Death(s) in Venice

Visconti’s film is on YouTube in full:


So is Tony Palmer’s film of Britten’s opera:


Apart from Britten’s opera and Visconti’s film, there have been a few adaptations of Death in Venice to other media:


• There was a 1986 ballet adaptation by Norbert Vesak.  There were a couple of reviews of it published in magazines, which could be found at NYPL.


• There was another ballet adaptation in 1991 by Flemming Flindt.  Again, there are some reviews available through the library, but not much else.


• There was a 2003 ballet adaptation by John Neumeier, which has been performed a number of times in the past decade.  Here is a video of some excerpts from a performance:

Here is a review:


• There was a one-man stage adaptation, written by Robert David MacDonald based on David Luke’s translation of the text, and starring Giles Havergal.  It was first performed in Glasgow in 2000.  Here are a couple of reviews:

It played in NYC in 2002:


• Ellis Shookman’s book Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice: A Novella and Its Critics reports that stage adaptations premiered in New York in 1980 and in London in 1993, but gives no details.


• In 1997, BBC broadcast a radio drama adaptation by Peter Wolf.  I haven’t been able to find a copy or much information about it.  The author’s Web site has some glowing quotes:


• There is also an upcoming film adaptation called Food For Love, directed by Peter Greenaway.  Here is an article about it:


• Finally, Warrington Colescott produced a series of ten etchings inspired by the novella.  They were published in a book by Aquarius press, along with a copy of the novella.  The nearest library that has this is Princeton.


There are also a number of works of fiction that are based more or less on Mann’s novella:


• “Ganymede” is a short story by Daphne du Maurier, published in her 1959 collection The Breaking Point, which involves a similar sort of obsession to that depicted in Death in Venice, and is often linked to Mann’s novella.  The collection is not difficult to find.


• The 1990 novel Love and Death on Long Island by Gilbert Adair also involves a similar sort of obsession to Aschenbach’s, although it has a different ending.  It is held offsite by NYPL.  Adair also wrote a book entitled The Real Tadzio: Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and the boy who inspired it, which is available at NYPL.


• There are two different mystery novels entitled Another Death in Venice.  Reginald Hill’s 1976 novel (available through ILL) is partially based on Visconti’s film.  Anthony Appiah’s 1995 novel, available at Columbia, apparently draws directly upon Mann’s novella.


• Geoff Dyer’s 2009 novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi begins with a variation/parody of the situation of Death in Venice.  It is available at NYPL.


Adair’s Love and Death on Long Island has been adapted into other forms at least two times:


• There was a 1997 film adaptation of Love and Death on Long Island, starring John Hurt.  It is available on DVD at NYPL.


• There was also a 2008 stage musical with music by Ben Perry and book by Adair, which was performed at the West End Theatre in London.  Here is a brief review:


Death in Venice has also turned up a few times in (semi-)popular music.


• Rufus Wainwright’s 2001 song “Grey Gardens” is love song directed at someone named Tadzio.  Here is a performance:


• Morrissey’s 2006 song “I Just Want To See The Boy Happy” is cited by Wikipedia as being related to the novella, although the connection seems to be pretty loose.  Here is the music video:


• There was an Italian goth rock band called Death in Venice, active in the early 1980s.


Finally, there is a “Death in Venice” cocktail, which alludes to the novella/film by including strawberries:

10 thoughts on “Death(s) in Venice

  1. Thanks for this Jeff. The one thing I find puzzling about the “Nachleben” of the Mann is that for quite some time (more then fifty years?) there were no major adaptations of the novella into other media, but then in the mid-70s we have this flourishing of opera (Britten), film (Visconti), followed ballet in the next two or three decades (1991 by Flemming Flindt, 2003 ballet adaptation by John Neumeier, 1986 ballet adaptation by Norbert Vesak). But from 1911 till the 70s, there’s very little of note, then a decade later, this plethora of dance. So the two major adaptations appeared within a couple of years of each other (and Britten was even advise not to see the Visconti (stylistically very different, though after the dropping of the first part in the Visconti–like Boito’s dropping of the first act of Shakespeare in his rewriting for the Verdi opera, telling a very similar narrative with the same episodic structure.) What caused the long delay in finding the Mann adaptable, and then to have two major representations within a couple of years: that seemed to unleash the floodgates.

  2. I logged on to read this entry seconds after I purchased the rental on Amazon Prime. *fist of fury* Oh vellz.

    Funny thing before I talk about Neumeier ballet, I’m currently reading Rick Riordan’s latest Heroes of Olympus book, The House of Hades. A major clue in locating the Doors of Death is in Venice, and his character Nico (whose godly parent is Hades) makes a Death in Venice reference.

    I personally love dance adaptations, especially of works like Death in Venice, because (I would argue) dance can communicate longing like no other art form. [side note: was a figure skater growing up, and when I was living my angst-y teenage years, nothing was as cathartic to me as movement.] The clip of the pas de deux between Gustav and Tadzio circa 2:12 to the end is a stunning piece of choreography. The vitality and strength of Tadzio as compared with the fatigue of Gustav is beautiful; I also find it interesting how Tadzio seems to be leading the pas de deux. There’s a certain sense of agency and power granted to T in this dance that I never really sensed in the book or Visconti’s adaptation.

    • It’s interesting to think about the Neumeier giving Tadzio agency, especially in the context of both the Visconti and the Britten, both of which, I think I’d argue, seem to go to great lengths to prevent T from become too real. In the novella, we experience Tadzio only through his body, and we experience his body only filtered through Gustav — it’s abstracted, both by Gustav himself (as the epitome of classical perfection) and by the medium (words, not bodies). While both the Britten and the Visconti make various stylistic choices to filter our encounters with Tadzio through Gustav, the they both do have to deal with the implications of casting a real person as Tadzio.

      One particularly impassioned (and offensive) YouTube commenter was incensed that the Tadzio in the Britten — a muscular dancer — wasn’t frail enough for the role. And while I’m not necessarily on board with that commenter, I do think there’s notable tension in the way the Britten deals with T’s physical presence. On the one hand, making Tadzio a largely danced role means that we encounter him through Gustav’s filter (much as we do in the novella itself). On the other hand, making Tadzio a largely danced role means casting a dancer, with a dancer’s fundamentally non-frail body. Palmer’s Tadzio — the same character who, in the Mann, is too delicate to live long — is exploding with physical power.

  3. There’s also Geoff Dyer’s “Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi,” which is perhaps, not quite an adaptation, although it clearly relies on a certain audience familiarity with both Mann and Hindu scripture. What’s odd is that, in this New Yorker interview (well, interview-ish thing – part of the ‘communal reading experience’ of the Book Club – Dyer both completely acknowledges the fact that his work is “a version of ‘Death in Venice,’ set during the Venice Biennale,” and somewhat denigrates Mann’s novel, claiming “‘Death in Venice’ has never meant much to [him] as a book (hence the dismissive Brodsky epigraph, from ‘Watermark’)”. In fact, Dyer claims that “Death in Venice” is more of “a kind of universal template, a myth that we’re all familiar with, even if we’ve not read the book itself.” Dyer then goes on to call his book “a repudiation of sorts, in that in “Death in Venice” there’s all this ambiguity about what Tadzio means to Aschenbach, whereas in mine it’s straight-down-the line carnal and hedonistic.”

    I haven’t read “Jeff in Venice,” but there’s something interesting going on here with the idea that, after a work has reached a certain amount of cultural saturation, it is ‘fair game’–that is, it is “universal,” and therefore almost demands adaptation. Perhaps this need only apply within a narrow definition of culture or society; certainly I would take issue with Dyer’s assertion that “we” are all so familiar with Mann’s text as to compare it to mythology–or else, why aren’t there scores more adaptations of the novella, as with other ‘universal’ myths?

    • I haven’t read Jeff in Venice either, but I’m wondering if Dyer is overstating a bit the degree to which his work is an adaptation of Mann’s. (Has anyone read the Dyer?) The “universal template” part of his comments feels particularly (and Westernly) culturally conditioned to me (which makes it even more interesting that he then chooses to take on the East).

      The Times review says this about the connection between Dyer and Mann: “One kind of reader will happily follow the scenes of getting wasted to their inevitable dead end, while another will notice the sly delicacy with which Jeff — dyeing his hair before he sets out; wondering if he’s too old, at 45, to be ogling teenagers; and standing transported before Tintoretto’s painting of the Crucifixion — is paying quiet homage to the Mann story that marks a small climax, perhaps an elegy, to a certain type of 20th-century culture.”

      This review of Dyer is rather entertaining:

      Parenthetically, I’ve been reading Paul de Man for another class and every time I type Mann I have to make sure I’m writing the right name. De Man in Venice would be a whole other kind of adaptation…

  4. We’ve talked about the self-consciousness of fiction in class – I’m wondering if a similar hierarchic awareness can be applied to film in relation to fiction, and then especially in the case of book-to-film adaptations. Although most of the story (i.e. “what happens”) of Mann’s D in V is preserved in Visconti’s film – thus making the movie “faithful” – I was mostly impressed by how largely the two differed in terms of silence. I guess what I mean by this is Mann’s novella may contain little dialogue or interaction, but the readers are never really outside of Gustave’s head, even in the kind-of flashback chapter that clues the reader in to Gustave’s past. We are constantly told what Gustave sees and feels and thinks and this in-turn provides a picture for us through this dialogue, unsteady, referential and/or biased as it may be. As it seems most kinds of narration are largely relegated to prose, Visconti embarks on telling the same story without having the audience in Gustave’s head. And since there are very few moments of true dialogue and, really, no main characters besides Gustave and Tadzio, Visconti has to rely on the camera, mainly Dirk Bougarde’s acting, and the music to tell the story – and some puzzling changes to the source. It’s easy to point out differences, but I was struck by the big alteration in Gustave’s impetus to go on holiday; Visconti has his Gustave seek Venice out in order to recover from an illness most likely related to the stress of his composing work (another change, perhaps indicative of the adaptation itself – book-author vs. film-composer). Which makes the ultimate death in Venice a (foreshadowed) irony, whereas Gustave’s death in Venice in Mann comes through a kind of random impulse after a chance encounter, which starts the author down a series of coincidences and missed connections to temptation, and ultimately death.

  5. Continuing off of what Rachel brought up, I think that the image of Tadzio in the Visconti and Britten films is too “real.” The novella was particularly compelling because as readers we saw Tadzio and the rest of the interesting character run-ins through Gustav’s perception. The narrative continuously gives us details of Gustav’s emotional reactions to the scenes before him. The films try to do this, but in my opinion, ultimately fail. As John talks about above, “Visconti has to rely on the camera, mainly Dirk Bougarde’s acting, and the music to tell the story.” Was this enough? I wonder what could have been done to give the film more of the eerie feeling that the book has. Briefly, I thought of a form of oral narration, yet I feel this would have come over as overdone- perhaps Death in Venice is one of the sources that cannot be made into an adequate adaptation, if such a thing is possible. I realize this statement is also highly subjective.

    I, too, noticed that the reason for Aschenbach’s trip was changed in the Visconti adaptation. In the film, Ashenbach seeks Venice as a means to become well since he was suffering from some illness before hand. Perhaps this is related to a sort of mental unrest he feels in the novella, but is not stated explicitly, and is clearly shown as physically ailing in the start of the film. Why is this change made? Is it not believable enough to have a main character decide to travel on a whim? In the film, this decision makes his death later on a foreshadowed event and allows the story-arch a sort of full-circle run- perhaps this was the intention. The death scene remains true to the novel, as best it can. The hair dye running down Gustav’s clammy face was a dramatic touch. Positively, I think it succeeded in transferring Gustav’s obsession and desire for the aesthetic beauty he sees in Tadzio, especially when Gustav reaches out to him before he dies. Overall, the film did not capture too much of the book’s internal obsessiveness and musings on beauty, since instead of being inside, we are outside the story in the film. I also wonder why he was a composer and not a writer in the film- perhaps the fact that he writes with “music” adds to his largely silent encounters in the film, pushing him to a place outside of the language that is so pervasive in the novella. I look forward to our class discussion on these topics and others!

    • Wikipedia that Mann based the physicality of Gustav on the composer Gustav Mahler, and it has a reliable reference ( So rather than being a change, it could be argued that Visconti is actually being more faithful to Mann’s idea of Gustav. Mahler actually lost his daughter in 1907, so that’s where that bit of flashback comes from. Also, Mahler has this rep among musicians and musicologists alike for being super angsty. Methinks it serves the Visconti film.

      (Did anyone else tire of the constant zoom-in-zoom-out shots of Tadzio in the Visconti?)

  6. Ian McEwan also wrote a novella based on DiV, called “The Comfort of Strangers.” I’d be interested to see how McEwan’s portrayal of interiority (really amazing in a novel like “Saturday”) comes up against Mann’s.

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