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.
Short stories appear to have an advantage when it comes to being adapted as movies; their length lends themsevles to the needs of a film. Not only is the action kept concise, the number of characters needed is limited to just who is needed. This allows filmmakers to keep the budget under control. However, as seen in Lost in Translation, conciseness doesn’t necessarily lead to an accurate adaptation. Studios often take the core concept and expand it in a different direction. The movie Real Steel is a good example. In this two-part review, Lost in Translation looks at two adaptations of one short story, MR James’ “Casting the Runes” to see how the conciseness of a short story affects how the adaptation turns out.
“Casting the Runes” was first published in 1911 and is set in an unspecified year during the Edwardian era (1900-1909). The story opens with correspondence from the Secretary of an unnamed Association rejecting the submission of The Truth of Alchemy written by Mr. Karswell, a cultist. Mr. Karswell doesn’t take rejection well, though, having written several letters to convince the Association to reconsider and finally asking who reviewed it. The Secretary doesn’t reveal who the reviewer was to Karwsell, but Mrs. Secretary is curious about the author. She discovers that Karswell also wrote History of Witchcraft a decade prior, and that the reviewer of that book, John Harrington, had died under unusual circumstances.
The reviewer of The Truth of Alchemy, Mr. Edward Dunning, though, is one of the foremost experts in the field. On one of his trips home from doing research at the British Museum, he spies an unusual ad on the window of his tram car. Investigating, he discovers that the ad is an obituary for John Harrington, with a note that “three months were allowed.” Dunning points out the ad to the conductor, who discovers that the ad is etched on the window instead of being plastered to it. The following evening, the conductor and his supervisor pay a visit to Dunning. The supervisor looked into the ad and found it wasn’t on the car at all. The conductor wanted Dunning to explain to the supervisor what was there.
Unusual happenings follow Dunning. He receives a pamphlet from a man that is the same colour as the missing ad with Harrington’s name on it the flyer. The next day, he has an encounter with Karswell, who hands him some papers. That evening, Dunning’s staff – two women working as his maids – take ill with ptomaine poisoning, caused by shellfish bought from a street vendor who only stopped at Dunning’s home. With the odd happenings, Dunning looks up Harrington’s brother, Henry. Together, they work out what happened to Harrington and what is happening to Dunning, and devise a plan to turn the tables on Karswell.
Night of the Demon was released in 1957 in the United Kingdom; with edits, the movie appeared in the US the following year as Curse of the Demon. Dana Andrews stars as Dr. John Holden with Peggy Cummins as Joanna Harrington. The movie begins with Professor Henry Harrington pleading with Karswell (Niall MacGinnis) to call off his curse. However, it’s too late for Karswell to end the curse; the runes on the parchment he gave to the professor have burned. Harrington races home, where a demon appears. While trying to escape, Harrington crashes into a electric post and dies when the wires fall on him.
On board a red-eye flight to London, Dr. Holden, a noted parapsychologist is en route to a convention about the supernatural. Holden does not believe in the supernatural, having debunked witchcraft and demonology in a book he authored. Also on board the flight is Joanna Harrington, the late professor’s niece. Holden arrives at his hotel, where a colleague confronts him and his beliefs with the account of Hobart, a farmer convicted of murder who was able to draw a fiery demon who he says was the actual killer has that appeared in many ancient civilizations. Holden then gets a call from Karswell trying to convince the good doctor to change his mind about his book. The doctor is a stubborn man.
Holden heads to the library to continue his research. While there, Karswell finds him and tries again to convince Holden to refute his previous writings. Holden stays his ground, though. Karswell hands Holden a business card and bids him a good day. Holden reads the card. Mysterious writing appears, announcing Harrington’s death and “allowed two weeks.” Holden shows the card to someone else; the writing has disappeared.
At Harrington’s funeral, Holden and Joanna meet again, and arrange to talk in private later. Once alone, Joanna reads a letter her uncle sent to her, where he believes that Karswell placed him under a curse. Holden is skeptical; death by witchcraft is something he feels he has debunked. The next day, Holden and Joanna go to Lufford Abbey, Karswell’s home, and see him performing stage magic tricks for children. Karswell shows Holden around; the two men trade barbs while discussing an ancient book and magic. The cultist also explains that Holden has until the 28th, three days hence, to live unless he refutes his findings.
Odd happenings begin. Holden’s calendar has everything after the 28th torn out. Holden finds the temperature warm when it’s chilly and cool when it’s hot. An ominous storm causes the power to fail. While discussing the situation with Joanna, Holden realizes he had received something from Karswell. In his briefcase, Holden finds a strip of paper with runes drawn on it mixed in with his documents. The strip flies out of his hand; Holden blames the wind but even after he closes the window, the strip keeps trying to fly into the roaring fireplace.
Holden’s investigations lead him to Stonehenge, where he discovered the runes on the strip of paper also on one of the henges. The evidence builds, and even Holden starts believing when he is chased by a ball of fire through the woods near Karswell’s manor. Holden discovers the means to cancel the curse, through reversing it back to Karswell, and chases after the cultist.
The movie uses key points from the original story, such as the runes used for the curse and the warning to reconsider. However, the movie goes in its own direction, starting with moving the story to a contemporary period. The change in the era does have an effect; the supernatural isn’t taken as the default explanation as much in 1957 as it was in the Aughts. The new technologies discovered since “Casting the Runes” was first written also changes how the story can go. Psychology and parapsychology took over from the occultist, changing the tenor of the lead character from Dunning to Holden. Even the advent of the car has an effect; in the short story, Dunning uses the electric tram to get around while the characters in the movie drive everywhere except for the climax.
As an adaptation, Night of the Demon pads the story to fill the 95-minute run time. The point of view changes from Dunning’s in “Casting the Runes” to a broader angle, including Holden’s and Karswell’s. Again, this comes from the needs of film; the camera acts as a fourth wall, and sees everything in front of it. The demon is far more explicit in the movie; the short story has hints of the demonic around but nothing seen, while the demon has a grand entrance in the opening act as it chases Prof. Harrington.
“Casting the Runes” may be too short to adapt properly, even for a 95-minute film. The movie shows more interaction between Karswell and his victims that the short story had. Night of the Demon keeps the core of “Casting the Runes”, the key beats are hit, but the needs of a film required changes and expansion.
Next week, Part II looks at the 1979 ITV Playhouse adaptation of “Casting the Runes”.