We didn’t watch a great deal of TV over the Christmas break, but we did really enjoy a few programmes, including one that we were nearly put off watching by the poor reviews. It was a remake of one of the classic M. R. James ghost stories, “Whistle And I’ll Come To You”. I’m a massive fan of the stories, and the TV adaptations which were made in the 1960s and 70s, particularly the one they made of “Whistle And I’ll Come To You” (with Michael Hordern) and “A Warning To The Curious” (with Peter Vaughan).
The new adaptation, with the excellent John Hurt, changed several of the plot elements of the original story, including switching the whistle inscribed with ‘Quis est iste qui venit’ (who is this who is coming) with a ring bearing the same inscription, and introducing a sub-plot of a wife suffering from dementia, whom he reluctantly places in a residential care home at the start of the story. The reviews I read objected to these changes, and also found it rather slow-moving. Having watched the drama, I couldn’t disagree more.
Much as I love M. R. James, many of his stories share a basic plot: slightly arrogant academic (or academic manqué) finds or uncovers some ancient artefact that they have been warned to leave alone, and suffers terrifying consequences for their meddling. The End. The point is that the genius is in the way that he tells them, not in the plot, and the excellent TV adaptations from the 60s and 70s understood this. They were masterful pieces of suspense, and generated fear incredibly effectively from the look on an actor’s face, a bit of cloth flapping down a beach, or a shadow. They didn’t really show the terrifying thing directly, but you saw it — as it were — out of the corner of your eye. As a consequence, they have stood the test of time really well, and the lack of special effects is a virtue rather than a failing.
The new adaptation followed the same principles and set up the conditions for the viewer to scare themselves silly. I thought that the addition of Professor Parkin’s wife to the plot added extra layers, rather than detracting from the story, and what does it matter if it’s a ring or a whistle that he finds? The artefact is just a MacGuffin anyway. They set up the creepy atmosphere of the slightly faded old hotel well, and when something bangs on his locked bedroom door at night and you see the shadows of feet in the gap under the door, it’s properly terrifying. I won’t give away the denouement in case you get a chance to see it, but I was clutching a cushion and squealing, and when it has come into my mind while I’m trying to get to sleep, I’ve had to make an effort to think about fluffy kittens and rainbows instead. Also, if I ever find myself in a hotel with a creepy porcelain head on a shelf, I will most definitely be putting it in the wardrobe.