|Of course it's all right. He was your dad.|
Writer/director Stephen Volk's Midwinter of the Spirit in fact adapts the second book in the series, which seems counterintuitive at first; apparently though, that's the one where the direction of the series is set and possibly it's also one of the better ones, and it seems to me that the intention was that this would be the first of a series of adaptations. There's no sign of a renewal, although a lot of folks watched it and it got decent critical notices. But I get the distinct impression that fans of the books absolutely hated it.
|We need your expertise.|
I'm going to talk more about adaptations next week, but right here and now I'm going to make the controversial point that most people don't understand what makes a good adaptation. A good film adaptation is never "just like the book". It can't be. Film is a different language, and as anyone who's ever translated anything from one language to another knows, literal word for word translations are the worst sort of translation. You translate word for word, you ironically miss a whole raft of meaning. When you translate any document from one language to another you have to work on a principle called dynamic equivalence: you don't always translate words, you translate meanings.
|I'm going to say a prayer with you.|
So when people who love Phil Rickman's books say that the TV adaptation of Midwinter of the Spirit is terrible because it's missed things out and changed plot elements and characters, I'm not inclined to take that terribly seriously. It's a big fat book (which I do have a copy of and will get round to reading, eventually). Some things you're going to have to cut to get it into three 45 minute episodes. Some things you're going to have to lose because there are things that you simply can't show on ITV1, even after 9pm because it's one of the popular mainstream channels and in the digital age, popular mainstream channels don't push the envelope. So that bit where the teenaged Satanist goes down on someone in the cathedral, that's not going to fly, frankly. As it happens, the TV version goes about as far you can go on ITV1 these days.
|Could we have a chat, Canon Dobbs?|
Merrily gets called in by the police to offer expert advice on a man who's been crucified in the woods; things found at the man's home suggest a larger context.
She also has to attend the death bed of a man named Denzil Joy, who by all accounts was a really horrid guy. She's present as he dies; in his death throes he grabs her hand and his hideous, ragged fingernail cuts her hand. The cut becomes infected and she begins to be haunted by Joy (and is it just a series of hallucinations brought on by stress and mild septicaemia or an actual haunting? Wisely, the serial doesn't offer a definitive answer).
|No, that's Baphomet.|
The two main stakes, then, are the occult conspiracy in which Merrily finds herself entangled, and the question of whether Merrily will be able to rescue her relationship with her daughter before having her own nervous breakdown.
Anna Maxwell Martin is excellent as the out-of-her-depth vicar whose urge to do the right thing is costly to her own sanity, and it's evident that the makers of the series didn't just consult with Anglican deliverance ministers, they listened. It's easy enough to present the raw facts of a religion, but Midwinter of the Spirit presents what Anglicans care about, and tries very hard to make you care about it too.
Part of the very demonstrative, declarative way the drama does things is very much down to to it being an ITV drama. It's very hard to define, but anyone brought up on British TV can tell the difference between an ITV drama and a BBC drama within a couple minutes of watching (in fact I found Midwinter of the Spirit on Netflix this week, having entirely missed it on broadcast, and did indeed think, “Oh, ITV” within a couple minutes of the start). It's weird how obvious it is, how choices in pacing, music, and editing can make a channel's output so distinctive over another's. ITV dramas tend to be more “hooky”; because it's a commercial channel, shows are edited into roughly fifteen minute chunks, so you have a plot beat every quarter of an hour or so and then five minutes of adverts, and you find that the first quarter hour is often, in an ITV drama, crucial – because if it hasn't grabbed the audience by then, they switch off in the ad break.
So it is with Midwinter of the Spirit, in which we meet Merrily, establish the tension with her daughter, show she's a deliverance minister and explain how and why she's not confident, introduce Canon Dobbs and establish he's losing the plot, and ends on the ad break with Merrily being shown a man crucified in the woods with a crown of barbed wire on his head, all in the first fifteen minutes.
And when you have to get about six hundred pages of genre fiction, rich in incident, you get a serial that travels at a breakneck pace. This is not a bad thing, and doesn't mean it has to be loud or histrionic, because Midwinter of the Spirit isn't either of those things. But it is structured in a way to show you A, B, C and so on, and makes sure that all these plots are kept running with everyone watching along with the ride.
It's not perfect. The main problems with it aren't anything to do with style or adaptation. The biggest thing that annoyed me was that the Occult Baddies are shown as having done some Satanic Child Abuse in the past, and Social Services intervened and everything, and that's not a narrative thread you want to present uncritically. When well-meaning evangelicals convinced Social Services that Satanic Abuse was really a thing, it did serious real world damage years ago, and to wheel that out as a straight narrative leaves a bad taste. I mean, what is this, the 1980s?
There's also (big spoiler) an out-of-nowhere Scooby Doo ending, a thing that literally made me say “What!?” out loud at the screen. I will have to watch it again, but my head was reeling at it.
|There's no way it were kids that did this.|
And that's just as well. Midwinter of the Spirit is pretty conservative in its assumptions: it explicitly frames Christianity as the Old Ways and its ill-defined occult opponent as an interloper. The baddies keep saying things like “Christianity has had its day,” and at no point are their motives for wanting to desecrate a cathedral clearly defined, other than the cathedral being an enemy.
|He's not in fact behind her.|
It looks like Midwinter of the Spirit isn't going to go to a second series. Anna Maxwell Martin's version of Merrily deserves to be seen more. It would be a shame to leave it there.