Based on the debut novel by Diane Setterfield, The Thirteenth Tale contained all the right notes for becoming a part of the tradition of TV Christmas ghost tale that we habitually enjoy snuggling up to on the sofa on winter nights. Setterfield’s story knows its roots intimately, if not revelling in them, the original book containing constant references to Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights throughout. The first lines in the TV adaption is Olivia Coleman’s character asking the chauffeur ‘is this the moors?’ enroute to meet the reclusive author Vida Winter. It sets you up in familiar gothic ground, but the way that these references were supposed to excite a knowing watcher also ultimately contributed to the disappointing elements of the programme.
Setterfield’s novel gained considerable acclaim when it was published in 2006, not least for the way in which it portrayed a fascination with the joy of reading and writing. I read the book in the weeks coming up to Christmas, and it was in fact these parts that I found most frustrating, as it became increasingly clear that Setterfield’s writing was not quite strong enough to do justice to these parts of the prose, and they instead came across as quite cliched. For these reasons, I was looking forward to the BBC adaption, as it wasn’t likely that these aspects would feature strongly in this version and the focus instead would be more on the story, which had been gripping. Better still, the cast included a wealth of great actors; Olivia Coleman plays Margaret Lea, a solitary biographer who has been requested to record the true account of the life of the reclusive and eccentric author, Vida Winter, played by Vanessa Redgrave , who is terminally ill. Through their interviews, we discover the story of Vida Winter’s childhood in a crumbling aristocratic family, that is slowly torn apart by incest, psychotic twins, and a haunted house.
The adaption stays close to its original source, although the haunting atmosphere is enhanced by the quality of the cinematography, and the crumbling beauty of the locations, particularly the setting chosen for Winter’s childhood home. However, in what was lacking in the original material remains lacking in this adaption. Though enjoyable enough and suitably gripping, the similarities to the stories that it’s paying homage to only draws the attention to the originality that is missing. There is little in the twists towards the climax of the story that surprises or astounds, and you don’t find yourself caring for the characters quite as much as you should, although this has nothing to do with the strength of the performances, as both Redgrave and Colman played their parts with subtlety and strength.
Despite this, The Thirteenth Tale wasn’t any less gratifying to watch, and it certainly hit the spot just like a Christmas ghost story should, and its only a slight disappointment if it didn’t go quite above and beyond that.