Friday 7 April 2017

We Don't Go Back #42: Casting the Runes (1979)

I wrote this post with MR James's help.
This one also has a demon in the first couple minutes.
How do you adapt a text that, when it was written a long time ago, was contemporary?

It's an important question with a variety of answers, none wrong. For example, you see this question answered in different ways in the various Sherlock Holmes adaptations; the 1940s version where Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce motor around uncovering Nazis only needed a little to bring it into the present (after all, Doyle's last Holmes stories were published in 1927, a fact conveniently forgotten by many since those last stories were rubbish). The BBC series Sherlock stripmines — or perhaps more accurately fracks — the original stories for tropes and themes to attach to modern things and bloody well makes sure you know how pleased its makers are with themselves. The fondly remembered ITV version that starred Jeremy Brett took the costume drama route, but was less reverential than you might think, concentrating first on making well-crafted TV from the source material that is closer to what people think of Sherlock Holmes than the actual stories are.

MR James's story, “Casting the Runes”, was adapted three times for film. I've written about Night of the Demon already; a version was broadcast on the BBC in 1968, but that one's lost. The third appeared on ITV in 1979 as an episode of ITV Playhouse; it was directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, who had of course adapted James for TV five times already, and scripted by Clive Exton, who had worked with Clark on Stigma. Like Night of the Demon, the 1979 version updates “Casting the Runes” to the (then) present day; but unlike its predecessor it cleaves strictly to the plot of James's story, opting to take each event individually, point by point, and give it a present day parallel.

I dont think I've ever seen any adaptation that does this so minutely. Let's see how.

‘And who is Mr Karswell?’ inquired the Secretary’s wife. She had called at his office, and (perhaps unwarrantably) had picked up the last of these three letters, which the typist had just brought in.
Rather than a brutal review in a reputable journal, Karswell is the subject of an exposé on a current affairs programme. Don't find this unbelievable: when I was a kid, I recall World in Action (or some other programme? It was a long time ago; I was a kid) doing an episode on the occult, drawing the connection between Aleister Crowley and organised child abuse via Ozzy Osbourne, no less.

‘Poor Mr Dunning? I don’t know why you call him that; he’s a very happy man, is Dunning. Lots of hobbies and a comfortable home, and all his time to himself.’
Edward Dunning, peer reviewer, is now Prudence Dunning, television producer. You're supposed to find Edward an easy going chap; few TV actors of the 70s and 80s were more immediately likeable than Jan Francis.

 There was really nothing to be said for Mr Karswell. Nobody knew what he did with himself: his servants were a horrible set of people; he had invented a new religion for himself, and practised no one could tell what appalling rites; he was very easily offended, and never forgave anybody; he had a dreadful face (so the lady insisted, her husband somewhat demurring); he never did a kind action, and whatever influence he did exert was mischievous.
And Karswell, although played by Iain Cuthbertson, a Scot with a line in villainous characters, is portrayed as an American, the British TV shorthand for a tasteless parvenu. We do see his rites, which are sinister rather than merely appalling. He's not the vile fat man of James, but something bigger, more dangerous.

James had only one likely target for satire: a tasteless amateur who claimed to have founded his own religion and wrote what James considered to be pretentious and nasty books about magic that assumed magic worked? James could, in 1911, have meant several people, and it’s tempting to assume that he was talking about the Great Beast, Aleister Crowley; in fact, a more likely candidate is Montague Summers, writer of erudite but credulous works like The History of Witchcraft and The Vampire: His Kith and Kin, a priest who dabbled in the occult and affected the style of an abbĂ©, and a man who might well have moved in the same circles as James.

‘You forget the treat he gave the school children.’
In the story, there is an account, lengthy, of how Karswell terrified some children with a puppet show. The 1979 Casting the Runes leaves this out altogether. It's interesting though that Night of the Demon has a nod to this, but in Jacques Tourneur's version, Karswell is popular. The 1957 Karswell is excellent with kids.

‘Why, what happened was that he fell out of a tree and broke his neck. But the puzzle was, what could have induced him to get up there. It was a mysterious business, I must say. Here was this man — not an athletic fellow, was he? and with no eccentric twist about him that was ever noticed — walking home along a country road late in the evening — no tramps about — well known and liked in the place — and he suddenly begins to run like mad, loses his hat and stick, and finally shins up a tree — quite a difficult tree — growing in the hedgerow: a dead branch gives way, and he comes down with it and breaks his neck, and there he’s found next morning with the most dreadful face of fear on him that could be imagined. It was pretty evident, of course, that he had been chased by something, and people talked of savage dogs, and beasts escaped out of menageries; but there was nothing to be made of that...’
Harrington dies some years before the proper start of the story and the story of his death is told second hand later on. Harrington's review of Karswell's book in the 1979 adaptation is framed in a context of the late 60s flowering of occultism, just as the Harrington in the story reviews a book that comes from the fad for occult literature at the close of the 1880s.

Harrington's death is shown in the prologue to the 1979 adaptation; not up a tree, but in a field. The force is the same, and showing it rather than telling, as the story does, is a strong decision; but the adaptation tells the story in dialogue as well, later in the teleplay, which is perhaps less useful.

As was not unnatural, the advertisements in this particular line of [tram] cars were objects of his frequent contemplation, and, with the possible exception of the brilliant and convincing dialogue between Mr Lamplough and an eminent K.C. on the subject of Pyretic Saline, none of them afforded much scope to his imagination. I am wrong: there was one at the corner of the car farthest from him which did not seem familiar. It was in blue letters on a yellow ground, and all that he could read of it was a name — John Harrington — and something like a date. It could be of no interest to him to know more; but for all that, as the car emptied, he was just curious enough to move along the seat until he could read it well. He felt to a slight extent repaid for his trouble; the advertisement was not of the usual type. It ran thus: ‘In memory of John Harrington, F.S.A., of The Laurels, Ashbrooke. Died Sept. 18th, 1889. Three months were allowed.’
Of course, it would have to be a segment inserted into a piece of broadcast video rather than a stain in a tram window.

It was in a somewhat pensive frame of mind that Mr Dunning passed on the following day into the Select Manuscript Room of the British Museum... He saw no one he recognized except one of the staff in charge of the room, who nodded to him, and he proceeded to pick up his papers. He thought he had them all, and was turning to begin work, when a stout gentleman at the table behind him, who was just rising to leave, and had collected his own belongings, touched him on the shoulder, saying, ‘May I give you this? I think it should be yours,’ and handed him a missing quire. ‘It is mine, thank you,’ said Mr Dunning. In another moment the man had left the room.
The 1979 Karswell is shown stalking Prudence Dunning, and then knocks over her stack of the library books and apologises, and gives them back.

Also not seen in James's original are the wordless scenes where Karswell performs small, sinister magic acts to Prudence's detriment. In James he's a nasty little man who is dangerous but doubly loathsome because he is an autodidact, and James was the most terrible snob when it came to amateurs. In this version, as it is in the 1957 version, Karswell's competence and intelligence make him doubly dangerous.

‘I’ve had to upset your household arrangements, I’m sorry to say, Dunning. Both your servants hors de combat . In fact, I’ve had to send them to the Nursing Home.’

‘Good heavens! what’s the matter?’

‘It’s something like ptomaine poisoning, I should think: you’ve not suffered yourself, I can see, or you wouldn’t be walking about. I think they’ll pull through all right.’

‘Dear, dear! Have you any idea what brought it on?’ ‘Well, they tell me they bought some shell-fish from a hawker at their dinner-time. It’s odd...’
Prudence's lodger, Pamela, has been poisoned by an unknown agency. The doctor says, has she eaten fish? The point is that it leaves Prudence on her own in the house, just like Edward.

So he put his hand into the well-known nook under the pillow: only, it did not get so far. What he touched was, according to his account, a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it, and, he declares, not the mouth of a human being. I do not think it is any use to guess what he said or did; but he was in a spare room with the door locked and his ear to it before he was clearly conscious again. And there he spent the rest of a most miserable night, looking every moment for some fumbling at the door: but nothing came.
It's a shame that the mouth under the pillow, one of James's most unsettling images, should be lost, but how would you film it? It seems almost impossible. Clark settles for the scutting legs of something under Prudence's duvet. It is the weakest element of the adaptation.

It is not necessary to tell in further detail the steps by which Henry Harrington and Dunning were brought together.
Prudence meets Henry Harrington (Edward Petherbridge); Henry is an artist here, which alows for a visual element that perhaps the story doesn't need other than to add colour and context, but then both are good things to have.

In it were the quires of small-sized scribbling paper which he used for his transcripts: and from one of these, as he took it up, there slipped and fluttered out into the room with uncanny quickness, a strip of thin light paper. The window was open, but Harrington slammed it to, just in time to intercept the paper, which he caught. ‘I thought so,’ he said; ‘it might be the identical thing that was given to my brother. You’ll have to look out, Dunning; this may mean something quite serious for you.’
The page from Coleridge, the defaced calendar and the slip of runic paper are all still present in 1979. They have to be, although Harrington is, sensibly, not when the paper is found. Prudence's paper, just like Edward's, tries to escape; like Edward's, it's caught.

That it must be returned to the source whence it came they were agreed, and further, that the only safe and certain way was that of personal service; and here contrivance would be necessary, for Dunning was known by sight to Karswell. He must, for one thing, alter his appearance by shaving his beard.
On the screen, Prudence wears a wig and glasses in a first attempt to get close to Karswell, a new addition to the narrative. It ends of course in Karswell laughing to her face at the transparency of her disguise. Nice try, Prudence.

In a moment more Karswell re-entered the compartment. As he did so, Dunning, managing, he knew not how, to suppress the tremble in his voice, handed him the ticket-case, saying, ‘May I give you this, sir? I believe it is yours.’ After a brief glance at the ticket inside, Karswell uttered the hoped-for response, ‘Yes, it is; much obliged to you, sir,’ and he placed it in his breast pocket.
Not a train for Warwickshire, a plane for Venezuela; Prudence pulls the switcheroo with the help of her colleague Derek (Bernard Gallagher), here a stand in for the Secretary of James's story. I don't know how she managed to convince British Airways to let her pose as a Heathrow cashier. Maybe “I'm in TV” opened the door.

Note that in the story, Karswell doesn't realise what has happened and goes blithely to his doom; in both this version and Night of the Demon he realises what has been done instantly, and tries to hand it back.

All that is known is that, on the afternoon of the 23rd, an English traveller, examining the front of St Wulfram’s Church at Abbeville, then under extensive repair, was struck on the head and instantly killed by a stone falling from the scaffold erected round the north-western tower, there being, as was clearly proved, no workman on the scaffold at that moment: and the traveller’s papers identified him as Mr Karswell.
James's story has a final chill, past the death of Karswell: a statement to which Edward refuses to listen, which implies that he carries a trauma, and perhaps guilt, that will extend beyond the story.

Here, ending with TV as it began, the news reports that the plane on which Karswell was travelling went down in the sea and no one survives. This horror, outstripping all that comes before, is a consequence beyond that which Provost James could have imagined. Prudence has indulged in black magic, and now she has to carry the guilt of hundreds of innocent lives.

What to add? It really is a unique thing, an adaptation that is extraordinarily faithful, and yet which updates the original effectively for the present, with some thought. There is nothing like it.