The BBC adaptation of John Masefield's The Box of Delights was broadcast weekly in the run up to Christmas 1984. I was too old for such matters in those days - I am not sure that I even watched it - yet somehow I have become one of those for whom these programmes are part of a modern Christmas.
One weakness haunts Masefield's book and the television the series: the revelation at the end that "it was all a dream".
In an article for Lancet Psychiatry looking at Christmas and dreams, Simon Guerrier takes the idea of the story as a dream seriously:
What does Kay's dream in The Box of Delights reveal about his desires and anxieties? For all the magic, there's a sense of the real world as sinister and foreboding: gangsters and murders are in the news, there's a sense of danger in the darkness outside the house, and when Kay goes to deliver a message some boys throw stones at him. Rat, a friend in The Midnight Folk, has now become a villain and Kay's description suggests the politics of the schoolyard: “Kay had heard that everyone had dropped him”.
There's a sense, too, of issues with authority: clergymen who turn out to be criminals, or the police inspector who several times ignores the evidence Kay brings him. A psychoanalyst might link these things to the fact that Kay's parents are absent—he's looked after by a guardian, Caroline Louisa.
Alan Seymour's adaptation of the story for television ... deftly adds to this sense of Kay's own anxieties informing the dream. In the first episode, Kay sees large Alsatian dogs running through the countryside. “Many people have them now”, Caroline Louisa tells him, “for protection”. We're not told from what.
When Herne and Kay transform into animals, in the book it's a delight but on television they're constantly in danger: as stags, they're chased by wolves; as birds they're chased by a hawk; as fish they're chased by a pike. Herne has to teach Kay to look out for these threats. Later, when Kay meets Arnold of Todi—the inventor of the box of delights—where the book had Kay rescue him, here Arnold turns on Kay and tries to trap him back in time. Interestingly, Kay's magical friends can't help him—he's saved by his friend Jemima, in the “real” world, calling out his name.
The television version gives us a clearer sense of where Kay's dreams begin: after two clergyman have tricked him in a game of cards so that he owes money to the poor box, and after he's met the kindly old man that his dream turns into Cole Hawlings. The police inspector reveals that Kay has always had an interest in magic: they've often swapped tricks from the pages of The Magician. But there's still a sense of disappointment at the end that it's all been a dream.
It doesn't help that both book and television version are set over several days, with Kay going to bed and dreaming, and even asking aloud if the magical events he's caught up in might be dreams. In fact, it is more than disappointing: it's cheating.I fear that is right, though my heart was lost to A Box of Delights some time in the 1960s, when I heard a radio adaptation of it.
You do not hear much about Masefield's The Midnight Folk, but my literary hero T.H. White loved it and cited it as an influence on his The Sword in the Stone.