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 fail to accept that an adaptation must play to different strengths and seem irritated that it fails to recreate the images in their mind when they read the original story. Peter Harness’ 2005 TV adaptation of MR 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 medium to tell your stories should always outweigh a slavish faithfulness to the source material.
I’m a fairly recent convert to Robert Aickman’s ‘strange stories’. A noted conservationist and founder of the Inland Waterways Association, Aickman’s love of the Ehrfurcht, a reverence for things one cannot understand, shines through in his richly textured and dream like short fiction. Like MR James before him, Aickman’s tales exist alongside his wider work yet unlike everyone’s favourite Provost, adaptations of Aickman’s works are obscure, overlooked and largely forgotten.
In 1968 one story, Ringing the Changes, was adapted as The Bells of Hell for the Late Night Horror series while Canadian anthology The Hunger (1997-2000) featured his tale The Swords. Between these two, the now defunct ITV franchise HTV West produced a six-episode anthology series called Night Voices. Four were based upon stories by Aickman: The Hospice, The Inner Room, Hand In Glove and The Trains. Judging by the copyright dates they were made in 1987-88 yet even Kaleidoscope can only find a transmission date for April 1993.
HTV’s adaptation was overseen by experienced Exec Patrick Dromgoole, known for numerous cult children’s classics such Children of the Stones (1977), The Clifton House Mystery (1978) and Into the Labyrinth (1981-82) and legendary producer Peter Graham Scott. It was helmed by Swiss director Dominique Othenin-Girard, now probably best known for Halloween 5 (1989) and TV movie The Omen IV: The Awakening (1991), clearly the go to guy for keeping stuff going after the money’s gone……… and adapted by his sometime collaborator Robert Smith.
Maybury (Jack Shepherd) is lost in the middle of nowhere and almost out of petrol. Stumbling across a large house, he is attacked by a small mammal (a cat?) on leaving his car. Inside the house, the Hospice, he’s offered a bizarre sanctuary, a huge amount of food, and a shared room for the night (there’s no phone). It’s clearly madness to stay here but what’s the alternative?
One of the first things you notice is the heavy filtering as evening draws in. An odd, orange hue that’s less about ‘creating an odd atmosphere’ and more ‘wondering what on Earth’s wrong with your telly’, the added business with the moving statue of Jesus is a mis-step but the repeated gag about the annoyingly bombastic score being diegetic feels quite fun and more in seems more in keeping with Aickman’s style.
The Hospice remains largely faithful to the source but this has the habit of highlighting the problems of telling the same tale though a different medium. Aickman’s short story is told so simply and plainly that the reader is left in a state of nervous exhaustion wondering what is about to be revealed and why everyone Maybury meets is as they are. Recent horror films The Invitation (Karyn Kusama, 2015) and the Oscar nominated Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017) revel in their use of social awkwardness and convention to disturb but Aickman’s tale got there long before and combines it with an institutionalised fear that is, literally, dreadful. By contrast this TV play is far less subtle, using wind machines and unconventional camera angles to convey the disorienting nature of the location. Again, it’s on surer footing with the sound, hissing light fittings and gurgling heating systems unsettle effectively.
The casting of such pieces, pitching our everyman against a parade of grotesques can be gifts for decent character actors and Alan Dobie’s Falkner, somewhere between The Hospice’s head waiter and beadle brings a middle class gravitas that is reminiscent of more gothic tales. Jonathan Cecil as Maybury’s temporary room-mate Mr Bannan gets some fun material including the deceptively disturbing line “if you don’t want to waste time, what are you doing here?”
The Hospice is a place out of time and can be seen as an indictment on society, on those that leach off it, on the nanny state and on the nature of overindulgence but ultimately to search for a definitive meaning is to miss the point. This isn’t a story where you look for answers and nor should it be but it’s perhaps indicative of what can be lost when translating Robert Aickman to the screen. Those that have seen the other adaptations may be able to shed more light on that than I can but I’ve no doubt that in the skilled hands of an Aickman fan (say, Jeremy Dyson) the best TV adaptations of his work are yet to come.
As The Hospice is not commercially available I’ve taken the decision to include the episode via its You Tube upload. I won’t be doing this for anything that’s available on DVD. If you enjoy weird archive telly please support the work of the BFI, Network, Simply Media and others by purchasing legitimate copies where possible.
* I’m using the copyright date due to the slightly uncertain nature over the date of the first broadcast.