Thursday, November 09, 2023

Considering Adaptations

That is, one adaptation in particular: CONJURE WIFE, by Fritz Leiber. It was first published as a magazine serial by UNKNOWN WORLDS in 1943, later revised and expanded for reprint in book form (in a trio of novels bound together in 1952, then as a stand-alone paperback in 1953). The 1943 version is the one Amazon sells in Kindle format. Wikipedia lists three movies inspired by CONJURE WIFE, the best-known (and the only one that seems to be available) being BURN, WITCH, BURN, with a script by classic horror writers Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont. Spoilers ahead, although surely the statute of limitations on spoilers has run out for an 80-year-old novel.

The protagonist, Norman, a sociology professor at a small, private college, discovers his wife, Tansy, has been secretly practicing witchcraft to advance his career and guard both of them against the malicious magic of certain older faculty wives. He persuades her to let him burn her protective charms. With those defenses gone, they're assailed by the full force of hostile spells. Norman repeatedly tries to convince himself they're facing only coincidental accidents and the mundane hostility of his professional rivals' wives, as evidence to the contrary piles up. Finally, to save Tansy's life and soul, he has to work a complicated spell himself under her direction. Although the story feels dated at points because of the Freudian approach to psychology Norman and his colleagues take for granted, the quiet horror remains unforgettably chilling.

Aside from the deletion of a few references to World War II, the main thrust of the rewrite tends toward adding ambiguity. The original starts with a discussion among three older witches on whether Tansy knows about them. The book includes several other brief scenes from their viewpoint. As a result, the reader knows from the beginning that witchcraft is real and evil forces are plotting against the protagonist and his wife. The expanded novel, on the other hand, is narrated entirely in the tight third person viewpoint of Norman. He constantly questions and second-guesses apparently magical incidents, regardless of his contrary feelings in the moment and the fact that, by the end, the reality of the supernatural within the text is perfectly clear to the reader.

Even after Norman experiences supernatural evil firsthand in the final confrontation with the older witches, in the revision doubt resurfaces in his mind afterward. In the original version, he concludes by accepting the fact of witchcraft and assuming they're not done with it: “There’s more behind this matter of the Balance than we may realize. There’s a lot we’ll do with this, but we’ll want to go slowly and test every step of the way.” At the end of the rewritten edition, Tansy asks whether he seriously believes in everything that has happened or finds himself reverting to the idea that the whole prolonged ordeal arose from coincidence and delusions. His reply, which constitutes the final sentence of the novel: "I don't really know."

The film BURN, WITCH, BURN deviates from the book at several points. For the most part, I realize why Matheson and Beaumont chose to make the changes they did. On the basic narrative level, naturally much of the background we get from Norman's stream of consciousness in the novel has to be revealed through dialogue in the movie, mainly the competitive tension underneath the smoothly polite conversations in the early scenes with his colleagues and their wives. The script omits most of the small mishaps Norman suffers, to highlight larger potential disasters. Most significantly, the entire climactic episode of Tansy's soul being captured by the senior witch is omitted, no doubt to streamline the plot to fit into the length of a feature film. Also, the writers might have thought that situation too complex to convey effectively through action and dialogue. Probably they figured a magical arson attack was more visually dramatic. Still, I was sorry to lose the deeply horrifying moment at the end of chapter fourteen (ten in the original) when Tansy, as a soulless automaton, answers Norman's magical summons. And, above all, we lose the novel's core premise, that all women are witches even if many of us don't fully understand or wholeheartedly believe in our own powers.

I'd love to see the book fully and faithfully adapted as a miniseries, but that seems like a farfetched daydream. BURN, WITCH, BURN, however, does come pretty close. Any fans of vintage horror would find it well worth their time.

Margaret L. Carter

Please explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

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