A Ghost Story for Christmas
Whistle and I'll Come to You
The decision to re-adapt Whistle and I’ll Come to You for 2010’s A Ghost Story for Christmas divided fans of the series and M.R. James’ original story. Jon Dear explores Andy de Emmony’s effort…
Adaptations are curious beasts; they can bring a story to a far greater audience yet are subject to the demands of their new medium. While this can often necessitate simplifying the story, it isn’t always to the adaptation’s detriment. Are there many people who prefer Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws (1974) to Stephen Spielberg’s 1975 film?
One of my (numerous) pet hates are those people who can’t accept that an adaptation has to play to different strengths and seem irritated when it fails to recreate the personalised mental images from when they read the original story. Peter Harness’ 2005 TV adaptation of M.R. James’ ‘A View From A Hill’ radically changes the structure and dialogue and received a fair amount of flak for it, but as Peter himself explains:
“I think a lot of the criticism of the piece comes out of what was omitted in terms of dialogue and location – and as an MRJ enthusiast, I’m very aware of the vandalism that I’m perpetrating – but in a shorter piece like ‘A View from a Hill’, which is more of an incident than a fully structured drama, then, to make it dramatically interesting, you have to flesh out the characters and structure the tension and the flow of information differently, so it builds to a climax. Any scrapping of the source material was not done lightly – it was done with a lot of thought and discussion and it was done to make the piece work televisually and dramatically. My first draft of the script was very faithful to the original, in terms of characters and dialogue, but it wouldn’t have worked so well on-screen – it would have been entirely clear what was going on from about five minutes in, and there would have been no build-up of tension or expectation.”
The fundamental point is that as long as you remain faithful to the spirit of the piece, using the strengths of the adaptive medium to tell your stories should always outweigh a slavish faithfulness to the source material. But the elastic that connects Neil Cross’s adaptation to M.R. James’s most famous tale is stretched pretty much to breaking point.
I was largely dismissive of this production upon initial broadcast; too ponderous, too uneven, too…well, just too different. But rather than its difference from the original story, this reworking will always live in the shadow of Jonathan Miller’s 1968 film (widely regarded as the best adaptation of any James tale), and therefore faces fan-wrath twice over. Watching it again, trying to rid oneself of any preconceived preferences, this is a bleak and chilling tale of loneliness and lost futures, less an adaptation, more a distillation of themes and images central to the original work. The unknown central horror here isn’t the shrouded figure on the beach – that’s just its manifestation – it’s dementia. And this lies at the heart of a lot of the negative reaction. An arrogant academic having his parameters of rationality dramatically altered is one thing; watching a man unable to cope with his self-imposed exile after leaving his seemingly unresponsive wife in a care home? That horror may be a little too close to home.
Anyone with even a vague knowledge of Luther (BBC 2010–2019) will know that writer Neil Cross doesn’t exactly shy away from the uncomfortable, but as with the productions of ‘Stigma’ and ‘The Ice House’, expectations are fundamental to reception. Change the title and stick this on in the autumn, and you’d probably get a more positive reaction. I was as guilty as anyone of dismissing this too readily. Now? I’m not sure I’ve seen a scarier BBC ghost story.
We start as we mean to go on. Extreme close-ups of an orrery, a carriage clock. Time is passing. James Parkin (John Hurt) framed in mid-shot alone in his lounge, defined by his solitude. Parkin retired two years ago and (we are told) has since cared for his dementia suffering wife, Alice (Gemma Jones). Now he’s finally taking her to a care home and is asked by the staff to take off for a few days so they can get her used to the new routine. Parkin heads off to a coastal resort, an old (forgive me) haunt from their youth, saying goodbye by singing the opening line to Robert Burns’ Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad. On the beach, he finds a ring with the inscription Quis est iste qui venit. From then on he is pursued by a shrouded figure and something trying to get into his hotel room.
Cinematographer Rob Hardy would go on to shoot Annihilation (Alex Garland) and Mission: Impossible – Fallout (Christopher McQuarrie) (both 2018), and here, even in seemingly static shots his camera is always moving, breathing. Shot with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the landscape dwarfs Parkin. Director Andy De Emmony chooses the eerie chalk stacks of Botany Bay in Kent rather than the East Anglian coast of the original story and of Millers 1968 adaptation. He uses a washed-out colour palette that makes everything seem faded, cold and distant. The camera often positions itself behind Hurt as if lurking or pursuing. And the almost casual framing of the ghost on the beach is deeply unsettling. It’s first revealed in longshot, and then when Parkin decides he doesn’t like the look of…whatever it is and turns back, it’s shown over his shoulder to have moved impossibly closer. The camera doesn’t linger or even make the ghost the focus, it’s just there, where it can’t possibly be. So simple and so unnerving, and worth noting this was broadcast in 2010, the year the Weeping Angels returned to Doctor Who (BBC, 1963-).
Just as the wide-open spaces of the locations are filled with Parkin’s isolation and loneliness, so the back story of his marriage is open and empty, a near blank canvas where the viewer can paint at will. However, the dream sequence where we see Alice holding a non-existent baby, and the last thing Parkin ever sees – his spectral wife screaming “I’M STILL HERE” at him – suggests there are unresolved factors that he can’t escape.
Ultimately too much explanation diminishes the power of fear but you get the impression that Parkin is trying to work through his guilt. Is his seeming devotion to his wife since retirement a reaction to previous neglect? Do we even know he has looked after her as well as is claimed by the care worker, Hetty (Lesley Sharp)? Is the ghost nothing more than a manifestation of Parkin’s guilt? Even the object that manifests the ghost – a ring rather than a whistle – is a symbol of marriage, of unbroken infinity. A ring (unlike a whistle) isn’t a summoning device, but this isn’t an object waiting to be stumbled on by anyone with an inadequate grasp of the subtleties of Latin. This object was meant for one person only.
Sound is crucial to this production, heavy with bass vibrations and foreshadowing, from the opening sound of waves on the shore to the scratching Parkin hear), an aural harbinger of his nails on the floor at the moment of his death. The storm that lashes the hotel on the first two nights is frightening enough but the silence on the final night carries a far greater menace. (I’m reminded of the line from the 1801 poem Battle of the Baltic by Thomas Campbell, “There was silence deep as death.”) Most disturbing of all is the banging on Parkin’s hotel room door on the second day, initially assumed to be a misplaced guest, Parkin later learns from the hotel proprietor, Carol (Sophie Thompson) that he was utterly alone in the building. It’s violent, unrelenting and invasive. ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You’ plays on the basic fears of safety and security, of there being someone where there cannot or should not be someone. It also defines things by their absence, be it the personality of Alice or the unpleasant bust in the hotel room that Parkin turns away from him before shutting it in the wardrobe. Then being even more aware of it because of the space it occupied and what it might be doing whilst unobserved. We move from Mark Fisher’s defined states of the weird to the eerie.
The supposed arch rationalist Parkin has no time for talk of ghosts and the supernatural, dismissing the idea of “a discorporate human personality that has survived bodily death” and that “a body that has outlasted the existence of the personality…is far, far more horrifying than any spook or ghoul…” Parkin sees his wife as the opposite of a ghost and thinks that is far worse by simple virtue of the fact it’s real. The theme that runs through every iteration of this tale is that of arrogant certainty being undone by the fearfully inexplicable, so Parkin may think dementia worse than a ghost but he’s left crying and moaning in terror at its final manifestation. Despite his scientific certainty Parkin has been shown to be irrational throughout the story, unable to sleep with the light off or to look at an unsettling objet d’art. As he dies, back in the care home and seemingly more lucid, Alice departs (literally, she just disappears) as if her work is done. It’s a brutal ending with Carol finding Parkin’s body (Thompson always does such a great job of portraying people barely holding it together) which exacerbates the negative reaction from people who might be expecting the more ‘pleasing terror’ of M.R. James and may find this interpretation a little too bleak.
With social care pretty much broken in the U.K. and something many people will have to deal with in their lifetime, it’s a brave decision to make a debilitating mental condition the ghost and all the rage/frustration and guilt associated with it the haunting. We can laugh at Parkin’s humourless self-importance in James’s original story, and we can do the same with Michael Hordern’s repressed eccentric in Miller’s version. But here there is only hopeless fear and regret, and in the end, death.
The whole cast is superb, it’s beautifully shot, effectively scored and very scary. It’s just not what an M.R. James story should be. When you have to shoehorn the title into the dialogue you’re better off changing it altogether.