Sunday, 15 November 2009

Adaptations of M.R. James

M.R. James (1862-1936) was a noted mediaeval scholar, and Provost of Eton. It was in the latter capacity that he began the tradition of scribbling and reading out ghost stories to the boys; these, duly polished and written out, were published, and are some of the finest ghost stories written. James knowledge of antiquarian minutiae meant that he could convey the world of old manuscripts, strange documents, odd artifacts with considerable authenticity. Into this world came malevolent ghostly figures, never fully described, but only hinted at, which were, naturally, much more frightening than any total description would have been.
On television, there have been several versions of the Ghost Stories of M.R. James. Of these, "A Warning to the Curious" is available on DVD. It was one of a sequence at Christmas which included "Lost Hearts", and the "Stalls of Barchester Cathedral" and the "Treasure of Abbot Thomas". It captures MR James very well, and there is a lot that is not seen, or suggested in outline, or at a distance, which is more effective for that.
Now it is probably best known for Clive Swift (well known in Only Keeping Up Appearances, a sitcom) who was Dr Black, not in the original stories, but introduced as a narrator in this one and "Stalls of Barchester". The setting of the treasure hunter played by Peter Vaughn (a sympathetic performance from an actor who was usually cast as villainous) as someone out of work in the 1930s depression is also new to the TV story, but works very well in giving it that period feel. There are indications of this - the newspaper about people being out of work, the threadbare shoes etc.

All these 4 stories kept period settings, which was very effective, being a strength of the BBC drama department. A Dickens's story - the Signalman - was also produced at the time by the same team. They are occasionally repeated on satellite.

"Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You" was quite different; it was produced by Jonathan Miller, and takes a few liberties with the text, but is very atmospheric, and the black and white quality helps enormously. Its feel is very different, as Miller is definitely an auteur in his stylish presentation.

A later TV adaptation , "Casting the Runes" is in fact the second take on this story.
The first was a Hollywood Film called "Night of the Demon" which followed the story very well but had to show the demon at the start (forced on the producer by Hollywood). That is still is brilliantly spooky, and apart from the start, using subtle suggestions to build up a sense of impending menace.

The TV version is quite different, being placed in a modern setting; it takes more liberties that the early 1970s stories, but still works quite well. The character of Dunning was made female, and the whole setting modernised. Still spooky, but lost a lot of the MR James ambience. For a short story adaptation, whole chunks of the material was left out, which was a shame. James would have turned in his grave over the runes themselves - not only do they not resemble runes in this adaptation, but instead of being Nordic, they are "Old Teutonic derived from Greek", picking two alphabets that have almost nothing in common. Iain Cuthbertson as Karswel, the villain, was alright, but disappointing compared to his sinister performance  in other occult stories such as ITV's Children of the Stones. Contrasting it with the film version (Night of the Demon), in the TV version, Karswel hardly appears, whereas in the film, Niall MacGinnis, has a lot more to get his teeth into in the character.

There were also TV versions of The Ash Tree, and View from a Hill (about binoculars that could see into the past), but I've not seen them.

Two TV version have been produced which presented many of the stories in a brief 15 minute narrated form. One was by Robert Powell, and used woodcut style illustrations to great effect. The other had Christopher Lee, and was more of a Jackanory style presentation, which the camera on Lee who narrated, still to good effect, as he is known for his strong commanding voice.

There have also been 15 minute radio narrations which were very good, and a play "The Midnight House" involving MR James as a young man, suggesting the inspiration for some of his tales.

1 comment:

Nick Palmer said...

I remember seeing "Lost Hearts" when I was 11'ish (March 5th, 1966). It was extremely scary (then).