Last week, Lost in Translation looked at Night of the Demon, an adaptation of the MR James short story, “Casting the Runes“. The 95-minute movie wound up adding scenes and details to the story to fill the runtime. While “Casting the Runes” may be too short for a theatrical release, that still leaves a television adaptation open. Television schedules are set for 30-60 minute episodes, with TV movies running 90-120 minutes, ads included. Can television’s shorter time slots work in favour of adapting the short story?
A quick recap of the short story: Mr. Edward Dunning is cursed by Mr, Karswell after being given a piece of paper with runes enscribed on it. Dunning works with the brother of one of Karswell’s previous victims to turn the tables on the cultist. The movie adaptation, Night of the Demon moved the story from the Edwardian era to then-modern 1950s London, expanding on how the curse works and changing some of the characters. Notably, Dunning became Dr. John Holden, an American parapsychologist who debunks the claims of cultists.
In 1979, the anthology TV series ITV Playhouse adapted the short story, keeping the name “Casting the Runes”. There are some changes. The adaptation brought the story into the then-current year. Edward Dunning becomes Prudence Dunning, the host of a television series dedicated to debunking the claims of supernatural. Pru, played by Jan Francis, comes to the notice of Karswell, the “Abbot” of Lufford and occultist, after mentioning him on her show. Friends and co-workers make mention of Karswell, played by Iain Cuthbertson, trying to remember where they’ve heard the name before. After some digging, Pru hears that he wrote History of Witchcraft and sent it to a publisher. The staff gave the manuscript to John Harrington, whose death is shown at the beginning of the show.
The episode follows the story closely despite the changes above. The message that appeared on the tram’s window in the short story appears on a television as Pru watches the last episode of an older TV show that featured John Harrington. Pru meets Harrington’s brother, played by Edward Petherbridge, and realizes that she is cursed to die unless she can reverse it back on Karswell. The tone of the episode plays up the suspense, using mood music to add to the eerie nature of the story. Less is shown; the nature of the curse is left to the audience after seeing Harrington’s death. Karswell’s demise is off-screen, unlike in Night of the Demon, but the news of what happened is far more chilling.
“Casting the Runes” is a short story. The running time of a feature film forced the production staff to add to the story to get a movie long enough to be shown. The adaptation by ITV Playhouse keeps to the orignal short story more, though adding elements such as Harrington’s death to show instead of tell the audience. The shorter format of the TV episode works in favour of MR James’ work.