Thanks for this reminder – I can see my re-read and re-watch lists are going to be huge by the time this blogathon is over! 🙂

    • What a wonderful way to describe Mia Farrow’s performance! She is compelling in the role and Jacqui is a great character to work with (when you read the book again, there are some more hints about her childhood character). All the supporting actors in the movie seem to be having a ball. The settings are so beautiful, watching the movie is like going on a holiday without leaving home (my favourite kind of movie, particularly as I think it’s highly unlikely I’ll ever ride a horse around the desert and climb to the top of the Great Pyramid 😉 ).
      Taking part in this blogathon has reminded me how much I love Christie’s work. I think I will have quite a lot on my lists too!

  4. Pingback: God Save the ‘Queen of Crime’ – the Agatha Christie Blogathon Is Here! – Little Bits of Classics

  5. Thanks so much for joining our blogathon, I love your review! 🙂 Unfortunately Death on the Nile is one of the few Poirot mysteries I’ve never read. I should change that soon! However, I’ve seen the adaptation starring David Suchet and I loved it! Have you also seen it? If so, which adaptation do you think is better?
    Have a great day!
    Domi

  6. Pingback: Announcing the Agatha Christie Blogathon! | Christina Wehner

    • The book is wonderful! I re-read it for this blogathon. I think a lot of Agatha Christie’s individual books are classics in their own right, and Death on the Nile has all the elements of tragedy and human weakness that make up a good book. Researching the production team behind the movie was interesting too!
      Thank for commenting!

    • Hi there, I am having trouble posting a comment on blogspot, but I thoroughly enjoyed your review! You make a really good point about Peter Ustinov and David Niven making a great team – shame they did not make more Poirot films! And all the actors look so guilty when they play the reconstruction scenes. It seems any of their characters could have done it! Bette Davis’ comment was fabulous!

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