Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Tractate Middoth (BBC) - my thoughts

Yes, I am going to shut up about M.R.James for a bit (soon) and no, this isn't officially a review. I don't review anything very often - certainly not books, unless I happen to love them, because I know how much love and effort goes into writing one, and I can't bear to be critical. 

However, this Christmas brought a great treat for M.R.James fans - an adaptation of The Tractate Middoth, directed by Mark Gatiss and starring Sacha Dhawan and Louise Jameson amongst others. 
At risk of sounding like an MRJ geek, I have to admit that I watched it four times before the BBC removed it from iPlayer this evening... 
Anyway, I'd like to share my thoughts about it and I'd also love to hear what other people thought! (NB Spoilers ahoy.)

I have to say first off that I am quite a traditionalist when it comes to MRJ adaptations. Of the two Oh whistle adaptations, I much prefer the 1968 version with Michael Hordern to the more experimental 2010 version with John Hurt. So I was delighted that The Tractate Middoth adaptation did not deviate substantially from the original story. I have heard some criticism that the story was brought forward to the 1950s but for me this was absolutely not a problem. MRJ himself said in his essay Ghosts, treat them gently! that "It cannot be said too often that the more remote in time the ghost is the harder it is to make him effective, always supposing him to be the ghost of a dead person." The 1950s is a period far enough behind us to have the necessary antique flavour, but not so far in the past that it feels downright historical. I also felt that the ancient university library setting had the prerequisite antiquarian atmosphere. The ghost himself was timeless; in his black cloak he could easily have been Victorian, and indeed Dr. Rant must have been born in that era whether in the original story or in this version. 

The other area in which the adaptation deviated noticeably from the original was in the sinister implications of the ending. In the original version, the death of John Eldred ends the appearances of the ghost. William Garrett's promotion to prospective owner of Bretfield Manor, "now in the occupation of his mother-in-law, Mrs. Mary Simpson" is not overshadowed by any threat of future interference by Dr. Rant. I hesitate to say whether this is better or worse than MRJ's ending(!) but it is certainly more modern - the implication of more terrors to come being a staple of the final scene of horror movies. 
It does cast a very different light over the ghost itself. MRJ's Dr. Rant seems to be satisfied with justice having eventually been done, as the terms of the most recent will are applied. In spite of the horrific physical appearance of the ghost, one might infer that he wishes, or is somehow obliged, to see that justice done. The new Dr. Rant, however, seems to be motivated entirely by spite, and his malevolence has no use-by date. This seems rather unfair towards the entirely innocent Mr. Garrett, who can presumably look forward to some further manifestations. 

But what of Mary Simpson and her daughter? I was very interested in the portrayal of those two characters. Much of their dialogue is lifted directly from MRJ's text and so one would not expect to react to them any differently in the adapted version. And yet, and yet... I found them both - well, not actually unsympathetic, but more difficult to like unreservedly in their new incarnation. Mary Simpson expresses, I suppose, feelings that many of us would have about a spiteful will-shaking old relative (even if we didn't express them), but in the original story this is softened somewhat by the revelation that she feels her husband's life was shortened by their poverty. I felt too that the strident 1950s make-up and the knowing glances exchanged by mother and daughter gave a less than warm impression. I wondered whether this was intentional - a counterbalance to the fact that the ghost is clearly not finished with them yet when the story ends. 

I liked the adaptation very much. Of course some details of the original story were changed, but I felt the spirit and flavour of it remained. I thought the ghost was excellent; I thought the hero was sympathetic and "Sniffer" (the library doorkeeper) amusingly and revoltingly realistic. I do hope Mark Gatiss will be directing further Christmas treats! 

Old books: sometimes dangerous.