Pity or Terror? MR James and Jonathan Miller

Screenshot 2015-04-01 09.53.02Since MR James is our most noted writer of ghost stories, Michael Hordern one of our finest actors, and the many-faceted Jonathan Miller among our most celebrated directors, it should be no surprise that a production combining the talents of all three should acquire ‘classic’ status; but that should not stop us looking at it with a critical eye.

I am speaking, of course, of the 1968 BBC production of James’s tale ‘O whistle and I’ll come to you my lad’ which – not for the first time – has been the subject of some discussion on the MR James Appreciation Society Facebook page: one strand was initiated by a question about the ending, and whether it might not be more conclusive and in line with James; another asked who from the present crop of acting talent might play Professor Parkins, who has always been portrayed on TV as an older man (Hordern in 1968 was 57; John Hurt, in the recent remake, was around 70) despite being termed ‘young’ in the original.

This prompted me to go back and look again at the Miller version, which is available in full on YouTube (click here). It is frequently quoted as a classic adaptation of James’s tale (full text here) : does it deserve that accolade?

The Miller production – including the introduction, a curious feature we must return to – comes in at a little over 40’ long. In my edition, the original story runs to 30 pages of rather large type and takes about as long to read as the film does to watch; so there is not the usual need for paring-down of substance, character and incident.

Yet pared-down this production undoubtedly is: it centres almost exclusively on Hordern (he is seldom out of shot and generally alone) and considerable portions of the original tale are jettisoned, notably the university scene at the start, the encounter with the small boy outside ‘The Globe’ and the final stage of the encounter with the ghost (and what happens afterwards). In addition, the role of the colonel is considerably reduced, some events are conflated (the original has two whistleblowings and two rumpled bed incidents, the Miller version one of each) and the order of events is revised.

Now all that may be justified in terms of the change of medium, to bring the main storyline out more clearly; but James is a careful craftsman and seldom writes without purpose.

The TV story proper starts with a bed. It is in the foreground of the shot, viewed from an angle, a little from above. Two maids in frilly caps are in the process of making it; there is another bed, already made-up, in the background. The camera lingers on the bed as the maid smooths down the counterpane and satisfies herself that it is ready for whoever is coming.

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This is good dramatic technique: under the guise of every-day activity, our attention is drawn to the bed as something significant in the story; in our minds, we are already forming the question that is explicitly articulated later in the tale: ‘who is this who is coming?’

The question seems to be answered in the next scene: the maid’s exit through one door blends into the opening of another, in the cab that collects Michael Hordern from the station. The vintage of the cab – a Morris 25, I think – and the maids’ uniform suggest a time between the wars, the twenties rather than the thirties. The original story was written in 1903 and its setting is clearly contemporary, even though candles and rats in bedrooms are taken for granted as features of a provincial hotel. It is interesting that Miller has opted to set his story in the past, though given that 1968 was a time of great social and cultural upheaval, he probably thought a contemporary setting impossible.

Economy of storytelling in a TV production is often allied to drive and urgency, but that is not the case here: the pace is remarkably leisurely and the focus for a good ten minutes is entirely on establishing Hordern’s character: a man almost childlike in his lack of self-awareness and preoccupation with his own thoughts; he is, from the outset, an isolated figure – sitting at a separate table, put out of countenance by the overtures of an attractive single woman (later glimpsed with another, younger gentleman in tow), declining the offer of a round of golf, going for a solitary ramble.

Not till we are more than a third of the way in does Parkins, quite by chance and out of the blue, commit the act that precipitates the main action of the tale.

It is worth contrasting this with what James does. His Professor Parkins is first encountered in the hospitable surroundings of the College Hall, with the dons at table and looking forward to the break from academic teaching – it is the end of Full Term, and is either early December or early March (I incline to March because of the golf; but there is a reference to hotels being ‘closed for the winter’ which could be read either way).

In the first five pages (a sixth of the total) we establish not only Parkins’s character, but an important foundation for the rest of the story. Parkins is, like the character Hordern portrays, a recognisable type (and one does wonder if James had anyone specific in mind) but he is more subtly drawn than Miller’s and of quite a different sort. Far from being isolated, he is gregarious enough (‘my friends have been making me take up golf this term’) though his colleagues find him a bit of a pain: he is evidently one of those people who, having arrived at their own position on a matter and found it at odds with what is generally believed, feel compelled at every opportunity to ‘correct’ the popular notion. In Parkins’s case, the matter is the supernatural; he not only disbelieves in it, he actively deprecates it, and any mention of ghosts is guaranteed to get him up on his high horse, a propensity that some colleagues take advantage of for sport.

(there is some suggestion that his zeal is that of the convert – there is a reference later to his ‘unenlightened days’)

But alongside this character, Parkins is also given a motivation for his later actions. Rather like the bedmaking at the start of the Miller piece, it is introduced under the guise of everyday detail – a colleague asks him to look at the remains of a Templar Preceptory near where he is staying; but as with the bedmaking, the reader senses that this is something that will prove of greater significance in due course. The Templars, of course, had a reputation long before Dan Brown ever got hold of them, and James’s stories generally feature antiquarian things as key elements. (‘Oh Whistle’ first featured in ‘Ghost Stories of an Antiquary’ and the question about the preceptory is asked ‘by a person of antiquarian pursuits’).

So while the Miller character is still ambling about, absorbed in his own little world, we already know who the James character is, where he is going, and what he plans to do there.

At this point it is worth looking in detail at the introduction Miller provides. I have to say I find it rather odd, from its opening declaration ‘this is a tale of the supernatural’ – why is that necessary? – to the curious (and somehat disparaging) reference to James’s ghost-story writing as ‘a sideline’; (and is it accurate to describe James as ‘an archaeologist’?) but the bit I take real issue with is what follows, every part of which I think is questionable.

James’s tales, we are told, ‘have a peculiar atmosphere of cranky scholarship’ – do they, really? What follows deals with a cranky scholar, certainly, but he seems much more Miller’s invention than James’s; and I cannot really think ‘cranky scholarship’ is a significant factor in any of James’s tales.

And what are we to make of the claim that ‘O Whistle’ is ‘the darkest’ of James’s tales? The opposite is surely the case – for all its undoubted terror, it is conspicuously light, in several respects – the tone throughout is humorous, from the observation of the colonel’s ‘pronouncedly protestant’ views, the author’s self-depreciation of his knowledge of golf, to the touch of schadenfreude in the closing line; more importantly, the penalty suffered by Professor Parkins is light in comparison with those other James characters who are unwisely inquisitive, Mr Wraxall in ‘Count Magnus’ and the unfortunate Paxton in ‘A Warning to the Curious’; their ending is certainly dark.

And is it a tale of ‘solitude and terror’? again, that seems a better description of the tale Miller tells than of James’s: Hordern is very much alone throughout; the original Professor Parkins is not.

And does it have a moral? If the original has, it is lightly drawn – there is some suggestion (the reference to a surplice at the end) that Parkins has resumed the practice of his faith, but the main point of the story is a familiar one in James, that some things are best not meddled with; Parkins’s reason is not overthrown, but his rational certainties which were such an irritant to his colleagues have been considerably undermined. We are left with the feeling, in James’s tale, that Parkins is the better for his experience, at least in the sense that his colleagues will find him more tolerable company.

In short, then, Miller’s introduction is a piece of agenda-setting, which prepares the way for a tale quite different from James’s; but it also serves to disguise or distract from the weaknesses that arise in Miller’s version as a result of his deviation from the original.

As I have suggested, you tamper with a James tale at your peril: you will find little there that does not have some clear purpose. Miller’s omission of the Templar Preceptory is, to my mind, a blunder. As noted above, it is in many respects parallel to the focus on the bed at the start of the TV production: both prepare the ground for what comes later; but there is an important difference. James’s Professor sets out with a clear motivation.

The Templars are an odd lot and it would be no surprise if an object found in the ruins of one of their churches – in its own special place in the altar, mind – proved to be something out of the common run; and given that Parkins has undertaken to take a look at the preceptory, it is entirely credible that he would appropriate such an object out of legitimate antiquarian curiosity.

By contrast, some 13’ in to the TV version, the Hordern character is sketching out the itinerary for the ‘trudge’ he proposes in preference to a round of golf with the colonel: ‘take a packed lunch… take a look at the dunes… the beach… the cemetery.’ Why this rather clumsy addition? It seems an odd place to specify. Indeed, the main purpose seems to be to elicit from the colonel an equally improbable response: ‘oo-er – a bit too spooky for me!’ which Hordern echoes sceptically: ‘spooky? is it? (hmmm) spooky.’ In terms of subtlety, this is on a par with an elbow in the ribs; it also comes out of nowhere.

When he does come on the cemetery, he shows no more than passing, slightly scornful interest, tramping across graves and throwing out a quotation from Gray’s Elegy; emerging onto the crest of the dune, he finds a grave in the process of erosion: a bone is protruding. Again, he is unsubtly disrespectful: ‘give the dog a bone!’ and for a moment it looks as if he is actually going to desecrate the remains (but why would he do that?). Instead, he reaches over the edge and roots around – again, why? – and finds an object which he puts in his pocket, saying ‘finders keepers!’

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Evidently, this is meant to be his transgression – he has robbed a tomb – though why he does so is unclear (he is not an archaeologist – his discipline appears to be philosophy, and unlike James’s character, he is not acting on anyone else’s behalf). Further, instead of clarifying what follows, this act obscures it. If we are now embarked on a course that leads to the sheeted figure rising from the bed, what is the cause? It would appear to be the theft from the grave; what, then, of the blowing of the whistle, which comes later? is that merely incidental? And why, it might well be asked, is such a whistle in a grave in the first place?

The James character is an unwise meddler, but neither an arbitrary nor ill-disposed one; Miller’s character, by contrast, does something improbable, finds something unlikely, and suffers inexplicable consequences: why should taking an object from a grave cause bedsheets to rise up from an empty bed? – for that is as far as the Miller version goes: Hordern regresses to infancy at the mere sight of it; there is no direct assault on his person, no threat to life as there is in the original, where Parkins is almost forced out of the window.

And here, I think, we come to the crux of the matter: for all its superficial resemblance, Miller’s tale is quite different from James’s and not, I think, as good: where the original gives us a genuine thrill of terror – we can feel with Parkins – Miller’s version shows us something that moves us to pity only.

Something that James is particularly good at is crescendo: in his own words,
‘Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage’

In many of his best tales this dictum is enacted by a steady convergence, as the threat, at first vaguely discerned and barely recognised, draws steadily nearer till it is in intimate and terrifying proximity (consider the ‘irish yew’ in Mr Humphreys, the progression from tram advert, man in the street with fliers, through removal of servants to the horror under the pillow in Casting the Runes; or the steady pursuit of Mr Wraxall across Europe to the terrible climax at Belchamp St Paul in Count Magnus).

And, as James observes, it is an important part of the effect that the protagonist is ‘undisturbed by forebodings’ – those are for the reader to feel. Thus, when Parkins spies a distant figure hurrying to catch up, it does not disturb his equanimity as it does ours; the moaning of the wind after he blows the whistle does not affect him as readily as ‘it might have… fanciful people’; and importantly the figure in his ‘waking dream’ of the lonely beach is a man whose pursuit he observes with some degree of horror but nonetheless the detachment of a spectator – he sees no cause to identify it with himself, though we do.

Likewise, the witness of the small boy the next day – ‘it wived at me out the winder’ – ratchets up the tension for us, but not for the pragmatic Parkins, who is more concerned that his room has been entered and his things interfered with. Likewise the recurrence of the curious rumpling of the other bed impresses us, but not him. When he does at last ‘see a figure suddenly sit up in what he had known was an empty bed’ it may be a complete shock to him, but we have been expecting something of the sort (with pleasurable dread) for quite some time.

By contrast, the Michael Hordern character feels apprehensions that we do not, because they arise, not from his circumstances, but the kind of man he is. Miller sets out to show (as he somewhat portentously puts it) ‘the dangers of intellectual pride and how a man’s reason can be overthrown when he fails to acknowledge those forces within himself which he simply cannot understand’. It could be argued that he succeeds, but the upshot is that the climax affects Hordern’s character much more than it affects us, and in a way that we may understand but do not share.

From the start, Hordern’s character strikes us as vulnerable, even childlike – everyday life could easily take him by surprise, let alone any supernatural manifestation. He is an unworldly man, wrapped in a cocoon of scholarship, quite out of touch with day-to-day reality, with little empathy for his fellow humans and no perception of how he appears to them, but at the same time completely assured in his learning – in short, he is something of a stereotype, the general public’s idea of an Oxbridge don, and by comparison to James’s version (intended, of course, for a university audience) the portrayal, though well-acted, is rather crudely drawn.

His intellectual collapse is not a crescendo but rather a slow appearance of stealthy cracks. We are shown him at his most secure in his breakfast-table lecture to the colonel on the matter of ghosts (though why, pray, has the colonel raised that topic with him at breakfast, a propos of nothing? the equivalent conversation in the original tale – about raising the wind – arises much more plausibly). The professor concludes the conversation by wittily inverting the Hamlet quotation that the colonel offers him: ‘there are more things in philosophy than are dreamt of in heaven and earth’ – but derives rather too much amusement from his own jest. This, then, is the eminence from which he is set to fall.

His first inkling of doubt comes on the dunes, where the recollection of his witticism comes back to him, but then reverts to its original form. As he settles down to read that night, the camera lingers on the empty bed and for some reason Parkins recalls the words on the whistle: ‘who is this who is coming?’ It is only now – almost half an hour into the forty minutes – that the waking dream of the beach-sequence occurs, but with the crucial difference that Parkins sees himself as the one pursued. At this point, I would say that his anxiety now overtakes our own – whereas in the original we are fearful on his behalf because he is oblivious to the full significance of what he sees, in the Miller version we can see no reason why he should see himself as the object of pursuit by the rather abstract flapping thing in the middle distance. We do not feel, in James’s words, that ‘something of the kind may happen to me.’

The next morning, Hordern’s Parkins moves still further beyond our sympathetic range. In the original tale, there are two incidents of bed-rumpling, the first after his troubled night with the beach sequence, which occurs much earlier than in the TV version, and the second after the incident with the little boy, which Miller omits altogether. In both cases, Parkins is able to rationalise it; it is the reader who is disturbed. Now, Hordern’s Parkins is deeply disturbed by the sight of the rumpled bed because he cannot rationalise it. He is driven to seek solace and reassurance in FH Bradley’s essay on Spiritualism – not, I would suggest, a course that many of us would take in the circumstances. Having regained something of his equanimity, he reads and then dozes by the fire, only to be roused by a second repetition (for no apparent cause) of the line ‘who is this who is coming?’ At this point we do begin to feel that we are watching a man’s reason in the process of being overthrown, but the terror is personal to him: we do not share it.

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After bathing, Parkins retires for the night only to be wakened by noises close at hand. In a prolonged reaction shot – lasting nearly thirty seconds – he gazes at something in growing horror; then we are shown the stirring bedclothes. As they rise up, Parkins inexplicably gets out of bed and goes across to the washstand by the window, which takes him nearer the thing on the bed, though not by the most direct route – he is neither confronting nor fleeing it but sidling past it at an angle. In the James version, there is a reason for this movement – he is going for his stick, to use as a weapon (it has been used to prop up a makeshift blind to keep the moonlight out); in the Miller version, there is no reason for it at all.

In the James version, this move is a mistake, as it allows the thing to get between him and the door; what follows is a genuinely nightmarish sequence, a sort of macabre dance in which Parkins realise his opponent is blind and might be evaded if only he could find a way past; but the sight of its ‘intensely horrible face of crumpled linen’ roots him to the spot, then the accidental touch of its draperies forces a cry of disgust from him and the creature pounces in the direction of the sound, driving him backward though the window ‘uttering cry after cry at the utmost pitch of his voice’ – it is this that brings the colonel (who has earlier indicated that he fears something might occur) to the rescue: he is just in time to see the dreadful group at the window, though the sheet-thing collapses to nothing as he closes on it.

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In the Miller version, the mere sight of the rearing bedclothes – with no threat to his person – so unmans the Professor that he regresses to infancy and sticks his thumb in his mouth and begins to utter muffled sobs, which somehow are loud enough to attract the attention of the colonel who (despite having no reason to think Parkins in any danger) bursts into his bedroom and switches on the light; all he sees is Parkins, whose sobs have now evolved into repeated denials: ‘O, no! O, no!’ These continue for nine repetitions as the colonel folds the sheet in the background and the titles roll over Hordern’s disbelieving face.

And we, the audience, feel pity at most, but hardly (I would argue) terror.

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

BFShepherdsunset

(‘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.

Here’s some I wrote earlier…

Once upon a time, there was a splendid site about fixed-gear cycling called 63xc, run by Will Meister, proprietor of the coolest cycleshop in cyberspace, Hubjub. (I have just learned that Hubjub has now changed hands – I hope it continues the excellent service Will established)

This is a piece I wrote for Will in the days when I dwelt in Hyperborea, on the advantages of cycling to work even when you work at home.

And here is clip of me performing the very action which in an earlier post I had confessed was a mystery to me.

If you want compelling evidence of the truth of the Atomic Theory as outlined in that earlier post see here.