Many Happy Reruns: Herman Melville and M. R. James

Well, August is coming across a lot like autumn. Fierce winds, cool temperatures, and short intervals of rain put an end to the July heat here in Ceredigion, Wales. Undoubtedly, I will return to hothouse climes next week, when I am back in New York City, where, on this day, 1 August, in 1819, a child was born that would eventually become one of the most celebrated authors of the 19th century: Herman Melville. Moby-Dick, his most famous work—a story everyone knows but a book hardly anyone reads—was filmed, starring Gregory Peck, not far away from here in the Welsh town of Fishguard, where, last summer, I had the misfortune to drown a cellular phone.

Losing a chance to keep in touch with humanity—that is not altogether un-Melvillian. Melville’s yarns, apart from his early Omoo and Typee, are not primarily seafaring adventures. They are stories of the forlorn, of friendlessness and frustrated ambitions. Teaching American literature in New York, I once assigned Melville’s novel Redburn, a devastatingly triste tale of a young man unable to establish meaningful and fulfilling personal relationships. It is a subject to which Melville returned frequently in his work, his Kafkaesque story “Bartleby, the Scrivener” being a prime example. It is also a fine example of literature being well served by radio; and such instances are quite rare.

Those adapting literature for the airwaves were often asked to synopsize popular pieces of 19th-century fiction, to produce hurried rehashes that rarely captured the varied aspects, let alone the experience of epic tomes like Moby-Dick. The far shorter story of “Bartleby,” however, was well translated for radio by the creative team of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. As the host of the series, Ronald Colman, told listeners of Favorite Story back in the late 1940s (the series was transcribed and syndicated, rather than broadcast live on network radio), “The Strange Mr. Bartleby” was an obscure work of fiction. It was owing to actor Robert Montgomery, who allegedly chose it as his favorite, that the story was picked up by Favorite Story and dramatized starring William Conrad and Hans Conried (as Bartleby).

As a short story, it is far more suitable for a twenty-minute dramatization than the novels that were generally bowdlerized in the process. Despite the changed title (the word “scrivener” being deemed rather too quaint and alienating, no doubt), Favorite Story‘s rendering of “Bartleby”—a dark tale in which communication failure is having a “dead letter” day—is probably the most satisfying and faithful Melville adaptation heard on American radio.

A similar success in adaptation may be reported in the case of another author born on this day (in 1862), a spinner of a very different sort of yarn: M. R. James, who shares his first name with our terrier, Montague (pictured). Still somewhat outside the canon of western literature—a canon that now includes Frankenstein and Dracula—James is a highly regarded teller of antiquarian ghost stories. A decade before it was adapted for the movies, his “Casting the Runes” was readied for radio by Irving Ravetch and John Dunkel. With a score composed by the recently deceased Cy Feuer (commemorated here), it was heard on the thriller anthology Escape on 19 November 1947. Unlike Tourneur’s Night of the Demon, which exists in two versions and points up the Curse of visualizing terror as horror, the sound-only adaptation is both literate and liberating, depending on the listener’s imagination rather than showy yet inadequate special effects.

was often and not unjustly accused of playing fast and loose with literary classics. It reduced novels like Moby-Dick to skeletons best left in the closets of those who were commissioned to strip the meat from the bones of such meaty fictions. Shorter works like “Bartleby” and “Casting the Runes,” concentrating on one central idea and exploring a key situation involving a few main characters, fared considerably better on the air. These two plays are worthy of the men who conceived them without a microphone in mind.

2 Replies to “Many Happy Reruns: Herman Melville and M. R. James”

  1. I\’ve read before that short story adaptations were avoided for some reason during radio\’s early years. It\’s a really a shame, or do you know of any Kafka adaptations for radio? Of course, the Sherlock Holmes stories leant themselves well to radio adaptations and have been attempted countless times. My favorites would be Orson Welle\’s version (an adaptation of a play actually) and the British series from the mid-50\’s.Generally I think the best adaptations of longer works have been by Orson Welles and his writers.

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