Lost the Plot

Why do people change a Good Thing?

It’s a good question.

Clockwork mechanisms have been around for a very long time indeed. The principle is devastatingly simple: you wind energy up into a mainspring, and a ratchet rations it to run a series of cogs or gears to achieve an end.

Yet the artisans who created the pocket watch brought untold creativity and artistry to their craft. The first pocket watches appeared during the 15th century: stunning pieces whose power stems from a very small wellspring indeed. Many of the early ones hailed from Nuremberg under the direction of Peter Henlein, a locksmith and watchmaker.

To see a Nuremberg Egg, as they were known, is to be seduced. Like pill boxes, they nestle in the hand, and it is said that once wound, some would keep time for 40 hours.

Beginning by marking just the hours and quarter-hours with one hand, watchmakers refined the design to include a range of escapements, minutes and seconds hands, phases of the moon and alarm bells.

They found their way to our wrists eventually. This fascinating retrospective from Michael FriedbergΒ  tells how the German Imperial Navy made them standard issue in the 1880s. In the early 1900s ladies wore ‘wristlets’ – an early term for a wristwatch but gentlemen preferred pocket watches.

But in the First World War the soldiers needed the time there on their wrists, tiny clockwork reminders of the passing of the hours, the deadlines for attack.

And then: All Change. Β some bright spark envisaged a clock without the hands. The mainspring was replaced by electrical current, the pulse also provided by electricity, and the face a set of numbers controlled by a clever little piece of circuitry.

It was ingenuity for a mass market. Its sophistication was invisible to the majority of people: it presented the time simply, cheaply and to the widest possible audience.

But privately I mourn its introduction. I hate change in which something beautiful loses its ability to take one’s breath away.

I have been rumbling on in a curmudgeonly fashion about a change I find most unpalatable.

The posters are up all round our area: Susan Hill’s Woman In Black is coming to the big screen in the UK.. It opens on February 10.

For as long as I can remember, this novel has been central to my adult life. It was published in 1983: 23 years ago, Β it began its life as a stage play adapted by Stephen Malatratt, opening in Scarborough before moving to the Fortune Theatre in Covent Garden. It has been there ever since.

The novel and the play are the swiss watch of the world of ghost stories. Hill’s timing is impeccable: she knows when to lull her reader and when to pull their heartstrings so tight they simply cannot breathe. Her novel is a business of smoke and mirrors, her spectre a real ghost which astounds us by choosing just the right moment to sweep past in a light-starved corridor, or stand stark at a graveside.

She exploits all those questions we ask ourselves when we see something we cannot explain: what if we were seeing something no-one else could? How terrified does one have to be before one surrenders one’s sanity? Are these unexplained creatures just a nasty shadow or could they do something irrevocable out of pure, spiteful revenge?

And she does all this through the eyes of an idealistic Victorian lawyer who has arrived on a steam train from London: she uses a beautiful old house on an island accessible only by a causeway at low tide, haunted by sea frets.

I have seen the stage production three times: and each time its sparse mastery of the stage, its solitary teller of the tale, its three actors, one of whom is not even mentioned in the programme; they conspire to terrify using understatement, in the tradition of the ancient storytellers.

Alas, because the film makers can, I fear they may have done so.

You can view the trailer here. The people who made it are Hammer Film Productions, they of the old Hammer House of Horror programmes. And lo: the trailer would seem to indicate that this, too, has been produced as a horror film.

Where there was spectral suggestion, now plot devices seem clumsy for the mass market: unspoken whispers become daubings on walls, one little boy becomes three little girls, ghostly shadows of children become nasty horror inventions roaming the marsh outside the house.

Hammer has changed the story in the same way digital watches improved upon clockwork: cheaply, and to appeal to the widest possible audience.

They seem – on the evidence of the trailer – to have changed one of the best moments in spectral literature: the play which has run for 23 years, and a book which has sold more than one million copies nationwide.

Go figure.


Picture source here


55 thoughts on “Lost the Plot

  1. I quite liked the ’89 version of the film. I found it, if you will forgive the language, creepy as fuck. This new trailer looks like a completely different story to me. I might go see it, but I seriously doubt I’ll be watching The Woman in Black. Just a horror flick that stole the name.

  2. NO!!! Nononononononono!! This is one of my favorite stories and plays ever. What a tragedy. Why can’t things be translated to film without ruining them? It is much like the watch, isn’t it?

    1. It is. And so many other things in life. Someone of little brain gets hold of something worthwhile and goes on an ego trip to change it, at the cost of excellence. To coin a London phrase, it does my head in.

  3. I’m not surprised, but sad to hear it! I’m sure your instincts are correct. I think anyone who is a reader as well as loves theater understands all too well that almost every favorite once optioned as film will be cut and reconstructed as an inferior garment! But the question is still out there…will you see it anyway? Temptation! Debra

    1. I’m not sure I’ll go, Debra. I’ll spend two hours in blind fury commentating on how inaccurate it is. It’s like Bram Stoker’s Dracula which-though I love the film – is nothing like Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Why not just call it Dracula? Why make Stoker and Hill take the rap for second-rate film producers and their ideas about what the public want?

      (Rant over :-))

  4. Excellent post, Kate. I saw the play. Until I saw it I didn’t think theatre could possibly terrify me. I think I’ll avoid the film.

  5. Well said – I’ve seen the play and nearly soiled myself at “that” moment – like War Horse something perfect on stage has been ruined by large amounts of money, no imagination and the need to make money all competing with eacother.

  6. I hate it when that happens. Of course, this one doesn’t bother me…I haven’t read it, and never will. πŸ˜‰

    Tory Boy has about eight pocket watches; he loves them. One was a 21st birthday gift from us.

  7. Clocks were pretty high tech stuff for the time you relate. Esp of interest to me was how they manufactured such tiny intricate mechanizisms that work so well without the advanced tooling of today.

  8. Oh, I saw the play! It was around 1991 and I had no idea what it was. I was just wandering around Covent Garden and saw the theater and bought a ticket.

    The play SCARED THE BEJEEZUS out of me!

    1. Hi Steve, good to hear from another who has seen it at the Fortune. Lovely little theatre, but didn’t they terrify us all! That rocking chair, I tell you, I’ve never forgotten it….

  9. It’s always the way, humans seem to almost crave the need to improve on things, to make something their own and prove that they can go one better. Sadly it too often ends up as a complete mess up. We’re sadly limited to be able to recognise a good thing when we see it and then leave it alone. BTW, 1983 is a lot more than 23 years ago. πŸ™‚

    1. Thanks IE – dodgy punctuation, I’m afraid, colon should have been a full stop. Book published 1983, play began 23 years ago at the Fortune. Yes: complete mess up is a good way of putting it. All we can do is turn our back and walk away….

  10. You are so right! Overstatement is, simply, boring. Films like Omen and Friday 13th etc have never had the power to frighten me the way, for example, that old film ‘The Innocents’ did. Where simply a spectral vision across a misty lake was enough to set the nerves at screaming pitch.

    1. Oh, do you know, The Innocents has been at the forefront of my mind the whole time I was writing this, Col! What an amazing film: just like WIB with all taht standing about looking spectral. Have you ever read the book? Terrifying!

  11. Two thoughts were running through my mind as I neared the end of your post: “egotists abound” and “for the sake of the almighty dollar.” Upon reading through the comments, I see that it struck others in the same manner. Such a shame that man seems never to learn not to mess with a good thing!

    However, I have not read this book and must now add it to my growing list of things to check for at the library. Other than on a few blogs recently :-), it’s been a long time since I read something which made the back of my neck creep. I would much prefer that to a second rate movie.

    1. If reading is a problem I can recommend the WIB audiobook which we got from iTunes. We listen to it most nights (I know, I know, not really nighttime reading) and I know it almost by heart as a result. For some reason we find the Victorian measured quality of this novel soothing. There’s a wonderful train journey in it at the beginning.

      Youtube has the old BBC version up for anyone who searches for BBC Woman in Black. It’s very blurry but still a fabulous watch!

      1. Thanks, Kate. I appreciate knowing that, in case I’m not able to locate the book, but reading has always been my first preference, and I’ve not been able to muster much enthusiasm for having something read to me. So, a search for the print version will be my first choice. I’m off to the online card file to see whether it’s available at our local library or one of its affiliates. πŸ™‚

  12. Well, I’ve no interest in the film, from the sounds of it, but the novel sounds marvelous, especially since the likelihood of my getting to Covent Garden anytime soon to see the staged production is slim to nil.

    1. Do check out the BBC production, Cameron: an oldie and a bit blurred but a goodie: search for BBC Woman in Black on Youtube and it comes up linked here in the UK….fabulous watch….

  13. I’ve had Woman in Black on my TBR list Kate, and now I must try to read it, though I doubt I will see the movie when it finds its way here. Not my cup of tea.

    Oh, those old watches are things of beauty, aren’t they? A cousin has my grandfather’s and treasures it beyond measure. I’m glad he has it, though covet I do. He’s named after my papou (Greek for grandfather) and is the only one to carry on the family name, so, it is fitting that he also carry his watch.

    When digital watches first came out, our girls, of course, wanted them. Our rule was that they first had to tell time “the old fashioned way”, which they both did. Now, neither one wears a watch. A cell phone is their timepiece. Sigh

  14. I shall never understand this destruction of plot. I remember reading the play Closer. The film version yook the finale somewhere else. I call it a Hollywood ending, hate it! I shall avoid this one, thank you ~

    1. You’re welcome, Angela, though its a grim message for me to deliver. Go back and look at the BBC production on Youtube if you want to see a decent production. It still changes things, but stays within the spirit of the novel.

  15. Something I read last night resonates with this piece, Kate. We know that we are going to die. We use our imaginations to distract ourselves from this “unpleasant” truth.

    “The vast kaleidoscope of human culture, science, and religion has been one long attempt to evade the inevitable. This is the primal human drive, the quest for meaning and permanence . . . ”
    ~ The Book of Vices ~ A Collection of Classic Immoral Tales, edited by Robert J. Hutchinson.

    I doubt I shall watch this “distraction” . . . in this lifetime, anyway. πŸ˜‰

    1. Sometimes there is not time for Mac to have a long walk in the evenings. Sometimes he has to put up with a potter along the woodland path behind my house on an extendable lead. yet I notice that the same happiness, the same exuberant body language is shown whether his walk is five minutes or 50. He knows the end of the walk will come but the moment is exhilarating.

      I love stories like this, not because they pretend I won’t die and life will go on, but because it does exactly what you say: it distracts. The shock of the storyline brings one absolutely into the moment. and the instant is all there is. Just like the dog, I stop looking ahead at what I might get, and become absorbed in the moment. I’m not being good, or meditating- this is a clumsy tool – but it draws me back to my amygdala, where the early lessons of life live.

      1. Excellent points, Kate.

        There is nothing like being full absorbed into the flow of THIS moment ~ whether it’s reading writing, painting, singing, listening to music, cooking, walking the dog, biking, or watching a stellar play as it unfolds before us.

  16. You went to the play three times. That intrigues me. I have not read the book, but how will stay away from it? I feel as I did when, as a very young girl, a friend would constantly be daring me to jump into holes, to walk into crumbling structures, or jump of heights. I can hear you as you peer over my shoulder, “Ah, go on. I watched the play 3 times and survived.”

    1. The play is, I think, a masterpiece because it does what it does superlatively well. Its language is not Shakespeare’s but it is the perfect example of how to create tension in an audience. Some of the images stayed with me through all these years and brought me back. Now it s a comfort tale. I like to hear it again and again: I know when the scary bits are coming, and respond accordingly. It never loses its power πŸ™‚

      Ah, go on….

  17. Saw the trailer for the film and it didn’t particularly appeal. However, may have to continue to take literary inspiration from your posts and search out the book.

    M xx

  18. Yeah, seems the same in all arenas,,, I’ve been convinced for years that Auto-Manufacturing Engineering policy must surely be: If it works…change it…Of course, they capitalize by making the parts last ONLY till the warranty runs out…so, yeah all about the mighty dollar….

    Now, could you have Macauly move his satellite head a little to the right? I’m trying to catch the end of this “Alfred Hitchcock” episode…

  19. ‘I hate change in which something beautiful loses its ability to take one’s breath away.’ I loved this line, made me go, ‘Oh, yes! That is the change one does hate.’ Sadly, so many changes these days, seem to be about making or saving money, and losing the pleasure of craftsmanship. Corporatization at its worst.

  20. You’ve sold me on the novel.

    A screenwriter I heard speak at a writers conference said the reaction to a new script goes like this: “A perfect screenplay! Let’s see what we can do to fix it.”

  21. Two things:

    Thing one: I can’t take a pulse using a digital watch as I end up counting the seconds moving on instead of the pulse against the sweep of an watch hand! Therefore I have never had a digital watch.

    Thing two: I heard an interesting discussion with Mariella Frostrup on r4 while making marmalade ( πŸ™‚ ) and here it is
    As I have never read the book or seen the play I was interested to hear her sanguine approach to the play and the new film which both as I understand it, change something of the book.

    1. Oh, those are two excellent things πŸ™‚ How about that wristwatch? The spatial aspect of it must be quite key! And as for Thing Two, thank you so much! When I’m tucked up after all the planning work, with my hot chocolate, Phil and I will listen before we watch the BBC version for old times’ sake.

  22. There is something about a stage production that can never be captured in a movie – and there is always the danger of exploiting gimmickry in the movies to the point that it takes away from the essence of the story. I recently saw the movie ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ and found its gritty understated realism and slow unfolding to be a very refreshing antidote to all the high-tech productions of late

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