Extract from a contextual review for Wordsworth Editions, originally entitled ‘Based on the Writings of Henry James’: The Turn of the Screw, The Innocents and The Haunting of Bly Manor‘.
The Innocents (UK, 1961) is a scary film based on a scary book. Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw was first published as a serial in Collier’s Weekly magazine in the spring of 1898, subsequently appearing in James’ collection of stories The Two Magics, published in the autumn of the same year. It starts out as a notionally conventional Victorian ghost story, with the framing narration of old men at a club swapping spooky tales on Christmas Eve. One of them, Douglas, knows one that’s ‘beyond everything’. The unnamed narrator recalls that he asked, ‘For sheer terror?’ to which his friend replied, ‘For dreadful – dreadfulness.’
The frame is elegant, filtering the apparently supernatural tale through several nested narrations. Douglas has an unpublished manuscript he has never shared, written by, and given to him by his little sister’s governess some forty years before, who he was then sweet on. (As the master of the Edwardian ghost story, M.R. James, would later note, ‘a slight haze of distance is desirable.’ Setting should ideally be a few years back to allow for the embellishment of memory, but familiar enough for the reader to think: ‘If I’m not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me!’) The unidentified governess was writing about events she had experienced at least ten years prior to that, and the novel’s narrator further explains that what follows is not a transcription but was written later from notes he took at the time, making the veracity of the account as uncertain as a collection of different witness testimonies. This ambiguity of interpretation was and remains a common gothic device, creating tension through competing frames of explanation. But just as Joseph Conrad was soon to question the uncomplicated imperialism of colonial adventure stories in Heart of Darkness (1902), James does indeed go beyond everything, delving deeply into the unhealthy psychology of obsession. In The Turn of the Screw – a deceptively short novel, a novella in fact – the paradigm of the literary gothic shifts artfully from Victorian to Modernist.
In a preface added by the author in 1908, James provides his own frame for the creation of The Turn of the Screw, not a million miles from the episode that triggers his story. One winter afternoon, ‘round the hall-fire of a grave old country house’, the talk of James and his circle had turned to ‘apparitions and night-fears’. The host then offered the fragment of a second-hand but allegedly true story:
He had never forgotten the impression made on him as a young man by the withheld glimpse, as it were, of a dreadful matter that had been reported years before, and with as few particulars, to a lady with whom he had youthfully talked. The story would have been thrilling could she but have found herself in better possession of it, dealing as it did with a couple of small children in an out-of-the-way place, to whom the spirits of certain ‘bad’ servants, dead in the employ of the house, were believed to have appeared with the design of ‘getting hold’ of them. This was all, but there had been more…
Years later, when approached by Collier’s to provide ‘something seasonal … in the time-honoured Christmastide joy’ – that is, a Christmas ghost story – James immediately ‘bethought myself at once of the vividest little note for sinister romance that I had ever jotted down.’
In James’ novella, the young daughter of a provincial parson takes her first job as a governess to an angelic brother and sister, Miles and Flora (aged ten and eight), in a remote country house called Bly:
a big, ugly, antique, but convenient house, embodying a few features of a building still older, half replaced and half utilised, in which I had the fancy of our being almost as lost as a handful of passengers in a great drifting ship.
The children are orphans in the care of their uncle, a charming and rakish bachelor who does not want the bother of them. As in a fairy tale, there is therefore an injunction: ‘That she should never trouble him – but never, never: neither appeal nor complain nor write about anything; only meet all questions herself, receive all moneys from his solicitor, take the whole thing over and let him alone.’ Smitten with the gentleman, who she desires to impress, the young lady agrees. After a promising start, the governess becomes increasingly convinced that her charges are being gradually possessed by the ghosts of her employer’s former valet, Peter Quint, and her predecessor, Miss Jessel, both of whom were lovers and who died under not exactly mysterious but obscure circumstances. Supported by an illiterate housekeeper called Mrs Grose, the governess sets out to ‘save’ the children, leading to an inevitably tragic conclusion. ‘The turn of the screw’ metaphor is used twice in the text, once by the framing narrator, referring to the added horror of a haunting involving children, and once by the governess, who applies it to a test of virtue by ordeal. The question of whether Bly is being haunted by Quint and Jessel, or by the governess’ own increasingly extreme delusions remains unanswered. Hints and clues tilt both ways. The children are strange and secretive at times and were definitely corrupted to a certain extent by their previous supervisors – the drunken and controlling Quint had been left in charge and the children were aware of his relationship with Jessel. There are also veiled suggestions that the governess is frustrated, possibly sexually; that there are problems at home, she is out of her depth, and something of a religious enthusiast. But then, her physical descriptions of the apparitions are born out by Mrs Grose (who doesn’t see them) as accurate and precise… Literary theorists have been arguing about this ever since.
The Innocents was originally a play based on James’ novel by William Archibald which premiered on Broadway in 1950. Archibald gave the protagonist a name, ‘Miss Giddens’, and interpreted the text as a straight ghost story. The play was optioned by the British film producer and director Jack Clayton, who was already known for literary adaptation after his Academy Award winning version of John Braine’s Room at the Top in 1959. Clayton and Archibald disagreed over the meaning of the text, and Truman Capote was hired to redraft Archibald’s screenplay, reintroducing the gothic uncertainty. Crisp additional dialogue was further added by John Mortimer. The screenplay faithfully reproduces the original novel but takes a couple of plot devices from Archibald’s play. The fates of Quint and Miss Jessel are much more explicitly tied to Bly, and the folk song ‘O Willow Waly’ becomes an eerie leitmotif:
We lay my love and I beneath the weeping willow.
But now alone I lie and weep beside the tree.
Singing ‘Oh willow waly’ by the tree that weeps with me.
Singing ‘Oh willow waly’ till my lover return to me.
We lay my love and I beneath the weeping willow.
A broken heart have I. Oh willow I die, oh willow I die.
Deborah Kerr played Miss Giddens beautifully as a well-meaning but brittle spinster, and Hammer stalwart Freddie Francis was cinematographer, using deep focus and Chiaroscuro lighting to convey the claustrophobic intensity of the original novel. Further adding to the atmosphere of menace, the film also pioneered the use of synthesised electronic sound effects created by musique concrète composer Daphne Oram. French New Wave director François Truffaut told Clayton that, ‘The Innocents is the best English film after Hitchcock goes to America’…
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