Exploring the world through global cinema

Chinese Whispers

This is a follow-up to last week’s post in which I reviewed Jonathan Miller’s memorable screen adaptation of the M.R. James classic short story, Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad. Below is my review of the recent ‘remake’. You may wish to read the previous entry first to get the whole story.

Whistle and I’ll come to you

(2010) Teleplay by Neil Cross                     Directed by Andy De Emmony

John Hurt stars in ‘Whistle and I’ll come to you’, 2010’s highly-disappointing reinterpretation of Jonathan Miller’s teleplay, reviewed in the previous entry. Hurt himself however is one of the train wreck’s redeeming features.

I think it’s important to begin by saying that the BBC’s efforts to bring the classic ghost stories of M.R. James to the small screen, have, over the years, been a continual source of joy for lovers of old school horror such as myself.  While not every adaptation has been as accomplished an approach to film-making as Jonathan Miller’s iconic 1968 retelling of Whistle & I’ll Come To You and Lawrence Gordon-Clarke’s memorable interpretation of A Warning To The Curious, even the comparatively more pedestrian entries have evoked not only the much-anticipated foreboding and supernatural atmosphere of the source material, but a good degree of faithfulness to their underlying themes. Indeed, the BBC proved that this intuitive understanding of this literary fidelity was still very much alive when the classic ‘Ghost Stories For Christmas’ series was revived in the 2000s with the worthy additions, A View From The Hill and Number 13. This, however, cannot be said for 2010’s apparently necessary remake of Whistle And I’ll Come To You, wherein the terms ‘remake’, ‘intuitive understanding’ and ‘source material’ are applied with the same degree of dubiousness as any arguments in support of the production’s validity.

For those unfamiliar, as indeed many still will be after watching the new Whistle, the plot of the original centres around the cocksure academic bachelor Professor Parkins (Parkins in the original text), who takes a vacation during the off-season at a remote Norfolk seaside village for golf and exploration, the latter prompted by a colleague’s request that he inspect the remains of an old Templar preceptory to determine its archaeological worth. This he duly does, and within the crumbling ruins, discovers an ancient whistle, unable to resist putting its practical function to the test. From that moment on, Parkins is never alone, having awoken forces beyond description and quite beyond all human understanding. The heart of the story is the folly of arrogant presumption, that there will always be realms of understanding beyond mortal man, and to believe you can quantify existence is to invite downfall. James’s overconfident scholar and protagonist is the perfect vehicle to deliver this message, and an archetype that the writer, who was himself a highly-accomplished academic, knew better than most. The rapid destruction of Parkins’s self-assured, almost autistic world is almost as disconcerting as the unknown forces he has unleashed, for which we are given only fleeting glimpses and very little explanation.

Gemma Jones as Alice Parkin, whose presence greatly humanises the main character, thereby entirely undermining his raison d’etre.

All of which clearly flew over the heads of the 2010 production team, who presumably felt that the core elements of the story were its beach setting, the university professor more inclined to the rational than the superstitious, and the general bleakness of his existence. So long as some vague continuity with these components was maintained, it seemed perfectly reasonable to completely rewrite both story and characterization to the point where the result was a vague shadow of its former self yet could still be legitimately broadcast under the same title.

The Neil Cross teleplay, in which the action is relocated to the present day, sees a Professor James Parkin committing his wife, apparently suffering from advanced senile dementia, to a care home before taking a long overdue vacation on the Kentish Coast in order to come to terms with his loss. The seaside resort also happens to be their one-time honeymoon destination, and the discovery of a ring in the sand dunes brings to life more than mere memories for Parkin. Something seems keen to communicate with him on the deserted coast, and it may not be as unfamiliar as it first appears.

Cross’s script quite spectacularly fails to grasp the point of the James tale, retaining only superficial vestiges of its substance. Gone is the arrogant, antisocial university mandarin of the original. In his place is the more socially-capable doting husband whose rational worldview is in no way extreme and borne of great personal tragedy – again entirely caused by the most intimate of social interaction (the original Parkins wouldn’t even know what to do with a woman). The character’s ultimate fate is seemingly more extreme, yet far more simplistic and obvious, undercutting the psychological ramifications of his plight.

“Cross’s script quite spectacularly fails to miss the point of the James tale, retaining only superficial vestiges of its substance.”

The superficial elements of the original are retained in what is in reality an entirely new story.

The ‘ghost’ of the story is equally less subtle and, by the climax of the tale, extremely more quantifiable than its antecedent, of which one understands no more by the end than they did when it first appears. Its intangible mystery is precisely the point of its existence, being something so alien that not even the well-read professor can define it.

The whole dramatisation is, in short, comprehensively dumbed down. The rapid departure from the original narrative is, according to those behind the camera, because Jonathan Miller had already dramatised the story so well that there seemed little point in retreading the same ground. The truncated title, the fact that the character is named Parkin and more significantly, that he is middle-aged, are further clear signs that it is the 1968 Omnibus adaptation rather than the book from which inspiration was drawn. The reigns are firmly in the grip of Marshall McLuhan’s prophesied generation wherein the televisual medium has become the message for those who work in the industry. Television is its own reference point and must now be the source material for rehashing plots with diminishing returns. Heaven forfend that the book be the wellspring of inspiration instead. Telling the same story is surely the point, and the fundamental element of a remake. Artistic vision and execution are surely the obvious ways in which it can be taken in new directions. And if there is little point in retreading ground well-covered in the past, this, surely, is proof that the exercise was unnecessary in the first place.

Kingshead and Botany Beach on the Kentish coast provide some excellent backdrops. Certainly the casting and production values are not at fault here.

Cashing in on a popular title is perhaps the greatest offence and indeed irony, since the Cross script under the direction of Andy De Emmony does deliver its own chilling moments. Add to this the very capable cast headed by John Hurt and Gemma Jones and some excellent location shoots, and there is much to otherwise praise. More damage is done to it by being arrogant enough to masquerade it as something it is not, whereas a more favourable analysis would be quite easy if it were touted as a new work in its own right. It isn’t, however, being instead an unwarranted ‘Disneyfication’ of a far darker psychological piece that a new audience will mistakenly equate with Britain’s greatest master of the macabre. It is the same blind egotistical behaviour that Hollywood is typically blamed for. With them, however, such silliness is expected.

*****

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Next Time

As indicated last week, World On Film will be going all Nollywood for the Benin-themed film, Abeni. I’ve even found a trailer, which you can see here. No subtitles, but you’ll get the general idea.

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2 responses

  1. reverend61

    Hello! I stumbled across this while researching for another article – John Hurt related, as you’d probably guess given the timing. While I don’t agree with everything you say, you make a good, compelling argument, and this was well-written.

    One thing you might not have noticed – you’ve listed the director as Euros Lyn; it’s actually Andy de Emmony.

    January 31, 2017 at 6:53 pm

    • Hi, thanks for taking the time to comment! Yes, there are doubtless many revisiting John Hurt’s work at the moment, all of us reminding ourselves of what an indelible mark the man left on screens both big and small. I have also made the correction you cited – can’t imagine what was going on there!

      February 5, 2017 at 11:31 am

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