For decades the BBC has honored legendary horror author M.R. James with short film specials, through one production or another. James’s formulaic, reserved stories make for great reading, but honestly the adaptations can be quite dull. (1971’s version of The Stalls of Barchester should not be watched if you intend on operating heavy machinery) This 2013 version is delightful though.
It was adapted by Mark Gatiss, who has worked on Doctor Who, the League of Gentlemen, Sherlock, various Agatha Christie projects, and various other successful endeavors.
I had never heard of him prior to this film. M.R. James has been dead for nearly 80 years and I talk about him all the time. Not sure what that says about me.
This is the first project that he has directed and he needs to stick with it because he’s onto something.
Sacha Dhawan is William Garrett, a mild librarian who is asked to retrieve a book for John Eldred (John Castle) an older man who seems rather reluctant to get it himself. At first, it seems like the book has been checked out already, but that was a mistake.
When Eldred returns, Garrett finds out how who actually has the book, and the shock of the discovery causes him to faint and destroys his nerves. You see the Tractate Middoth is not a normal book, and it has something that seems to follow it.
Through a rather convenient co-incidence Garrett finds out the history of the book. It was owned by the vile Dr. Rant, who found himself in declining health with both a niece (Louise Jameson as Mary Simpson) and nephew (our Mr. Eldred) that he doesn’t care for at all. So he decides to have a bit of fun. His entire estate will go to one of them in a will. The will will be hidden in a book, and the book will go to a place that only he knows. The niece and nephew will be given only a couple of clues to find the will, and each person won’t be given the same clues.
And what we know, but they don’t…is that the book is cursed.
Gatiss does a great job adapting the short story and even capturing some of the humor inherent in James’s story, and he provides the best ghoul in the entire BBC M.R. James oeuvre. The only thing I really don’t understand is that in the story, the denouement occurs in the evening, creating what I visualized as an unsettling ending and here, Gatiss shoots it rather light. Aside from this, The Tractate Middoth is an amazing looking short film, just some of the work with the diffused light is spectacular.
I’d like to see another generation of BBC adaptations in this vein.