Ghost Whistling


That great British medieval scholar and ghost story writer M.R. James must’ve loved Christmas.  It was the time when, gathering a select bunch of Cambridge academics inside, as I imagine it, a comfy room, complete with crackling fire and mugs of hot cocoa (or maybe something…spiritually stronger), Dr. James would read aloud his latest spooky opus and scare the wits out of his guests.  Nothing quite says Christmas like that.

For cinephiles, maybe the next-best thing to a James reading is to watch Jonathan Miller’s produced-and-directed 1968 TV adaptation (first shown on the BBC TV anthology Omnibus) of one of James’s best-known tales, his 1904 masterpiece Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.  I say this after noting many radical changes Miller made in transferring James’s story to the (small) screen.  Which begins with the title tweak—Miller shortens it to Whistle and I’ll Come to You, lopping off the first and the last two words of James’s heading.  I’m curious why.  James’s title explicitly references a Robert Burns ballad of the same name, in which a young female narrator urges her swain to “whistle” for her and she’ll come to him in secret.  The poem plays no part in James’s story, but its title implies Volumes—a disturbing implication of a private meeting, a summoning, between the whistler and the whistled-to, the purpose of which encounter is left unexplained…

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Did Miller, with the title change, want to lessen the link between his teleplay and James’s story?  As if to persuade viewers to see it as a standalone work?  Or was it, perhaps, to convey compression, the idea that the narrative had been pared down to basics, sheared of frills?  Miller keeps the story’s gist—about a scholar who, staying at a seaside hotel, discovers an ancient whistle that he blows (because, what else do you do with a whistle…), and summons Something he hadn’t bargained for.  But Miller takes the story in another direction, altering its setting, its tone, its characters, much of the action, even its protagonist.  The result is almost entirely new, a re-imagining of an Edwardian literary work into something that slips into a post-Freudian, even post-modern aesthetic—suitable not for cozy fireside readings but for—well, scaring the wits out of you.

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What Miller does is to ‘internalize’ the narrative, shifting James’s story away from its dryly humorous but unnerving tale of how the pompous and opinionated Professor Parkins gets his comeuppance for fooling around with Things not to be fooled around with (a frequent Jamesian plot device).  Instead, Miller turns it into a dark account of how the socially awkward and emotionally isolated Professor Parkin (his name, with its final ‘s’, also lopped) encounters a Something that upends his entire quiet, comfortable, and desiccated little life.  All because of blowing a whistle.  Which should serve (as James himself would put it) as a Warning to the Curious…because you never know what might respond.

Miller’s adaptation lops off more than James’s title (and protagonist’s name).  He cuts James’s deceptively mundane prologue introducing his main character, a concrete-thinking pedant (“young, neat, and precise in speech”) about to go on holiday, and instead starts right off with Parkin’s arrival at the inn.  And right off the story gets weird.  As Miller’s Parkin (Michael Hordern—middle-aged, self-absorbed, mumbling), enters the hotel lobby, he sees no one there.  Not even a registration clerk is present.  Hordern stands, back to camera, at one end of a long hallway, hesitantly calling out “Hello?”  Yet there’s no response.  I won’t make the obvious whistling joke here, but will only note:  This is not how a well-run hotel is run.  Could this be another warning?

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Eventually a stout man (apparently the manager) does appear, at the other end of the hall, and things get even weirder.  For a long moment this man only stares at Parkin, as if struck dumb.  And when he finally does speak—it’s only to mumble.  The fellow can barely muster a complete sentence (“Bathroom,” he burbles at one point—what a relief the place has one).  What’s going on here?  As the film proceeds, we note how other characters—hotel guests, maids, a housekeeper—speak in similar fashion; if not in mumbles, then in disjointed, abrupt phrases—statements half-expressed, thoughts half-spoken.  It’s as if Parkin, on entering the hotel, has crossed a threshold into an uncanny realm, a world where communication itself is cut, sliced, shortened—in brief, lopped.

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But what we soon discover is that this is how Parkin communicates—if you can call it that.  He mutters, mumbles, murmurs, repeats words (“up we go, up we go,” he sings out as he climbs the stairs), or responds to questions with near-silence.  It’s as if language—the expression of thoughts, the relaying of ideas, the articulation of feeling—has been lopped off from his very self.  Whenever Parkin does try to voice something to the outside world (here, the small sphere of the hotel), that utterance is also lopped; a request for breakfast is a monosyllabic bark for “bread.”  The whole tangle, complexity, and evolution of human speech and communication is reduced to childish bursts of echolalia.

But mostly, Parkin speaks to himself.  The little he says comes out as a constant, yet fragmented stream of private observation (“some sort of dog,” he mutters when one walks by), as if he’s trying to explain, to himself, what he perceives around him.  We come to understand that this is more than how Parkin talks.  This is how he registers the world—as a confused, distant, incomprehensible babble of sound, motion, and image, of which sense can’t be made.  Maybe it’s no wonder that this is a world he wants to keep at bay, choosing to sit, for example, not at the large dining table with other guests, but by himself, in a small, isolated corner—like a small boy relegated to the children’s dining area, away from the grown-ups.

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Much of the film is watching Parkin occupy himself as if he were that small boy, happily nattering sotto voce as he wanders through the woods, strolls on a beach, or climbs over sand dunes.  This Parkin has never fully grown up; he’s uninvolved with other adults (he’s unable to look other people in the eye) but would rather wrap himself in a boy’s world of idle rambles, large meals (Parkin is a noticeably hearty eater), and impulsive explorations of curious, odd places.  Which includes a small, dusty, and disused cemetery he comes across during his walks.  And it’s in this cemetery that Parkin, poking around some bones breaching the soil (“give a dog a bone,” he mutters), makes his discovery of a mysterious, ancient whistle.

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As seen in the film, the whistle is the proverbial blank object—a smooth, unadorned tube, without what would be called distinguishing characteristics.  That is, until Parkin, cleaning the object (“one hundred and one things a boy can do,” he murmurs while he scrapes off dirt), notices a carved Latin inscription on its surface:  Quis est iste qui venit—translated by Parkin (as in James’s story) as “Who is this who is coming?”  The moment stands out not only because the inscription is an odd (if logical) phrase to find on a whistle, but also because…it may be the first, even the only clear communication that Parkin receives.  And it’s one that’s also a warning.  Some one—some Who—will come in response to this whistle.  It only remains for the curious Parkin to find out just Who that is.

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In a voiceover introduction to his film, Miller describes James’s story as being about intellectual pride and about a man not understanding the forces “inside himself.”  Miller is referring, in part, to James’s constant literary theme:  The consequences of mucking about in Things Better Left Alone.  His characters are usually solitary, vulnerable scholars who, with academic hubris, rashly stick their noses into ancient mysteries that have a nasty habit of snapping off such snooping appendages.  James’s Parkins, for instance, finds the whistle in the ruins of a Knights Templar preceptory; yet, knowing nothing of the vast, enigmatic history of the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ (James’s own scholarly interests were equally vast and enigmatic), blows the thing anyway.  And ends up waist-deep in horror.

Miller simplifies this bit.  His Parkin picks up the whistle not at a site rumored to be a hotbed of strange, secret ceremonies, but in a graveyard, a more accessible symbol for the general viewer.  A hotel guest in the film even notes that cemeteries are “spooky” (“spooky…spooky,” Parkin mutters in response).  Miller’s interest, however, is not so much in Parkin’s cerebral conceits, but in his lack of basic understanding—he can’t comprehend why a cemetery, a site consecrated to the dead, is “spooky” in the first place.  Parkin’s blind spot is not for obscure history, but for common human experience.  It’s a distance (physical and emotional) not only from the world but from his own self.  One that will rebound on him.

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The central scene in Miller’s film (which is not in James) has Parkin debating the idea of graveyard ghosts (a subject he clearly views with scorn) with another guest.  Like James’s character, Miller’s protagonist doesn’t believe in the supernatural, but he argues his point not as a matter of belief, but as one of language.  When the guest (challenged by Parkin) defines a ghost as the “survival of human personality,” Parkin sarcastically notes the definition’s superficial “grammatical appearance” but wonders—does it “mean” anything?  One might say, contends Parkin, that a person survives being in an accident, but could one say he survives dying in an accident?  Parkin uses the guest’s own words to hollow out their surface meaning, smugly concluding that “there are more things in philosophy than are dreamt of in heaven and earth.”  The scene stands out not only for its debating points but for how surprisingly articulate Parkin is here.  He spins out his argument logically, even fluently—the one quality that’s eluded him up to this point.

And yet…in the scenes just before this one, something has happened to indicate there may be things beyond what Parkin can dream of within his own narrowly defined beliefs.  Right after finding the whistle in the crumbling grave and pocketing it, Parkin turns around and sees…a lone, undefined figure, standing a distance away.  The scene is ambiguously constructed:  The camera looks straight at Parkin (who looks back at it) and then cuts to a reverse shot, as Parkin (and we and the camera) sees the figure standing behind him.  But the figure doesn’t appear within Parkin’s own, isolated point of view; it’s only seen when Parkin, in the foreground of the shot, looks behind—as if the thing had been watching him, unseen, from the camera’s eye.  And when Parkin walks on out of the shot, the figure stays right where it is, in utter stillness, as though it’s…waiting for something.

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It’s right after that scene that Parkin, cleaning the whistle, blows it.  At which sound the wind starts up, loudly rattling the window shutters.  As if Something is trying to get in.

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At this point I will do my own lopping and say no more about Miller’s film; I don’t want to spoil its frightful—in more ways than one—pleasures (such as a dream sequence that could lead to sleepless nights).  I will note, though, Miller’s use of lighting and camera angles, as well as Dick Bush’s exquisitely etched black-and-white cinematography, to create the film’s sense of a world tilted askew.  Mark Duguid at BFI ScreenOnline notes how Miller’s direction reflects the style of Val Lewton’s 1940s RKO horror films, how he uses “suggestion rather than direct representation…build[ing] and sustain[ing] an eerie atmosphere with a diverse array of stylistic devices”.  As the film progresses, the camera gets physically closer and closer to Hordern (who’s superb in his role, which he in part improvised), until we’re practically counting the pores on his face—as if the confusing world Parkin’s tried so hard to keep at bay is catching up to him.  Along with whatever’s rattling at that window…

The film may not satisfy Jamesian purists.  It leaves out much of James’s plot, as well as his wry, dispassionate humor, his ironic wit, his own incisive language, and his seemingly limitless knowledge of arcane matters.  But it can stand on its own as a helluva good scare all the same—which may be just the right touch needed for this festively spooky time of the year.  Anyway, I dare you to watch and not have the wits scared out of you.

Oh, and…Merry Christmas.

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  • While available, you can watch Jonathan Miller’s film, Whistle and I’ll Come To You, on YouTube at this link here.  It’s a beautiful print and only about 42 minutes long (with no ads).
  • You can read the full text of M.R. James’s story, Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad, by clicking here.
  • And you can listen to the great Michael Hordern’s reading of James’s story by clicking here.  Perfect for Christmas listening.
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  1. Brian Schuck

     /  December 30, 2021

    As a connossieur of ghost stories, I’ve read the M.R. James story and seen this BBC adaptation (back in the days before I checked Youtube first, I got copies of Whistle and the 1972 adaptation of A Warning to the Curious from Sinister Cinema). Whistle is particularly well done and terrifying — I think only the most hidebound M.R. James afficianodo would object to the liberties it takes with the story.
    I’m one of those old-schoolers who loves reading ghost stories in the winter months. Just started another big collection that I found recently at a local bookstore. Ghost stories are notoriously hard to adapt to the screen, which is why there are far more zombies, vampires and the like in movies and TV. But when it’s done right, as in Whistle, the results can be sublime. Alas, the subtleties of the genre are completely lost on today’s audiences and filmmakers.

    • As a fellow ghost-story lover, thank you for your insightful comment! I agree with your point, how difficult it is to adapt ghost stories to the screen–so much depends on what is NOT seen, and the effect created with language. I think you can count successful ghost-story adaptations on one hand–The Innocents and The Haunting (1963) come to mind, but little else. I also think, as you note, there’s something appropriate about ghosts in the wintertime; something about the weather, the early darkness, the sense of isolation those bring, are particularly apt for such reading.

      I was surprised how much I liked the Whistle TV adaptation, as I’ve read all of James and love his style. The adaptors make it almost a different story altogether, but it works, and what’s more, it works on the screen. I haven’t seen the 1972 version of A Warning to the Curious, but, based on your recommendation, I will search it out!


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