This is going to have a bit of everything in it, mostly to do with adaptation. Back in November, I auditioned for a part in a musical that was being put on locally: Whistle Down the Wind. I didn’t expect to get anything too important, just as long as I was involved. Though I ended up getting the lead female role of Cathy Bostock, the eldest daughter! I never get lead stuff like this, so naturally I wanted to give it my best shot. Which included reading the original novel the musical was adapted from as research, written by Mary Hayley Bell.
‘Whistle Down the Wind’ is undoubtedly a children’s novel. It is told from Brat’s point of view, who is the middle child between Swallow (my character!) and Poor Baby. Brat details how Swallow and their friend Elizabeth find a stranger in their barn, who they assume to be Jesus as he cried this out when asked who he was. There is something charming about Brat’s narrative – Bell maintains a clear sense of this through out the whole novel, using phrases like: ‘This really annoyed me. It did, really.’ The repetition of ‘this did, really’ at the end of sentences re-enforcing the child like quality to the authorial voice. This added to the naive quality that the children show through out the whole novel – Brat seems to doubt whether this man actually is Jesus until she sees holes in his feet, which she assumes to have come from being crucified. There was something charming about the fact these children believed this man was the son of God, and there was something so sweet about how they helped him without question. To me that is what religion should be about: showing one another how to be good people – not using it as an excuse to think you’re right about everything.
If I could only use one thing to describe the whole novel it would be that: sweetly naive. The unwavering trust of the children represents their innocence, and how they want to preserve this forever by their mistrust of the adults in the novel (apart from the man suspected to be Jesus). Brat reiterates several times her mistrust of adults, and describes them as something entirely different to them. The complete omission of what happened to their mother reinforces this idea. The only mention there is of a mother is that she ran off to be with someone else and abandoned them – it could be argued that Brat feels that if the adult who they would trust the most would abandon them, no one else is worth trusting. Jesus would appear as an almost mythical being separate from this, as the children would have been taught that He loves everyone no matter what – in this case appearing as a replacement for the motherly love they lack.
While Bell maintains this authorial voice through out the narrative, it did get a little grating at times. Brat seemed almost bored at points, and not entirely trusting of Jesus until she sees the holes in his feet. I liked how the novel had an ambiguous ending – towards the latter half of the novel the adults reveal that there is an escaped murderer on the loose, but the children never connect this to the man who appeared in their barn – again showing their unwavering trust and innocence. Bell decided to give the reader an open ending – to me reading as an adult, I would have argued that the stranger was indeed the convict. However if I had read this when I was younger, I would have probably missed this subtext and taken the children at their word that this man was Jesus. This is another representation of the children’s innocence – implying that this fades a little the older you get. Having Jesus come back would be seen as a modern day miracle, however older people would undoubtedly question why this stranger was claiming to be Jesus reincarnated. Due to this, I think that some of the magic of this novel would be lost on an older audience, and a younger audience would be happy to know that Jesus escaped at the end.
I wasn’t entirely happy with the poor aunt being dragged in to look after her brother’s children (hello sexism!) but unfortunately this is probably what would have happened at the time this was set, and especially in a farming community because apparently men don’t have equal parenting responsibility of the children they have fathered (don’t even get me started). The only real interaction the children have with their father is towards the end of the novel when the man has been discovered to be living in one of their barns – their father comes across as quite sad, and doesn’t reprimand the children from hiding this stranger. Overall I quite liked the naivety of the children, and I feel this added to the charm of the novel. However it wasn’t the type of novel that completely absorbed me as a reader, and I think this was probably due to a lack of depth in the characters – however if there had been more depth to them the main characters would have been less believable as children. I would give it a 3/5, as I don’t think Bell quite got the depth needed to explore the story in further detail.
The book was adapted into a film not long after publication, starring Bell’s own daughter Hayley Bell as the oldest daughter. The film changed the children’s names to Cathy, Nan and Charles. Where as the book was effectively told from Nan’s point of view, the film switches to follow mainly Cathy’s perspective. At the start of the film we are introduced to the three children following the farm hand Eddie, who is trying to drown some kittens (again, as cruel as this is unfortunately this is what happens on farms because apparently they don’t know what taking an animal to be spayed means). The three children rescue the kittens and take them back to their barn to hide them. Cathy sneaks out later at night to find the mother cat, and takes her to her kittens. When she enters the barn, she notices a strange man collapsed in the hay. When she asks him who he is, he exclaims ‘Jesus Christ…’ before collapsing once again into the hay.
Prior to this, Charles says that Jesus will look after the kittens after being told this by a lady who he offered a kitten to. Cathy scoffs and says ‘How can He when He’s dead?’ The kittens are a symbol of the children’s innocence and their belief in God. Cathy as the eldest – and the closest child to becoming an adult after the death of their mother – is on the brink of loosing her innocence that comes with childhood. After their mother’s death, Cathy has had to step into the role of mother, and is inevitably becoming like those adults Brat described in the novel. Through Hayley Bell’s acting, even though this is the case Cathy shows a kind of terror of being discovered by God or Jesus to be blaspheming. Mainly due to Christianity being far more popular in this time period than it is today. While Cathy is on the brink of this turning point as a woman, she is not quite there yet – meaning this same innocence makes her take this stranger at his word and believe he is Jesus.
The 1961 film has a much more serious tone than the book did – through the transference of media it also loses a lot of the ambiguity that the novel had. Due to the restrictions of the media of film, most of this ambiguity would be harder to portray. This is also through Alan Bates’ acting as the man, who comes across as a much harsher character. In the novel, the ambiguity as to whether this man was Jesus or not was shown through his characterisation. The novel Jesus was kind and thankful towards the children for helping him, and interacted with the children in a much more appropriate way that we would expect Jesus to. Alan Bates’ film version of Jesus is more suspicious, and openly questions why they are helping him and is often gruff at points – this interaction with the children casts a lot of suspicion over who this stranger is. In the novel it was easy to believe the stranger was Jesus – in the film, it is fairly obvious this man is the escaped murderer. Especially with the scenes of the man asking Cathy to retrieve a package, which the audience later finds out to be a gun. This loses the plausibility that he might be a good character instead of the escaped convict. It’s a shame this ambiguity is lost through this media translation, however it would be hard to convey without giving a straight forward answer of who the character was.
There was a far more religious aspect to the film than there was in the book – the children turn to their Sunday school teacher to ask her questions about what would happen if Jesus came back (without explicitly saying they think they have discovered Jesus in their barn). In the novel they just believe him to be Jesus and try and spend as much time as possible looking after him. There was more of an emphasis on the escaped convict aspect to the film as well – with these two elements I think this added the narrative depth that the book lacked. The lack of ambiguity as to the man’s identity gave the film a more concrete ending, though I think this meant the film lost the childish charm of the novel. It was a harsher portrayal of the story, and therefore aimed at a more mature audience.
As an adaptation, the film worked really well. The loss of ambiguity changed the aimed audience, however it added the depth to the story that the novel was missing. The children’s willingness to believe this man was Jesus due to wanting a loving replacement of their mother comes across much more strongly – their father is quite aloof through out the whole film. While they do have their auntie stepping in to help – again, don’t even get me started on the sexist assumption that it automatically becomes her job just because she’s portrayed as a spinster – she isn’t exactly the most loving, charming of people. She constantly complains about having to look after her brother’s children (which I don’t blame her for!) and doesn’t really come across as someone they can confide in. I do think that there needed to be more of a reconciliation between Cathy and the father – he doesn’t recognise the children’s need for a loving parent figure and instead holds Cathy back when the man is marched from the barn.
Alan Barnes’ acting as the young Charles really made the film for me. He kept a lot of the narrative charm that the novel had, and had some of the funniest lines in the film. This helped to lighten the mood, considering the more serious atmosphere that the director had gone for. Charles’ kitten more obviously represented his innocence, as the kitten’s death proves towards the end of the film. Charles had also had an unwavering belief that this stranger was Jesus, however once he finds out the man didn’t look after his kitten and had actually let it die, Charles’ innocence and belief in the man disappears. In the novel, Poor Baby was one of the characters determined to help Jesus escape. In complete contrast to this, film Charles is the one to reveal to the adults that there is a strange man in their barn. Nan takes an extra piece of cake from the table, and when asked who it is for accidentally says ‘Jesus’ automatically, to which Charles sadly adds ‘He’s not Jesus, he’s just a fella’.
The two media are essentially two different entities – while on the surface they tell the same story, they both do this in two different ways to the point where they are separate from one another.
The musical adaptation is more of an amalgamation of both. Obviously I am going to be biased about this one! The version that we in Pembrokeshire are doing, is using songs from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s version of the musical but rather than being set in America, is set in a Lancashire farm, just like the film was. The musical version takes some of the more mature elements of the film, while still keeping the naivety of the children that is shown in the book. Cathy once again shows a contempt for there being a higher being – almost in the manner of how can God or Jesus exist if they have taken my mother away from me? One of the lines from the song ‘I Never Get What I Pray For’ states: “God had no right to take her/ She had no right to go”. Despite her anger at this injustice, once she discovers the stranger in the barn and believes him to be Jesus, she still treats him as this higher being. If she had been wrong about Jesus existing, maybe she could be wrong about her mother being gone entirely – bringing a naive belief that Jesus gives her a connection to her dead mother.
The father is a more active presence in the musical, though still maintains a stern personality. The auntie is a much more approachable character, though still resentful of being made to look after her brother’s children (ARRRGGGGHH). The three children have more interaction with one another, which to me gives them more characterisation that they had in the book or the film. Nan is a goody two shoes: ‘Why’s he come back? Is it because of what you said Cathy? Do think he’ll want to see me in the morning? I expect so, I mean I didn’t say anything, did I?’ Charles has a similar characterisation to Alan Barnes’ film version. Some of his lines are so funny and really make his character. Cathy is trying to be like the mother Nan and Charles no longer have, and is quite bossy at times – mainly towards Charles, which gives his character an opportunity to use his hilarious dialogue.
Most of the musical stays similar to the film version with a more lighthearted atmosphere – the main difference is the ambiguous ending, which I feel adds more charm to the story. It gives you the impression that this stranger in the barn could very well be Jesus – younger audiences would take this away after watching it, where as an older audience would take away the subtext and understand that he was more likely to be the escaped convict, who has once again escaped justice. I like this ambiguity to the ending, as it leaves it up to the audience to decide for themselves what happened. I think this is a much more appealing way to end the story, as it allows the audience to retain this sense of innocence that would be lost if the musical had the film’s black and white ending (no pun intended). This also gives a sense that if you do what you believe is right, good will always triumph. After all, the only thing necessary for evil to succeed is for good people to do nothing.
Our version of ‘Whistle Down the Wind’ is on in Theatr Gwaun in Fishguard at 7pm on April 27th, 28th and 29th, with another matinee performance on the last day at 2pm. Tickets can be bought on the Theatr Gwaun website.
This was so fun to do, and I am so glad to have been confident enough to at least audition for something like the lead! Maybe I’m more of an adult than I thought!