The folllowing sample essay on The Turn Of The Screw Analysis discusses it in detail, offering basic facts and pros and cons associated with it. To read the essay’s introduction, body and conclusion, scroll down.
Henry James’s novella, The Turn of the Screw, has entranced readers and held them in a finely woven web of ambiguity for over one hundred years. During that time, readers, scholars, and critics have tried to escape its clutches by offering a myriad of interpretations, a vast spectrum of critical opinions which make a definitive solution an impossibility.
James’s masterful use of uncertainty truly supports, if not promotes, the ability of readers to discover numerous meanings to the tales mysteries. Does the governess really see the ghostly figures of Quint and Miss Jessel?
Are the apparitions merely figments of an overactive imagination? Are the children accurately perceived as angelic innocents, or are they willing participants to possession by the evil manifestations? To answer these questions, James craftily leaves only veiled hints for the reader to collect and decipher along the way.
The same vagueness that provides for endless critical study, however, poses a large problem when adapting the story to film. Careful consideration is given to which elements of character and plot need to be included, as well as how focus needs to be placed on them in order to achieve the desired effect.
Movies are almost never an exact match to the text from which they are taken; they are merely the director’s vision of that text.
Creating an adaptation of The Turn of the Screw is made all the more difficult by the seemingly infinite positions that can be taken. In 1961, Jack Clayton directed what is still known as the definitive cinematic version of James’s ghostly tale: The Innocents. His artistic vision of the events at Bly, combined with a skillfully designed script by legendary screenwriters William Archibald and Truman Capote, creates a chilling visual look into the psychological terror of James’s literary classic.
It is also a somewhat imperfect one. James presents The Turn of the Screw as the manuscript of the governess’s recollections, transcribed, preserved and read twenty years after her death by Douglas, then retold years later by an unnamed narrator. In the book, this initial first person narration establishes the setting of the story at the remote country estate, and Douglas’s testimony to the character of the governess is the only one we get aside from our own judgment.
With the insinuation of an illicit affair, the reliability of these characters and veracity of the tale are immediately called into question, though, and the lack of answers is our first indication that James will leave much to the reader’s imagination. In The Innocents, however, this entire prologue is omitted and viewers are not privilege to the initial perceptions it grants; the first person narration of the story’s telling and retelling is lost.
Instead, Archibald and Capote leave it to Clayton and the camera to provide only the third person perspective, bringing us in to witness what appears to be the emotional breakdown of the governess after her ordeal; her hands in supplication, she bemoans her failure to save the children. It is an introduction to the governess that gives us an insight to her character after the ordeal that is not a part of the original, and reduces some of the ambiguity James leaves about the conclusion.
In both versions, her story then begins with her meeting the privacy-demanding gentleman of Harley Street. It is here that we quickly perceive another key example of Clayton’s failure to follow too closely in James’s ambiguous footsteps. While James had left three of his characters without one, the governess, known only as such throughout the entirety of The Turn of the Screw, is given a name: Miss Giddens. It is during her interview with the uncle that we learn the circumstances, and peculiar requirement, of the position Miss Giddens seeks.
In the movie we are additionally introduced to the character of Miss Jessel, her death, and young Flora’s love for her. The connection between the two is firmly and quickly established as the new governess is explicitly told not to mention her predecessor because it will upset the child, unlike the book which leaves this relationship more open to interpretation. Clayton, in fact, follows this scene with several more that vary noticeably from James’s classic, either by altering the original or by adding completely new material.
Many of these changes are instrumental in giving focus to some of James’s unresolved issues, while others are used to help set up other elements such as mood. The governess’s arrival at Bly and subsequent introduction to Flora are prime examples of how Clayton made deviations that enhanced the story’s mysterious nature. The straight-forward meeting between the governess, Flora, and Mrs. Grose that James wrote is transformed into a disturbing scene that serves mainly to reinforce both the governess’s madness and the children’s lack of innocence.
Her first surreal vision of Flora through the lake’s reflection, instantly appearing from nowhere, also seems to foreshadow her vision of the ghosts. The treatment of the children, and the question of the extent to which they are aware of the manifestations is another element of The Turn of the Screw that Clayton takes liberty with during adaptation. James makes the reader wonder if the children are as truly angelic as they seem, with only subtle indications that they may not be, or that they are not wholly unaware of the ghosts of their former caretakers; Clayton, however, nearly takes all doubt away.
From the moment Miles meets the governess he displays a blatant disrespect for her and the ability to manipulate others, indifferently ignoring direct questions about his school then using flattery to change the subject. Later in the film, in two other scenes found only in the movie, this behavior escalates to physical violence as Miles strangles the governess during their game of hide and seek and then throws Flora’s turtle Rupert in seeming madness.
Adding a psychological twist to the child’s suggested evil nature is his recitation of poetry during the costume party; his vacant expression makes it one of the most chilling scenes in the movie. There are many others as well, as Clayton stresses the boy’s wickedness and possible demonic possession all the way to the final climactic scene. At the end we are almost forced to accept that Quint does have control of the boy, as he rages at the governess in the garden.
Clayton truly seems to have settled on how he wanted the children to be perceived, and it was not with the same ambiguity of character that James developed. One of the biggest differences between the book and the movie regarding the children also shatters James’s mysterious nature: the deaths of Quint and Miss Jessel. James dispenses of both characters through unexplained circumstances; we know little more than that they are dead. Clayton, however, not only dwells on the details of both of their deaths, he changes them completely.
In an additional turn of the screw he has the children witness their final moments, relieving the viewer of any doubt about the extent of their understanding. Part of the success Clayton sees in the greater development of the children’s characters is in the abilities of the actor and actress charged with playing them. Patricia Franklin portrays Flora with a maturity well beyond her age, and Martin Stephens, although better known for his role in Village of the Damned, does a remarkable job playing Miles. They both bring a believability to their part that is usually not seen from young performers.
Clayton is able to utilize their talents in other ways, too: Flora’s eerie humming of the music box’s peculiar melody drifts in and out, usually as haunting precursors to the appearances of Quint and Miss Jessel. The strength the movie receives from its performers is not limited to the children’s roles though. Deborah Kerr plays the governess with an eerie intensity that accurately conveys the depth of the character’s despair and possible psychosis. It must be noticed, though, that Kerr’s casting in the lead role is in sharp contrast to the character James created.
In The Turn of the Screw the governess is a young, untried woman only twenty years old; at the time The Innocents was filmed, however, Kerr was already forty years old. Although she does a wonderful job in conveying the madness of the part, it is still a huge departure from the original, changing an important part of how we perceive the governess. She seems to have much more confidence in the movie, giving us a clearer view of her. This can also been seen as part of Clayton’s attempt to reduce some of James’s extensive ambiguity.
While Clayton may have had to resort to more subtle means when establishing his perception of the characters, his expertise with camera techniques allowed him to creatively combine sights and sounds to promote an air of suspense. The most prominent of these is the use of black and white film as opposed to color; the entire film is instantly given an additional dreamlike feeling. Viewers may find some of his methods for establishing mood a little more cliched though: flapping curtains and flickering candles plagued every room, and the thunder storm appears to last forever.
Other of Clayton’s symbols can only be seen as truly creepy: large, crawling bugs that invade the Eden-like gardens of Bly, others that devour butterflies, and the broken, twisted body of a dead bird all reveal a sinister side to the country utopia. Clayton also utilizes many early special effects to advance the supernatural air of the movie, more tricks of the camera and double exposure than true effects. To dramatize the effect of the black and white film, many of Clayton’s transitions involved shadowy plays on light and dark.
Some appearances by Quint and Miss Jessel are surrounded by a darkening of the screen around the edges, while others are visible through a misty fog. Typical to well-bred gardens at the time, Clayton also blends the apparitions in with statuary, creating the illusion that they may not actually be there. Like the kiss the governess gives Miles as she tucks him in, many of the images linger just a little too long; double, and even triple exposures remain on the screen in one twisted image. If Clayton fails to transmit all of James’s ambiguity into The Innocents through character, he certainly tries to make up for it with technical skill.
It is this skill, combined with both artful screenwriting and a talented cast that brings the script to life, that has made The Innocents the definitive film version of The Turn of the Screw. Many others have been made through the years, but none to the same success; as an example of psychological horror it is still regarded as one of the all-time best. As an adaptation, however, it falls somewhat short of the original. The primary appeal of The Turn of the Screw is Henry James’s masterful use of ambiguity, something that just fails to transfer into Clayton’s direction of The Innocents.
Many of the scenes, while still viable and entertaining parts of the movie, are completely new and used by Clayton only as a way to fill in many of James’s blanks. If the viewer is only interested in The Innocents as the source of a good old-fashioned scare, then the movie will not disappoint. The addition of scenes and lack of ambiguity are not noticeable, and the story keeps you breathless at times. If, however, the viewer is concerned with the study of Henry James and The Turn of the Screw, then The Innocents should only be seen as an artistic, cinematic work based on a book.
While there is some consistency between the versions, there are still too many fundamental differences to make it an accurate substitute. Only a close reading of the original can reveal all of the subtle nuances that make The Turn of the Screw classic literature. Works Cited The Innocents. Screenplay by William Archibald and Truman Capote. Dir. Jack Clayton. Perf. Deborah Kerr, Martin Stephens, and Patricia Franklin. 1961. Videocassette. Twentieth Century Fox, 1996. James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw. 1898. Ed. Peter G. Beidler. 2nd ed. Boston, New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004.