Film Adaptations of The Turn of the Screw

By Annie

As discussed in class, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw is a text of the fantastic genre, and features moments of hesitation that place the reader in a state of eerie uncertainty. Since the novella’s publication, multiple film adaptions of the text have been produced. In these adaptations, directors captured James’ ambiguity and sources of hesitation to varying degrees of faithfulness. Some directors, such as Antoni Aloy, take liberties in presenting the governess as having faced physical abuse in her youth, while others, like Rusty Lemorande, emphasize the governess’ repressed lust for her employer.

In this blog post, I would like to explore how various adaptions were received by audiences, as well as my how well different adaptations maintained the novella’s original ambiguity. In my opinion, adapting The Turn of the Screw to film is limited by the director’s inability to rely on James’ use of unreliable first-person narrative, one of the main ways in which the author created ambiguity in the original text.  I am, therefore, curious to see how various directors attempted to circumnavigate this obstacle.

Jack Clayton’s 1961 adaption of The Innocents is one of the most famous and well received adaptions, currently holding a 7.8 rating on IMDB. Critics’ reviews praised the film’s ability to evoke horror through psychological dread and atmosphere, rather than cheap jump scares and gratuitous displays of gore or violence. I was similarly impressed by this film and found it to be one of the best at making me feel hesitation. For instance, Miles’ overly mature and formal behavior throughout the film made me feel as if supernatural forces were at work. In addition, the film also avoids divulging concrete details regarding Quint and Miss Jessel’s crimes. I think this decision would have been appreciated by Henry James, who stated that he wanted to depict Quint and Miss Jessel’s crimes vaguely so as to ensure “the spectator’s, the critic’s, the reader’s […] own experience, his own imagination […] will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.”

Another technique that Clayton employed in his adaption, that I believe helped to preserve the original novella’s ambiguity, was to focus the camera on the governess. Clayton features the governess in nearly all scenes of the film, meaning that the audience is often left questioning what the children and Mrs. Grose are seeing and doing – the camera creates a similar effect as James’ choice of first-person narration, where it feels as if the audience is being shown the governess’ subjective experience.

In contrast to The Innocents, Antoni Aloy’s 1999 adaption, Presence of Mind, is less famous and less highly regarded, receiving only a 5.5 rating on IMDB. In his adaption, Aloy deviates slightly from James’ text, adding details like the governess’ physical abuse in her youth, as well as increasing the religious dedication of the governess. Aloy depicts this religious fervor by having the Master present the governess with a medallion featuring Saint Christopher – a Saint who is most famous for having carried a child, later revealed to be Christ, across a river. This religious allusion emphasizes the governess’ view of herself as the protector of the children. Personally, I appreciated the greater emphasis on religion in this adaption; I thought it helped add greater depth to the governess’ character, as well created more ambiguity by highlighting the Christian belief in the devil (which supports an apparitionist interpretation) while simultaneously suggesting that religious fervor may be impacting the governess’ sanity (which supports a non-apparitionist interpretation).

Another adaptation that attempts to mimic James’ use of ambiguity is Rusty Lemorande’s 1992 film, The Turn of the Screw. Lemorande’s film, however, includes scenes where the governess’ insanity is heavily implied. For example, in her first encounter of Peter Quint’s ghost, there is a voiceover that states that the governess was entering “a trap” that she was “actually laying for herself” and was sparked by her newfound “space and freedom.” Later on in the film, this voiceover is revealed to be have been provided by an older Flora. Through this use of voiceover, Lemorande is able to mimic James’ use of first-person narration.

Lemorande’s decision to provide Flora’s perspective, rather than the governess’, however, removes some of the text’s original ambiguity for me. In my opinion, James’ original text was so effective because it provided us with a narrator who was, at times, questioning her own sanity;  Flora’s bitter and accusatory perspective (she blames the governess for her brother’s death), however, presents the governess as an insane murderer, removing this element of doubt.

Overall, The Turn of the Screw seems to be a difficult text to adapt to film as Henry James employs various narrative techniques, such as first-person perspective, that assist in creating ambiguity. Various film adaptions, however, have attempted to recreate this ambiguity to varying degrees to success. In my opinion, The Innocents still stands as the most successful and faithful adaption, and I am grateful to have had the chance to watch it in this class.

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