World On Film takes a side-step this week as its author, in the grips of the festive season, festively gets to grips with an old Christmas tradition.
Some years ago, when I was abandoning the bloated, overpriced and utterly tedious corpse that Christmas had then become and keeping only the core elements that made sense to me (decent food, wine, the company of people genuinely close and a few laughs), I realised one key element of traditional Northern European yuletide festivities was missing: ghost stories. Enjoyable horror, as opposed to the dreaded misery of the Eastenders Christmas Day special, the terrifying wit of Graham Norton and the bone-chilling inevitability of a youthful Aled Jones. Thankfully, the BBC have over the years seen fit to adapt the work of yesteryear’s masters of the macabre, such as J.S LeFanu (Shalken The Painter), Charles Dickens (The Signalman) and many dark outings from the greatest British scribe of the Victorian ghost story of them all, M.R. James.
Indeed, 2010 was the year one of his most popular tales would be remade for a modern audience, but before it is held up to scrutiny, World On Film explores the still-powerful original, that being:
Whistle And I’ll Come To You
(1968) Written by M.R. James Teleplay & Direction by Jonathan Miller
“There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in philosophy.”
(To see a brief clip, look to the bottom of last week’s post.)
A university professor, arrogantly believing he holds all the answers to life, the universe and everything, faces the ultimate horror during a vacation at a quiet coastal village in Norfolk when he encounters something that goes beyond all rational explanation.
It was a rather bleak and overcast afternoon several years ago when I happened to catch Whistle And I’ll Come To You, Jonathan Miller’s excellent adaptation of Montague Rhodes James’s signature ghost story. The iconic tale was my first visit to the Jamesian world of understated Victorian horror – a world he seemed to inhabit effortlessly – and I would as quickly as possible go on to devour every other work that I could get my hands upon. Although Whistle is a very different beast in many ways to the original short story upon which it is based, Miller expertly brings the essential underpinnings of the tale to life with a balance of modification where perhaps budget intervened, and fairly instinctive faithfulness. Filmed some 50 years after it was written, it is almost that long again since and the monochrome retelling still has the power to delight and scare.
Miller seems to grasp the author’s restrained and quiet approach to drama effortlessly. James belonged, and very comfortably inhabited, the old school of literary horror. It is a discipline largely of the implied, of the vaguely-suggested, an enormous sepulchrally-lit room wherein the rational must fight to be heard and, finding no familiar ground, is often mercilessly subdued by that which it cannot define. It is the world of the oblique and the unseen, save for a few terrifying half-interpreted glimpses into a forbidden dimension of chaos, the dark denizens of which will inflict upon the ordinary man only terror and madness should he gaze upon them too closely, or worse still, attempt to make sense of them. Even the most intact survivor is forever changed and robbed of all previous convictions. It is, in essence, a horror that derives from what is unseen save for a few tantalising details that will unseat the ego carefully crafted to cope with the everyday world and shatter the anthropomorphic world view. While Dickens did not attempt, like James, to glimpse at the Hadean talons behind the shadows, he nonetheless understood the fundamental mechanisms of the genre: The Signalman is a celebration of the power of description set within maintained unease. Much of the drama is down to the buildup of suspense and atmosphere, with the audience left largely to draw their own conclusions in the theatre of the mind, save for one or two terrifying, yet tantalizing and well-timed glimpses into the abyss provided by the writer. Lovecraft, the successor to both authors, carried on the tradition of reluctant descriptive prose for the purposes of implication, where the full revelation opens the curtains with unsubtle recklessness, calls in the daylight and the mood is forever destroyed.
“[Director Jonathan] Miller expertly brings the essential underpinnings of the tale to life with a balance of modification where perhaps budget intervened, and fairly instinctive faithfulness.”
This approach, now the benchmark of the proper ghost story, is precisely what we get in the teleplay, shot on location in Norfolk, where the scenery and incidental sounds do much of the work. This is especially important given that the overconfident lead character, who almost entirely inhabits a world of his own creation and does not engage in a great deal of dialogue. The less-is-more approach is wonderfully effective: much of the tension comes from nightmarish dreamscapes and strange objects ominously kept in the distance, and the lack of continuing verbal commentary allows for wonder and suspense to build to great effect. And indeed the true horror is psychological: that which cannot be qualified, a true terror to one who thinks they have reality fully understood, and poignantly, one they have brought entirely upon themselves. The monochromatic nature of the film lends to the bleak and cold surroundings of the Norfolk coastline, although as viewers were to find in the BBC’s next James adaptation, A Warning To The Curious, full colour is by no means more comforting.
Headlining the cast, the late and legendary Michael Hordern is a good deal older than the Professor Parkins of the text (Parkin in the film), which unfortunately loses the idea of arrogance in one so young, but Hordern is such perfect casting and fits the character so well that one can more or less forgive the character’s transformation. The other principal lead of the Colonel, played with great understatement by Ambrose Coghill, also finds his part reduced in the teleplay, although his conversational foreshadowing, in which he suggests that the realm of knowledge may be greater than Parkin smugly allows for, is crucially intact. Indeed, Miller’s assured hand preserves the essentials of the storyline and ensures that things move at a consistent pace, realising the ambiguous supernatural elements with skill to a satisfying conclusion.
Any fan of classic horror would be doing themselves a disservice to pass on this marvellous visual retelling of one of M.R James’s most celebrated ghost stories. Even now, as a new version is about to hit the small screen, I will be very impressed indeed if it manages to surpass the wonderful and original monochrome masterpiece.
The Creature That Came In Answer
The following section is a comparison of the film and the original short story. Please do not read this section if you haven’t seen/read either and don’t wish to be spoiled. Scroll down to Further Reading below therefore to avoid any major revelations.
Jonathan Miller’s monochromatic adaptation of ‘Oh Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad’ was the first time the story had made it to the small screen. That very same year however saw Robert Eddison (probably best known today for his portrayal of the Grail Knight in Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade) star in the fourth James adaptation for the highly-successful ITV anthology series Mystery & Imagination, ‘Casting The Runes’. Whistle was also part of an anthology series, though unusually, it was the BBC’s long-running Omnibus program, primarily known for its documentaries on a variety of subjects.
Those familiar with the original short story may consider Miller’s efforts to be a somewhat truncated version of the tale, with character motivations removed and certain key scenes omitted from the film. Even the title (a line from a Robert Burns poem) has been shortened, as if symbolic of Miller’s desire to distill the story down to its core potency. It is a Professor Parkin, not Parkins, who comes to the remote Norfolk seaside village for recreation. He is middle-aged rather than young, and is entirely disinterested in golf, while for his literary counterpart, the sport forms fully half of his reason for choosing the venue. Golf appears frequently in James’s short stories as the sport du jour of the upper-middle class academic, though he is often dismissive of it, as in ‘The Mezzotint’, where it is enough to mention the fact that the main characters spend an afternoon on the green, “but [the details of] which the conscientious writer has no right to inflict upon any non-golfing persons.” Ironically, a significant golfing scene occurs in ‘Oh Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad’ between Parkins and the Colonel, who becomes annoyed at the young professor’s prowess. The sport becomes the common ground for their growing relationship and when not searching the sands for a Templar preceptory, they often found in each other’s company. By their second golfing game, “they got on so well together in the morning that there was no talk on either side of their separating after lunch.” On television however, they merely know each other through mealtime conversations and from this principally is their relationship developed.
Of course the Templar preceptory, a crumbling ruin largely buried beneath the sand on the shores of the beach, becomes instead a more modern Christian cemetery upon the embankment high above the beach. Doubtless Miller would have been only too happy to have showcased the former if an obliging Norfolk beach had presented itself (filming in Lincolnshire might have yielded results), though the ridiculous ease with which Parkin finds his whistle is entirely faithful to the equal good fortune Parkins has within the sand. The absence of the preceptory also robs Parkin of another of his ambitions while in the area. In the short story, it is a fellow colleague who asks him to check the ancient ruins to see if “it would be any good to have a dig there in the summer.” On television, it is Parkin who plans his visit to the cemetery, simply to indulge his own curiosity.
“Those familiar with the original short story may consider Miller’s efforts to be a somewhat truncated version of the tale.”
The ghost of the story is largely the same in both versions. In the climax to the short story, it is “a horrible, an intensely horrible, face of crumpled linen” (sic), as if framing the face of the invisible monster within. As with the not readily available Templar artifacts, Miller does not quite have the technology to reproduce such a visage, which the prose so successfully invokes in the theatre of the mind. One final noteworthy absence is the earlier scene involving a small boy terrified out of his wits upon seeing a white sheet rise up to the window of Parkins’s room seemingly animated by nothing of the material world. The youngster, half-crazed, relates the vision to the room’s occupant, foreshadowing the nightmare he will soon experience for himself. Given that it is a related tale rather than in real-time, Miller perhaps has decided that it would undercut the ghastly revelation of the haunted bed sheet.
Here then we return to the idea of distillation, for despite the many trims made for the screen adaptation, there is no doubt whatsoever that Miller has understood the heart of the tale. While not “young, neat, and precise in speech”, his Professor Parkin is no less arrogant and cocksure, more than content to the point of preference to inhabit a world populated exclusively by himself, with human company welcome only either for the purposes of showing off. Company becomes more desirous when this world is thrown into disequilibrium. Parkin is less “precise” in his speech however, often so caught up in his perpetual interior discourse that words are frequently fumbled and sentences disjointed. Parkin’s disinterest in golf, the one opportunity Parkins of the text has to maintain social interaction, makes the elder character of the film even more isolated and withdrawn.
The decision to make Parkin older may have come down entirely to the casting of Michael Hordern, who captures the haughty academic perfectly. Hordern gives Parkin a delighted self-assurance that his world view defines the very building blocks of the universe, only later to quickly unravel when the paranormal sends him into meltdown. He engages in frequent muttered dialogue with himself, chuckles happily at his genius, and generally glides through life seemingly unaware of it. At the climax, Hordern wonderfully plays Parkin’s abject horror at the indescribable, the inexplicable reality that nearly destroys him, and unlike the text, this is also the point at which the credits roll, giving no hint of how successfully he will recover, if it all.
“Michael Hordern captures the haughty academic perfectly… giving Parkin a delighted self-assurance that his world view defines the very building blocks of the universe, only later to quickly unravel when the paranormal sends him into meltdown.”
Similarly, although absent of any Crusading knights’ stronghold, the filming locations are otherwise very authentic and faithful to the original. The lonely Norfolk coast is every bit as isolated as the text describes it: “On the south you saw the village of Burnstow. On the north no houses were to be seen, but only the beach and the low cliff backing it.” Indeed, only the guest house appears on screen as proof civilisation’s existence, making sandy shores even more remote. The interior of the brightly-lit residence is a sombre space, where sound is an exception rather than the rule. Indeed silence plays a huge part of the production, with Miller keen to emphasise not only the great isolation of the world Parkin has stepped into, but the tremendous distances between himself and the rest of humanity. The monochromatic nature of the film only serves to emphasise the gloom.
Technological limitations aside, the apparition of the story is recreated more or less as one would expect it to appear. More importantly, the slow build-up wherein the ghost’s presence is felt more than seen except occasionally in the distance, is entirely faithful and effective. The dream sequences are very carefully actualised so as to appear as they did in prose, even down to the fact that no matter how often Parkin opens his eyes, the nightmare instantly returns when he closes them again; while the odd pulsing sound effects expertly build up the tension of pursuit and menace, with the beach groyne described in the text shot from below to good effect. In all the places where it matters, Miller has remained as faithful to the original as his 1968 budget and technical capabilities have allowed him to be. Coming in at approximately 41 minutes, the adaptation is just long enough to build up the slow, but steady pace of the source material without being too long so as to lose momentum.
Christmas Eve 2010 saw this most celebrated of Jamesian ghost stories return to the small screen. It too bore the name Whistle And I’ll Come To You and starred John Hurt in the lead role – both suggesting that it may owe more allegiance to its television predecessor than the short story itself. That however, is for another time.
The short stories of M.R. James are now out of copyright. Subsequently, you can read ‘Oh Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad’ right here for free. ‘The Mezzotint’, also mentioned above, can be read here.
The End of the Beginning
And with that, we come to the final entry for 2010. There will be no ‘proper’ update next week while I, and very likely the rest of you, ring in the new year. However, I may write a follow-up to this post praising or lamenting the remake of Whistle.
Otherwise, World On Film returns in early January to continue the ongoing mission. Coming up: childhood sweethearts reunited, but their parents have other ideas for their marital futures. Love and melodrama in Benin as we explore the Nollywood flick, Abeni.