Recently the BBC dropped a new adaptation of The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward based on the horror novel by HP Lovecraft. First written in 1927, this story was never published in Lovecraft’s lifetime but in the 90 years since it has become one of his canonical weird tales.
For those unfamiliar with the source material, Charles Dexter Ward is a young man in his mid-twenties. The story drops us in at a crucial point where he is locked up in a “mental asylum”.
Ward’s psychological infirmity stems from a burning obsession with Joseph Curwen, a distant relative. Charles physically resembles his relative (an accused wizard) and he works to resurrect his relative’s occult spells.
The BBC has chosen to reinvent the story using a modern true crime style. Doctor Willitts (also investigating in the original) works to understand his disturbed patient. The podcast interviews begin further back in the form of recorded conversations with the boy. Willits contacts Ward’s teachers as well as a cast who knew the young antiquarian when he was into hanging out and playing video games.
Clearly, the BBC was disinterested with preserving HP Lovecraft’s tone.
It is critical to note the difference between podcast and audiobook. The latter format is defined as a simple dramatic reading of the text. The former however implies episodic and dramatic, and it lends itself to a broader and more adventurous story interpretation.
The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward has been adapted into an audiobook numerous times. It is available on Audible and here. It was also broken down admirably with performances on an early episode of the HP Podcraft Literary Podcast.
The BBC ventures pretty far from the source. Their adaptation feels more like the wildly popular Serial that took the podcast world by storm than it does an audiobook. For one thing, the story is updated to the modern day. The story is also told using a female point of view. It views the titular character as a disturbed boy. Episode One even alludes to a most modern plague: school shootings.
It is critical to note the inclusion of a female character because Lovecraft almost never wrote female characters. Certainly none of those token mentions was given a point of view.
Another distinction is the inclusion of examination of an in depth child character. Once again the BBC is going somewhere the author rarely did. Aside from the fantastical creation of Wilbur Whateley in The Dunwich Horror children are largely left out of Lovecraft’s fiction.
For Lovecraft purists, the BBC’s adaptation may sting a bit. Some might take the view that it was unnecessary. My bristle is a bit more with how this adaptation employs too many stock horror motifs. We get a lot of female protagonists. Disturbed children are the genre’s bread and butter.
Scholars postulate that Ward is HP Lovecraft’s biographical character. I think of this this story as Lovecraft’s most purely psychological. While his tales often involve insanity, the ancestral stain that afflicts Charles is a little more relatable. This is less about monster myths and more about an inborn psychological frailty therefore this story stands as pretty modern and stands up to adaptation.
The BBC’s adaptation of The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward works because it reminds us of a key aspect in understanding HP Lovecraft: the open source nature of his work. The author wanted new generations of writers to tinker with his worlds and this should be viewed as a reflection of that desire.
If Lovecraft were alive today (a phrase that launches countless debates) I am pretty sure he would listen to podcasts. He might even produce one.
I would hazard a guess then that had The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward been written in 2018, it might sound a little more like this.
Want to check it out for yourself? Here is the link to the BBC Sounds presentation of The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward.
Have You Listened To The Podcast Version of The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward already?
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