The perils and pitfalls of adaptation in the ghost stories of M R James


(‘Young Shepherds at Evening Time’ by Myles Birket Foster)

The usual effect of seeing any film or TV adaptation of a book or story that I like is to send me back to the original, so on that ground alone (assuming I am not the only one so affected) I would say that such adaptations are a good thing. That said, I think that they rarely succeed entirely and are often unsatisfactory; and it is interesting to consider why that should be so.

(This line of thought was stimulated by a discussion on the MR James Appreciation Society group page on Facebook, hence my concentration on James – who is also one of the most-adapted of writers, certainly of ghost stories)

Translating from one medium to another must always come at a price: some things that work on the page do not work on the screen and vice versa. The two most obvious differences between books and films are the constraints of time and the difference of viewpoint.

Most films are somewhere from an hour-and-a-half to three hours long, with around two hours being fairly standard; television is more flexible, since it can broadcast a series of episodes, though as a rule a single programme will be somewhere between half an hour and an hour, occasionally a bit more. A book, on the other hand, can be read at the reader’s own pace, though there is a minimum time that even a fast reader would take and in the case of full-length books it is generally longer than any film. However, in the case of short stories, there is a fairly close approximation between the time it takes to read one and the typical length of a TV programme, so adaptations here might be less problematic in that respect.

As for the viewpoint, there are several points to make. A picture is famously worth a thousand words, and it is certainly true that a scene or description that may take a considerable quantity of text is something that can be shown in a moment on screen. More importantly, film and television depictions are, by their nature, external and objective, whereas writing tends to the internal and subjective. This means that the television adaptation must work harder to achieve the effects that come naturally to the writer – chiefly conveying the characters’ thoughts and feelings, with the latter being of particular importance in ghost stories.

Let us take two instances, both from James, who was an acute observer of certain states of mind, particularly disquiet and anxiety. The first is from an unpublished and incomplete draft of a story called John Humphreys, (the text of which can be found here, on the excellent Ghosts & Scholars website)

‘He felt as well, as unexcitable, as at any time of his life. No, it must be either an accumulation of coincidences or – what was that touching his arm? It might have been a branch, if he had not happened to be in the open field! Whatever it was, the effect was curious: it brought back the dream – he was beginning to think of it as the vision – of the evening before. The homely well known pasture seemed in a moment to widen into an illimitable grey expanse – an acute feeling of extreme loneliness and of being on a hopeless and aimless journey came over him and his whole being cried out for companionship and protection, and yet he felt that there was none, none whatever to be had: he was helpless in a world of hostile shadows. Nothing was interesting any more, nothing was or could be important, and for all that, there was an instant pressure of hurry and no time to stop and think. It was a bitterness of despair which could not, he said, be put into any human words, and he believes he sank down under it and cowered on the ground – fortunately not in sight of any passer-by – and here for how long he couldn’t tell he wrestled for his life and his reason.’

The second is from a published story, A Neighbour’s Landmark: (full text here)

‘I think we must all know the landscapes — are they by Birket Foster, or somewhat earlier?— which, in the form of wood-cuts, decorate the volumes of poetry that lay on the drawing-room tables of our fathers and grandfathers — volumes in ‘Art Cloth, embossed bindings’; that strikes me as being the right phrase. I confess myself an admirer of them, and especially of those which show the peasant leaning over a gate in a hedge and surveying, at the bottom of a downward slope, the village church spire — embosomed amid venerable trees, and a fertile plain intersected by hedgerows, and bounded by distant hills, behind which the orb of day is sinking (or it may be rising) amid level clouds illumined by his dying (or nascent) ray. The expressions employed here are those which seem appropriate to the pictures I have in mind; and were there opportunity, I would try to work in the Vale, the Grove, the Cot, and the Flood. Anyhow, they are beautiful to me, these landscapes, and it was just such a one that I was now surveying. It might have come straight out of Gems of Sacred Song, selected by a Lady and given as a birthday present to Eleanor Philipson in 1852 by her attached friend Millicent Graves. All at once I turned as if I had been stung. There thrilled into my right ear and pierced my head a note of incredible sharpness, like the shriek of a bat, only ten times intensified — the kind of thing that makes one wonder if something has not given way in one’s brain. I held my breath, and covered my ear, and shivered. Something in the circulation: another minute or two, I thought, and I return home. But I must fix the view a little more firmly in my mind. Only, when I turned to it again, the taste was gone out of it. The sun was down behind the hill, and the light was off the fields, and when the clock bell in the Church tower struck seven, I thought no longer of kind mellow evening hours of rest, and scents of flowers and woods on evening air; and of how someone on a farm a mile or two off would be saying ‘How clear Betton bell sounds tonight after the rain!’; but instead images came to me of dusty beams and creeping spiders and savage owls up in the tower, and forgotten graves and their ugly contents below, and of flying Time and all it had taken out of my life.’

There is a striking similarity between the two passages, though I feel the second is much superior. In both, the change is wrought in an instant – by a fancied touch in the first, a sound in the second – and the effect is similar: anyone who has felt it will recognise the accuracy of these descriptions of sudden dysphoria, the sense that no pleasure is to be had from anything, and all the goodness has drained out of life. The difference in quality is reflected in the balance of the two pieces: the first is about half the length – 221 words against 428 – and a single sentence suffices to tell Humphreys’ prior feelings: ‘He felt as well… as at any time of his life’ while the description of the sense of bleakness that descends on him runs to some eight lines or more (112 words – more than half the total) and his reaction is extreme and dramatic – perhaps overly so. In the second piece, 215 words is devoted to evoking the mood of ruminative well-being, reinforced by another 69 words after the intrusive noise, which cleverly reprise the mood by saying what is no longer there; the demolition of this carefully-constructed edifice of wellbeing comes in two and a half concentrated lines ( a mere 38 words) at the end: ‘images came to me of dusty beams and creeping spiders and savage owls up in the tower, and forgotten graves and their ugly contents below, and of flying Time and all it had taken out of my life.’

To be fair, their states of mind are not identical – Humphreys is already troubled in the first piece, the narrator of the second is not – but the real point of interest is how either of these could be effectively translated to the screen. The second, in particular, is a very subtle piece of writing, conveying as it does a great deal of the narrator’s character and tastes – he is refined, witty, a scholarly bibliophile inclined to mock his own predilection for conventionally sentimental pictures; it comes as no surprise to find that beneath this contented veneer there lurks a sense of disappointment and loss. It is a passage that epitomises a great deal of the pleasure to be had from reading James, and it is hard to see how that subtlety could be satisfactorily translated to the screen.

For a start, the actual supernatural element – ‘a note of incredible sharpness, like the shriek of a bat, only ten times intensified’ – is not at once recognised as such – it is dismissed as ‘Something in the circulation’ – in other words, he takes it to be subjective, inside his head, only to realise – when it is repeated an instant later – that it is objective, external. On screen, the first presentation of the sound (which the viewer would have to hear too) will inevitably seem objective and dramatic – we will feel at once that it is significant – so that its depressing effect, even if it could be conveyed (by the light going off the landscape, say, accompanied by an expression of disappointment), will be overwhelmed and lost.

So much for technical difficulties caused by the difference in medium; much more could be said, but I hope I have highlighted some of the key problems. However, there is another aspect I would like to consider, one that has a particular bearing on James, and that is the matter of faithfulness to the original.

The question that arises here has a much broader application, and indeed applies to any adaptation: it is not simply how far one is obliged to be faithful to the original, but rather what ‘being faithful to the original’ actually consists of. The initial thought is that you ought simply to follow the letter of the original as closely as possible: you should have the same characters, in the same setting, at the same period, with the same action and dialogue; then surely you can’t go wrong?

But as soon as you attempt this approach, you will find it is not so simple. I may discuss this more fully some other time, but fundamentally, the way you tell a story in writing and the way you tell it on the screen are different, so in order to tell the same story you actually have to go about it in a different way. This then raises the question of what makes it the same story – and here, in contrast to the previous approach, we are aiming for faithfulness not to the letter but to the spirit.

An illustration: recently, the MR James Appreciation Society page carried a link to a fine adaptation of James’s The Mezzotint. It is called The Photograph, and is by Tim Hall – it can be viewed here (and is well worth a look). Yet in it, no single detail of the original survives: it is set not only in a different time and place, but another continent, with different characters and a different back-story, yet for all that, I would call it a faithful adaptation, and a good one, too. We can see this if we strip away the flesh from the skeleton, so to speak, and move from the specific details – which differ – to the underlying general structure, which is identical in all respects that matter.

The supernatural agency is the same: both versions centre on a picture that changes, and in changing tells a story; in the original, it is a mezzotint; in the adaptation, a digital image stored on a camera. The story in each case is of an injustice (inflicted by the powerful on the weak, as it generally is) avenged from beyond the grave, the vengeance in both cases being the taking (and presumed destruction) of an infant. In the original, a poacher (of an old but impoverished family) is hanged by the Squire and his line is extinguished; his ghost retaliates by ending the Squire’s line by making away with his sole heir. In the adaptation, the larger crime of genocide against Native Americans is the injustice that is similarly avenged. In both cases, once the story has been told and ‘witnessed’ it ends: the mezzotint does not change again; the digital picture is simply lost from the file.

This, I think, is a good case of preserving the essentials, and the spareness of the adaptation – there is nothing superfluous there, no speech at all – is a key component to its success: it is hard to imagine a full-blown TV adaptation daring to be so economical in its narrative.

By contrast, the adaptation which provoked the original Facebook page discussion – the version of ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll come to you ’ with John Hurt – preserves nothing at all that is essential to the original, and as several people pointed out, were the link not expressly made with the James story in the title and the presentation, few would think to make it.

I am grateful to Wikipedia for the following plot summary, as the details of the Hurt version had become vague in my recollection, though my sense of it as unsatisfactory remains strong:

‘In this version, retired astronomer James Parkin goes on a respite holiday after leaving his aged wife (who appears to be in the advanced stages of senile dementia) in a care home. When revisiting one of their favourite coastal towns during the off-season, he discovers a wedding ring on the beach, which he keeps. The ring is inscribed (as was the whistle in the original story) with the Latin words for “Who is this, who is coming?” (though in this version, Parkin wrongly translates it as “What is this thing that’s coming?”). Parkin reads the words out loud. He then sees a white clad figure in the distance on the beach, but as he walks away, the figure has got closer to him each time he turns to look back. Panicking, he then runs back to the hotel he is staying at.

Later that night, he is awoken by scratching noises and somebody trying to enter his hotel room, but the following morning he is told that he was actually alone in the hotel all night with no other guests or even staff present. Though his academic mind refuses to acknowledge the existence of the spiritual or supernatural (he refuses to believe in the idea of his wife’s spirit being trapped in her almost functionless body like a “ghost in the machine”), he becomes increasingly uneasy during the remainder of his stay at the hotel and makes plans to leave.

The night before he is due to depart, he is once again awoken in the night by noises at his door, sending him into a panic. This time, a spectral apparition enters his room from underneath the door. Parkin shuts his eyes in terror and implores the apparition to leave him alone, but as he opens his eyes he sees a figure sitting on the end of his bed. The figure appears to be his wife, who says over and over again “I’m still here” as Parkin tries in vain to escape. The following morning, Parkin lies dead in his bed, while his wife is no longer to be seen at the care home.’

I remember thinking at the time that this was quite a moving story in its own right – and Hurt is ever a watchable actor – but that its association with James was both unwarranted and unnecessary: unnecessary, as it was good enough to stand on its own, and unwarranted, because (unlike the Mezzotint example above) it preserved nothing that was essential to the original, so that the incidental details it did preserve (a similarity in the setting and the manner of the supernatural visitation) seemed gratuitous and even baffling.

The original James story (full text here) sits in the same category as A Warning to the Curious and Count Magnus: all three concern people who meddle with what would have been better left alone and pay a heavy price, though Parkins (his name in the original – why the slight change in spelling in the adaptation?) at least escapes with his life, though his scientific rationalism is severely shaken. The Hurt story is about personal grief and guilt, so the fact of his being a rational scientific academic has no bearing – what shakes Parkins is that the terrifying manifestation he experiences seems to be the result of his having blown the whistle, a possibility he cannot countenance; in the Hurt story, Parkin has ample cause to be troubled in his mind – grief and guilt – but why this should result in a spectral manifestation that pursues him down the beach is anyone’s guess.

Indeed, it is notable that the Hurt version actually conflates two separate incidents in the James original: as Parkins is walking home, having found the whistle,

‘One last look behind, to measure the distance he had made since leaving the ruined Templars’ church, showed him a prospect of company on his walk, in the shape of a rather indistinct personage, who seemed to be making great efforts to catch up with him, but made little, if any, progress. I mean that there was an appearance of running about his movements, but that the distance between him and Parkins did not seem materially to lessen. So, at least, Parkins thought, and decided that he almost certainly did not know him, and that it would be absurd to wait until he came up. For all that, company, he began to think, would really be very welcome on that lonely shore, if only you could choose your companion. In his unenlightened days he had read of meetings in such places which even now would hardly bear thinking of. He went on thinking of them, however, until he reached home, and particularly of one which catches most people’s fancy at some time of their childhood. “Now I saw in my dream that Christian had gone but a very little way when he saw a foul fiend coming over the field to meet him.” “What should I do now,” he thought, “if I looked back and caught sight of a black figure sharply defined against the yellow sky, and saw that it had horns and wings? I wonder whether I should stand or run for it. Luckily, the gentleman behind is not of that kind, and he seems to be about as far off now as when I saw him first. Well, at this rate he won’t get his dinner as soon as I shall; and, dear me! it’s within a quarter of an hour of the time now. I must run!”

His ‘I must run’ is jocular: in a typically Jamesian touch, what he has seen makes less impression on him than on the reader, who already thinks it rather more than a late-evening stroller on the beach. It is when Parkins has retired to bed – after having blown the whistle and experienced a sudden blast of wind that blows the window open – that his imagination conjures the image of a man pursued by a spectre along the beach:

‘What he saw was this:

A long stretch of shore–shingle edged by sand, and intersected at short intervals with black groynes running down to the water–a scene, in fact, so like that of his afternoon’s walk that, in the absence of any landmark, it could not be distinguished therefrom. The light was obscure, conveying an impression of gathering storm, late winter evening, and slight cold rain. On this bleak stage at first no actor was visible. When, in the distance, a bobbing black object appeared; a moment more, and it was a man running, jumping, clambering over the groynes, and every few seconds looking eagerly back. The nearer he came the more obvious it was that he was not only anxious, but even terribly frightened, though his face was not to be distinguished. He was, moreover, almost at the end of his strength. On he came; each successive obstacle seemed to cause him more difficulty than the last. “Will he get over this next one?” thought Parkins; “it seems a little higher than the others.” Yes; half climbing, half throwing himself, he did get over, and fell all in a heap on the other side (the side nearest to the spectator). There, as if really unable to get up again, he remained crouching under the groyne, looking up in attitude of painful anxiety.

So far no cause whatever for the fear of the runner had been shown; but now there began to be seen, far up the shore, a little flicker of something light-coloured moving to and fro with great swiftness and irregularity. Rapidly growing larger, it, too, declared itself as a figure in pale, fluttering draperies, ill-defined. There was something about its motion which made Parkins very unwilling to see it at close quarters. It would stop, raise arms, bow itself toward the sand, then run stooping across the beach to the water-edge and back again; and then, rising upright, once more continue its course forward at a speed that was startling and terrifying. The moment came when the pursuer was hovering about from left to right only a few yards beyond the groyne where the runner lay in hiding. After two or three ineffectual castings hither and thither it came to a stop, stood upright, with arms raised high, and then darted straight forward towards the groyne.

It was at this point that Parkins always failed in his resolution to keep his eyes shut. With many misgivings as to incipient failure of eyesight, overworked brain, excessive smoking, and so on, he finally resigned himself to light his candle, get out a book, and pass the night waking, rather than be tormented by this persistent panorama, which he saw clearly enough could only be a morbid reflection of his walk and his thoughts on that very day.’

There is a certain irony in the fact that James makes better use of the cinematic form in conveying Parkins’s waking dream than the TV version does in trying to realise his story. Much of the effect here depends on the reader’s being several steps ahead of Parkins, who still feels secure in his rational explanation that what he is experiencing is no more than the result of overexcitement: it is our flesh that creeps, not his. Compared to that, having Hurt/Parkin actually believe himself pursued by an ambiguous figure, to the point of panic, seems crude and unconvincing.

And the ambiguity of the ending – which I had forgotten – muddies things still further. The source of Hurt/Parkin’s grief is that his wife, though physically present, is effectively absent: she is almost the opposite of a ghost, a living person who is actually dead. If she is ‘still here’ then the implication is that she is still alive, trapped in her failing body, hence his guilt; but if she is now dead, and her death has in some way coincided with the events Hurt/Parkin experiences, in what sense is she ‘still here’? On the contrary, she is no longer trapped, and has nothing to be resentful about; and if Hurt dies as a result, then he too is free and no longer haunted by grief, guilt or anything else.

It seems to me that where this story is at its weakest is precisely where the writer has tried to preserve some connection with the James original: the full potential of the writer’s own conception – a man haunted by the loss of his wife to dementia – is constrained and distorted by an ill-advised and unnecessary attempt to fit it somehow – anyhow – to the framework of the James original.

My own surmise is that the tale was commissioned as an M R James adaptation to draw on the established tradition of broadcasting his stories at Christmas, so had to be presented as such, but that the writer could not make it work – and why that might have been is matter for another day – but I have no doubt that it would have been better had it been freed entirely from any Jamesian connection.

This is a topic to which I shall return.

2 thoughts on “The perils and pitfalls of adaptation in the ghost stories of M R James

  1. An interesting and well-reasoned discussion. I think you might have included some consideration of the role of music in film and whether it has any analogue in the written version. I believe that it does provide some of the atmosphere that is provided by language and style. Lighting could be argued to do something similar. I hope you do return to this topic anon ( if not here, then over a pint).

    • Why, thankee, brother. You put your finger on an important point. I would agree that music and lighting supply the subjective element which comes easily to writing but which visual presentation struggles with. I suppose that what we call ‘atmosphere’ is what we see plus the sense of how it feels to be there, and that is generally conveyed by lighting, music, or both.

      There is an interesting exercise in creating atmosphere here: Good use is made of colour filters, silhouettes and noise, especially traffic noise, and the little glimpses of the sinister creature are deft and subtle, a good demonstration of how less is more.

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