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Jess-Belle is a 2010 radio adaption of a 1963 Twilight Zone episode written by Earl Hamner Jr. The story is narrated by Stacy Keach and Stephanie Weir with Keach taking on the monologue duties that were famously performed by the late Rod Serling. "The Twilight Zone has existed in many lands in many times. It has its roots in history, in something that happened long, long ago and got told about and handed down from one generation of folk to the other. In the telling the story gets added to and embroidered on, so that what might have happened in the time of the Druids is told as if it took place yesterday in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Such stories are best told by an elderly grandfather on a cold winter's night by the fireside in the southern hills of the Twilight Zone..." This is a much more whimsical Twilight Zone story but a good one (it was certainly one of the best acted and produced episodes in the television series) and the audio adaption is not bad at all and successfully captures the essence of the original screenplay I think. In the heavily wooded and lazy Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia where everyone knows everyone, Billy-Ben Turner proposes to farmer's daughter Ellwyn Glover but a mystical spanner is about to be thrown into the works. The madly jealous and high strung Jess-Belle Stone - a poor but beautiful girl who Billy-Ben once secretly romanced - is absolutely determined that the wedding will not take place and will do anything to stop it. Jesse-Belle seeks out the lonely cabin of the mysterious Granny Hart - who local legend has it is really a witch. Granny Hart offers Jess-Belle a love potion as the answer to her dilemma but how can she pay for it? Granny Hart declines her offer of a silver hair pin and says there will be another price that Jess-Belle will find out about soon enough. Smitten by Billy-Ben and blinded by the jealously and envy she feels about him marrying another woman, Jess-Belle doesn't worry about these cryptic words and drinks the potion down like a can of Tizer. When Billy-Ben next encounters Jess-Belle the potion works like a charm. He is in love and can't bear to be parted from her for one second. Jess-Belle has successfully bewitched Billy-Ben and got exactly what she always wanted. But there will be a heavy price to pay for this black magic and she'll find out what that price is at the stroke of midnight.
Jess-Belle was arguably the greatest contribution to the Twilight Zone by Earl Hamner Jr and one that perfectly captures his own sensibility and interest in folklore and backswoods stories featuring the type of rural people he grew up with. Hamner later created the television series The Waltons (who were based on his own family) and the characters here speak with what always feels like a wonderfully effective and charming authenticity (to me anyway, it might be more stereotypical if you are from these places). "Every minute I'm away from you is suffering and torment," declares Billy-Ben, unaware he is under a spell. "All kinds of torment in this world I reckon," sighs Jess-Belle. "Torment comes from buying something, finding out the price is dear..." Jess-Bell is sort of like The Waltons, Bewitched, Cat People and Faust all blended together in a big food mixer and the end result is certainly pleasant and enjoyable. There is a remarkably clever layer of double meaning in the script which is all the more remarkable for the fact that Hamner Jr apparently wrote his complete draft in a few days because they needed a story to film as quickly as possible. The principle guest star here is Stephnie Weir, who I am not that familiar with at all (I believe she has appeared in Weeds and FlashForward). While she can't hope to compete with the vampish tour-de-force by Anne Francis in the original television episode she is perfectly acceptable and has what appears to be an authentic country accent in the adaption. Importantly, just like the television version, we feel some sympathy for Jess-Belle despite her scheming and dishonesty. We know that the title character is unwisely meddling with things she doesn't understand all because she wants someone to love. Especially when she visits the mysterious Granny Hart with her problem and is told, "Why child, there ain't much I don't know..."
The languid atmosphere of the story is nicely recrafted for this format and the music cues are appropriately restrained and well used. Jesse-Belle is a story that could easily be hokey and dull (the actual synopsis never makes it sound terribly exciting) but somehow it all works, primarily I think because of the strength of the characters created by Hamner Jr and the compelling nature of the predicament that Jesse-Belle eventually finds herself in. Because you have to conjure the images in your own imagination, these audio adaptions can be very effective at their best and it helps somewhat that they are not 100% transcripts of the television stories. They capture the spirit of the original work without having to follow it completely down to the last line or situation. The use of sound effects is not so prominent here (as it was in something like The Thirty-Fathom Grave for example with sonar beeps and clunking metallic thuds from the depths of the ocean) as there is slightly less scope for spookiness but what opportunities the radio drama does have to heighten the atmosphere are fun. The visit by Jesse-Belle to the wind blown shack of Granny Hart where - as we listen - we can picture her cloaked and hovering over a bubbling pot like your stereotypical witch and then suddenly, as if by magic, making herself more presentable to Jesse-Belle (who Granny Hart I suppose sees purely in terms of another customer for her vague and dangerous arts). The other major window for the sound effects department derives from a particular development involving Jesse-Belle that can't be revealed for fear of spoilers but it's fun anyway.
Jesse-Belle runs to 48 minutes and while slightly longer than many of the adaptions in this series it doesn't outstay its welcome to any great degree and managed to retain my interest despite my familiarity with the story from the television version. I think the principle reason for this is that there are a small series of twists and as you never quite remember all of them (not unless you watched the television episode about 50 times) and they tinker with the story around the edges the capacity for surprise is always there, however small. If this adaption did have a weakness I think it would reside in the fact that it is a gently twisted and unhurried romantic story that one has to be in the right mood for. You have to appreciate the sensibility and work of Earl Hamner Jr and fall to some element for the lackadaisical atmosphere otherwise you would run the severe risk of finding this story a trifle dull. Especially if you were expecting more stereotypical Twilight Zone capers involving flying saucers or far distant worlds. There is no real huge twist here at the end either (the twist or "flip" being The Twilight Zone's usual raison d'etre). I don't think this is the most exciting or obvious of the radio adaptions but I did find it generally agreeable and well narrated by the two actors with a palpable affection and respect for the source material. The fact that it is a somewhat untypical Twilight Zone story is of course also a strength. If nothing else, you do get to learn in Jesse-Belle that each time you see a shooting star a witch has died somewhere. This is not my favourite of the Twilight Zone audio adaptions I've listened to so far but I did find this a mildly diverting 48 minutes and it was interesting to compare and contrast with the television version. At the time of writing you can buy Jesse-Belle as part of a collection of these Twilight Zone adaptions or just download it individually for £1.19.