By Will Barber Taylor
Set in 1863, Count Magnus tells the tale of the inquisitive Mr. Wraxhall who becomes fascinated by the long-dead founder of a Swedish family, who once made a strange journey to the Holy Land – on most unholy business. Wraxhall is drawn ever deeper into Count Magnus’ dark world and discovers that the dreaded aristocrat may not lie easy in his tomb.
M R James is perhaps one of the greatest masters of the macabre that there has ever been. Whilst to admirers of classic literature Edgar Allan Poe may be more familiar and to those who want their frights on the big screen the likes of John Carpenter or Wes Craven may be more to their tastes, for me James’ tales can’t be beaten.
You might think that the formula James used for his stories might become repetitive after a while – they usually see an academic or an adventurous amateur venture into finding a long-lost fragment of history or falling fowl of their own vanity, but it is to James’ undoubtable credit that this never become the case. Whether the search for a lost crown on the east coast or the uncovering of a seemingly perfect preserved monastery courtesy of some rather unique binoculars lie at the heart of his story, James’ unique ability is to make each of his tales of terror feel perfectly distinctive and engaging in their own right. There may be a formula, but it is one that James revels in and made his own rather than, as some lesser authors might, become trapped by it.
This is also the case with the adaptations that have been filmed of his stories. Since 1971 several of James’ work has been brought to life by the BBC as part of a series now loosely referred to as “A Ghost Story For Christmas.”
This is because James’ stories originated as midnight tall tales written for his undergraduate students to enjoy on chilly nights as the Cambridge term came to its end. The association between Christmas and ghost stories might seem at first a strange one – after all how can horror be mixed with time of festive joy and goodwill to all people? And yet that tradition, far older than James’ own work, persists because the act of hearing a ghostly story on a chill December night has as much appeal to the human soul as the need for festive cheer – it reminds us of our own fallible grasp on life an provides a diverting distraction from the bitter chill of the bleak midwinter.
The tradition has been carried on in recent years by Mark Gatiss who has so far adapted four James stories including Count Magnus – The Tractate Middoth, Martin’s Close and The Mezzotint being the other three. Each one, as has been the case with previous James adaptations, has been filled with a mixture of gothic dread and wonderfully British stuffy academia, the combination which makes all of James’ work so distinct.
Yet Count Magnus is distinct in that it is one of the James short stories that does not occur in East Anglia or in the heart of a university town but in fact in Sweden. Had this tale been adapted by anyone with a lesser talent than Gatiss this divergence from the traditional setting may have meant that the film lacked the polish that is expected from the A Ghost Story For Christmas series.
Fortunately, the clear love of the source material Gatiss has means this isn’t the case and indeed the distinction between the slightly bumbling Mr Wraxhall and the inhabitants of Sweden that he encounters both in keeping perfectly in with the tradition of gothic ghost stories of the period and a source of amusement. James was well aware of the somewhat stuffiness of academic life, and it is part of the charm of his stories to see the overly curious academics lose themselves to the dark mysteries they were warned not to disturb.
The desire to be close to the source material (though as is necessary with any adaptation of thirty minutes in a somewhat truncated form) means that from the intimate local tavern to the brooding gothic pile in Vestergothland inhabited by Froken de la Gardie (MyAnna Buring), Gatiss perfectly realizes the creeping, lurching horror of Count Mangus’ world as James wrote it and like all the best adaptations of James’ work he uses the sneaking suspicions of the audience that something awful is about to happen to his advantage. The creeping dread of what is to come is in many ways far more frightening than the axe wielding monster or the ten eyed alien. His direction has a crisp, smooth flow to it which allows you to become totally at one with the scene you are watching whilst feeling a lurking dread at the back of your mind; the ability to ensure a feeling of calm before the calm in any drama is a difficult one but Gatiss achieve it with Count Magnus. In particular the use of light by Gatiss in the both the tavern scene when Wraxhall seeks information about Count Magnus and outside the titular Count’s crypt are pitched perfectly to add to the atmosphere of the scenes.
Jason Watkins’ portrayal of Mr Wraxhall though is somewhat more sympathetic than that of other James’ protagonists. He is not a frustrated clerical murderer like Dr Haynes of The Stalls of Barchester or a greedy academic in the same vein as Justin Somerton in The Treasure of Abbot Thomas; rather he is an interested amateur whose blithe ignorance leads to his own downfall. Watkins’ portrayal of Wraxhall’s downward spiral into terror after discovering the horrific truth behind Count Magnus is brightly realized because it induces real pity in the viewer for his character despite his blithe dismissal of the warnings given to him about Count Magnus. Indeed, although it may be thought to be somewhat stereotypical to depict an Englishman being a fish out of water abroad, Watkins’ innate charm and the naivety of his approach to the danger that surrounds him makes him seem not like an irritating stereotype but rather a curious lamb being drawn slowly to his slaughter.
Count Magnus then can be added to the pantheon of great James’ adaptations. It brings to life, as any good adaptation should, the soul of the text it is realizing to the screen. Gatiss works wonders with the setting and allows for both the humour and horror that are so often a part of James’ work to fully come out. It is an adaptation that will be enjoyed for many years to come because of both its quality and because it is part of a fine tradition of ghost stories airing over the Christmas season. Long many this tradition continue for there are still several great works by James which have yet to be brought to the screen – meaning there should, if there is any justice, be several more years of frightening tales flickering by the yuletide log yet to come.