Starring John Hurt, Gemma Jones, Lesley Jones and Sophie Thompson
Updating a classic of any kind is a somewhat hazardous undertaking – some adaptations work, others fall flat on their faces. Anthony de Emmony’s take on MR James’ Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, shown on BBC2 on Christmas Eve, falls somewhere between the two. In other words, it was neither a bad stab at it, nor was it a great one.
John Hurt plays James Parkin, an astronomy professor, who leaves his wife Alice in a nursing home while he visits one of their favourite rambling haunts – a seaside village in the off-season. While there he chances upon a ring on the beach, and from that point on his world is turned upside down as inexplicable events start happening, events which upset the foundations of his self-assurance and beliefs.
This is, indeed, the core of MR James’ story – a Cambridge professor (without a wife in this instance) going off on a golfing holiday to improve his game and, during a brisk walk on the coast, he finds the ruins of a Templar preceptory. Digging around he comes across a small cavity in which he finds a whistle. When he gets back to the hotel he scrutinises the object, including blowing it – the trigger for the events that follow.
Necessarily, with the updating come changes to the elements of the story to make it more contemporary to today’s audience. The cloistered world of Cambridge professors and dons, archaeologists and scholars is long gone and, whilst academia is still a mysterious world to some, the class divisions which ruled social hierarchies in James’ day no longer pertains to the same degree. In fact, James wrote about the threats, as he perceived them, to the world in which lived and whih gave such force to his tales: the ghosts in his stories can be seen to be emblematic of the social forces battening against the class system, and the slow crumbling of the Victorian and Edwardian order. In that respect, I think that some of the power derived from the tension between the social stratiufication has been slightly dissipated in the BBC version. In de Emmony’s adaptation, however, the missing element is replaced by the main character’s reluctance at having to put his wife in a nursing home – throughout the programme he frets at the decision, calling the home regularly to make sure she’s okay, indicating that at conscious level he’s dealing with his own ghosts.
Hurt’s character came across as a very confused, lonely and somewhat pedantic man, trying to find solace and perhaps reassurance and justification for his actions regarding his wife. By going back to the seaside resort, he hopes to find pleasant memories to assuage his fears with – naturally, what he actually found (it being a ghost story) was far more than he bargained for. His pedantic corrections of the hotel receptionist’s misconceptions of astronomy (mistaking him for an astrologer – again perhaps a reference harking back to the fin de siècle Victorian era – this was also the time of the Golden Dawn and the revival of the esoteric sciences in general) were inevitably intended to establish his credentials as a man of rationality – however, this rationality was subsumed by his confused emotions, thereby leaving me with an impression of fussiness and lack of connection. Compared to the same character as portrayed by Michael Hordern in Jonathan Miller’s 1968 Play for Today production, I felt that Hurt was a little flat in the role –I didn’t really empathise with James Parkin as strongly as I would have liked. For my money, Hordern’s slightly bumbling, somewhat comical and bookish, insular Parkins was much closer to the man in James’ story.
As the Freaky Trigger Hauntography blog pointed out, in a post dated 11thDecember 2009, there was a lot of comedy in the original story – which, in a tour de force of storytelling, makes the supernatural elements of the story that much more frightening. The comical figure of Parkins, with his absolute confidence in himself and rigid belief that ghosts just don’t exist, contrasts sharply with two other elements in the story: the other main player, The Colonel, and the ghostly apparition itself. The jolt at the end of the story, contrasted with the jocularity of Parkins, is what produces the shock – that a seismic shift in perspective has occurred in the professor’s outlook, and that there are things that not even science can explain. Remember also that during James’ lifetime interest in all things spiritualist was going on and that serious research was being conducted into psychical phenomena – there was the whole Victorian fin de siécle spiritualist movement, the Society for Psychical Research had been founded in 1882 and even in the early 2oth century the venerable magazine of scientific reporting, Scientific American, regularly devoted its pages to the results of experiments trying to determine the nature of these phenomena. As the 20th century progressed, belief in these elusive will o’ the wisps faded, and the inherent power of science and empirical evidence asserted itself; even so, there’s a feeling in the stories that MR James believed that there were things, manifesting themselves as ghosts and spectres, that our scientific knowledge was unable to comprehend because we didn’t possess the requisite knowledge.
I also felt that the sequences involving the mysterious figure weren’t particularly effective (unlike the 1968 version, which actually freaked me out slightly) – perhaps in this case, because the figure was revealed in broad daylight, it didn’t have quite the impact. Perhaps it should have been filmed at twilight, because the sheer terror of the figure, as exemplified in the dream sequence in James’ story, isn’t quite pulled off here in my view. In addition, the disturbances were fairly standard happenings, with even a nod to Robert Wise’s The Haunting with the frenzied door-rattling. I also thought that a much more solid connection between the ring and the storm that blew up during his first night’s stay could and should have been made. Plus, as was pointed out by Lee Thompson on a Facebook thread, the denouément was very reminiscent of Hideo Nakata’s Ringu film. Looking at it again, I would have to agree.
Before anyone thinks anything, it wasn’t all bad. For starters, the small cast of characters, just four people, served this production well – the very fact that not many people were around added immensely to the eeriness. The settings were well-used too – the hotel was deserted apart from James Parkin, the receptionist and the implied but never seen chef or other staff. The fabric of the hotel itself felt haunted, a feeling helped enormously by the way it was atmospherically photographed. The scenes in the nursing home, with all the residents sitting and vacantly staring at walls emphasised the soullessness of where his wife had ended up. The beach scenes were also well done – Parkin was the only human being for miles around and a sense of true isolation was telegraphed. In that sense, the intrusion of the ghostly figure was a small shock, but it still remains something that could have been done better, I think.
I think the major problem for me, however, having read the story, is that the connection to James’ tale is tenuous at best. There are elements of the source material in there, but they were so diluted that it made it an entirely different story. I would never pretend to be an expert in these matters, and I am all for people reinterpreting classics, but in this instance perhaps setting it in the Edwardian period might have actually produced a better adaptation, so in effect you would have a double seismic jolt – that of material separation between this world and the unseen one, and also a temporal distance. The Edwardian period is as alien to us as the moon is. Perhaps having someone else to play off against (à la The Colonel) would have been a good prop – while the implication that the receptionist’s implied belief in astrology was meant to highlight the dissonance between the two views, it didn’t quite get emphasised enough.
It was a brave attempt, but one couldn’t help feel that so much more could have been done with the material. I would still hope, however, that the BBC will continue to commission more of this kind of adaptation of classic ghost stories for the small screen, perhaps employing someone who understands the genre on a deeper level, both its dynamics and its motifs. Whatever one thinks of the end product, I for one think that this kind of programme should make an appearance on our TVs a lot more often.