Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Tractate Middoth (2013) dir. Mark Gatiss

Logline: A library assistant, William Garrett (Sacha Dhawan), has a frightful supernatural encounter in the stacks while attempting to locate an old Hebrew text for the cagey John Eldred (John Castle). While on leave to recover from his attack, Garrett makes a new acquaintance and soon thereafter becomes embroiled in a mysterious and possibly diabolical inheritance treasure hunt that will leave cold corpses in its wake.

M. R. James or his editor was wise in sequencing "The Tractate Middoth" immediately before one of James's most famous stories, "Casting the Runes," in his 1911 collection More Ghost Stories: read after one had read "Runes," the former would feel a pale imitation. Read in the desired sequence, "The Tractate Middoth" instead feels like a sketchy, if furtively satisfying, trial run for "Runes," with James taking his favorite ghost story elements (musty libraries, antiquarian research, undefined demonic or supernatural curses) and wrapping them in the trappings of an adventure story (or at least as much of an adventure story as his mannered Edwardian sensibilities could bear). Consequently, the tale seems a bit slight when compared to the bulk of James's prior body of work, leaving behind as it does much of its author's signature slow-burn dread to revel in time-pressed puzzle-solving, breathless chases, and ironic twists of fate. The story even has a happy ending, which is an occurrence in the James oeuvre as rare as being introduced to a character who doesn't spend his weekends hunkered down in church libraries. All of these deviations from the supernatural norm result in "The Tractate Middoth" existing as an atypical James ghost story, though perhaps not a particularly uncinematic one.

The uniquely adaptable quality of the tale can be evidenced through the fact that as of 2013 it has now been adapted three times for television-- once in 1951, again in 1966, and lastly in 2013-- and so boasts the most adaptations of any of James's tales. Its simple, pacey plot and minimal production demands give "The Tractate Middoth" a certain televisual appeal, bolstered by the possibility that it might catch the interest of a general audience seeking easily digestible thrills (even if, again, James's sense of adventure consists only of someone searching tirelessly for a missing library book). Yet, unlike most of the James ghost stories that have been adapted for the screen over the decades, "The Tractate Middoth" is, along with "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas," one of the few tales with the potential to be improved upon by an adaptation that colors in the frustrating, slipshod blanks of character motivation and supernatural manifestation left by the text. In this light, the quiet and moody 2013 adaptation of the story for the BBC, written and directed by Sherlock and Doctor Who scribe Mark Gatiss, is an obvious success, if one that remains somewhat tempered by its lackluster textual origins.

Unlike Lawrence Gordon Clark's liberal adaptation of "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas," Gatiss decided that he need not change much of the story's fundamental details or plot progression in order to craft it into a more successful supernatural treat than its progenitor. Instead, he presents a rather literal adaptation of the tale, often adopting the exact dialogue of the source text for long stretches of the short film's running time. What Gatiss does to advance his film beyond the original story is to make clear or prescribe those details that are only loosely implied within the text. That he manages to do this without over-explaining the supernatural elements-- and thus eradicating its Jamesian quality of undefinable unease-- is to its credit. Problems inherent in the source text-- such as how the mysterious clergyman John Rant became capable of placing a curse on his hidden will or why Rant then sends his heirs off to discover it-- are disposed of with a quick image or line of dialogue. (With regard to those aforementioned queries, we glean from a quick glance of a religious-themed stained glass window in Rant's mansion, proudly featuring the images of several menacing spiders, that he serves a very different deity than the one you'd expect, and we then learn from Rant's deathbed cackling that his manufactured treasure hunt is merely a cruel man's dying joke, dangling a false carrot over the heads of abhorred heirs.)

In this vein of addressing the story's unresolved issues, Gatiss's adaptation departs the most from its source material in its denouement, which alters the text's original happy ending (featuring a marriage and the acquirement of vast wealth) into a sinister and ambiguous question mark (featuring a marriage, the acquirement of vast wealth, and the implication that all involved will soon be scared to death by a spiteful ghost). This downer of an alteration feels quite appropriate to the tale. The most glaring problem with the original text's conclusion is the uncertainty as to why Rant's curse seeks only to punish one of his heirs, when it's made clear that he has a profound dislike for them both. If Rant honestly wished to bequeath his estate to his niece Mary Simpson (Louise Jameson) and deprive his nephew John Eldred, why arrange for his bizarre and counter-intuitive treasure hunt for the hidden will? Why not simply give her everything and forgo all the cryptic effort? 

The curse's punishment of Eldred alone feels undeserved in the text (after all, he "wins" the inheritance game that Rant has set up), and so Gatiss's film seeks to solve this error of resolution by deciding that Rant's intention was to destroy both of his heirs out of spite. The adaptation's Rant is, as his housemaid warns Mary Simpson, not to be trusted in life or in death: "Others have a soul. He had a corkscrew," the maid informs her. We surmise in this adaptation that Rant presented his heirs with his goose chase in the hope that their greed would compel them both to participate in it, and thus spell their mutually assured dooms by activating the ghostly vicar curse against them. Though because even one of the two discovering the will would inevitably set the curse against both named within it (as they would both have to then come in contact with the cursed will), it becomes obvious that Rant made certain that the likelihood of declining to participate in (and thus surviving) his game was quite nonexistent. Gatiss's adaptation's denial of Mary Simpson's happy ending (or at least its unsubtle hint that it will deny that happiness) forms a cynical, ironic dimension of the story that's absent from the source text. The story feels, for once, downright Jamesian.

As the pre-title card informs the viewer, Mark Gatiss's "Tractate Middoth" continues the BBC's classic A Ghost Story for Christmas tradition. A revival of the occasional series was last attempted in earnest back in 2005 and 2006, with disappointing results. "The Tractate Middoth" is a great lunge in the direction of rectifying those errors and revitalizing the series. Gatiss has long demonstrated his passion for classic supernatural fiction-- see his 2008 mini-series Crooked House, or his starring turn in a short film adaptation of Robert Aickman's "The Cicerones" (2002), or his new documentary special on James himself-- and his handling of James's tale as both screenwriter and director shows that the series (were it to continue) is being shepherded by the right fellow. While the production design and general glossy look of "The Tractate Middoth" recalls the earlier 2000s adaptations of James's work, Gatiss's adaptation nonetheless retains the subtlety of the more successful 1970s films, and with a keen directorial hand also captures something particular to James's fiction itself: the slow, soundless, agonizing haunting, in which the ghosts do not rush their victims' ends, but take the time to embrace them and laugh.


  1. This sounds friggin' fascinating, duder. Adding it to my must see list.

  2. Great write-up as always Jeffrey. I think Mark Gatiss pretty much single-handedly saved Christmas telly over this side of the pond this Christmas (well, as far as I'm concerned at least..). Apart from this fine James adaptation (and the informative doc you allude to that followed) and Sherlock last night, there's been pretty much feck all on this festive season.

    Must check out Crooked House at some point and thanks for the heads up on that Aickman adaptation by the way... I'm certainly intrigued.

    Quick question... if the BBC decide to start doing this again every year and leave Gatiss in charge, are there any tales you'd like to see him tackle next?

    1. Thanks, Simon! I also enjoyed Gatiss's Dr. Who origins drama An Adventure in Space and Time that aired during the 50th celebration in November. It was a touching and well-written piece. His work has been all over the tube lately, it seems. No complaints here.

      And that's a really great question. There are a few contenders in my mind, but I would love to see "The Mezzotint" enter the Ghost Story for Christmas series most of all: no tale in James's collected fictions creeps me out quite like that one does.

    2. I'm ashamed to say I've only ever seen about half a dozen episodes of Dr. Who, if that... just never got round to it for some reason... but as it happens one that I really liked was the Gatiss penned (at least I think it's his) episode "The Idiot's Lantern".

      I always enjoy seeing him pop up in front of the camera as well, such as in the H.G Wells adaptation (which I think he also scripted) The First Men in the Moon and a pretty decent one of The Wind in the Willows. Kudos to the dude for his horror docs too of course.

      And funnily enough, "The Mezzotint" is the only James story I've read that I haven't seen an adaptation of. I think there's some kind of dramatised reading out there but don't know whether there's been a full-on adaptation. At any rate, I'd love to see one myself. Here's hoping the viewing figures were sufficient this year for the series to become an annual event again.