I read Henry James' The Turn of the Screw several times in high school, having to write an essay on whether there were or were not ghosts. The cleverness of the novel is that it allows for different interpretations—although I think it quite clearly comes down on one side, which we'll discuss later. Anyway, I was quite surprised to see that this movie succeeds in preserving that ambiguity, and in fact is one of the best translations of novella to screen I've ever seen, in terms of fidelity to the source, both its plot and its more amorphous literary qualities.
We begin with an announcement that this was shot in cinemascope, and boy, it sure was. What a wide screen—and it's going to be well-used throughout. We note that Pamela Franklin—who later went on to be in Bette Davis' The Nanny, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and Satan's Scool for Girls—is here as one of the children, Flora. This is her first film. We also see that the screenplay here was co-written by Truman Capote! The direction is by Jack Clayton, who went on to do the horrific Something Wicked This Way Comes. During the credits we see a woman's praying hands, later moving up to see her face as she seems to be in a kind of ecstasy. She says "What I want to do is to save the children, not destroy them." Hmm, I guess that is a good principle for any new babysitter to keep in mind.
We join this woman, Miss. Giddens [sounds like a giddy kitten? Such are the strangely evocative name choices of Henry James] as she is interviewed for a position as a governess to a boy and a girl, Miles and Flora. Their Uncle suddenly inherited them, and, being an actively "social" man on the London nightlife scene, he has no place for his life for children. He makes it quite clear that if Miss Giddens is to take the job, she will effectively become their parent, and that she should "Never trouble me. Never! Never! Never!" She will be replacing the last governess, Miss. Jessel, who died. Giddens accepts.
She is taken to the house, and is surprised to find it an enormous English manor, with beautiful gardens, woods and lakes, and massive rooms. She meets Flora in the middle of a stream, and takes to her immediately. Miles is still at school. She also meets Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, and the only other person at the house. The first time Giddens arrives on the grounds, she is hearing a mysterious voice that no one else hears. As she's putting Flora to bed, she hears something again, and Flora tells her "We must pretend we didn't hear it. That's what Mrs. Grose says. That way we won't imagine things."
SPOILERS > > >
Giddens receives word that Miles is to be expelled from school and will be returning home. It appears that he has caused injury to others and some other kids are afraid of him. Soon he arrives, and is as seemingly well-behaved and articulate as Flora. He is quite frank that he understands his Uncle doesn't care in the slightest about him and Flora. During this time Giddens has continued to ask questions about the former governess, Miss Jessell and learned that Flora loved her. She's also found out that there used to be a man about—a low-class caretaker or some such—Mr. Quint.
Giddens is out walking one day when she enters a long reverie—she becomes aware of certain sounds, certain visions around the gardens draw her attention, the sun flares—and then suddenly she sees a man atop the tower of the house. It is quite noticeable how the flare of light leads into her seeing the man. Later she is snooping and finds a photo of a man. Not long after, she sees him right outside the window! She describes him—and it's Mr. Quint! But he's dead! It's interesting to note that in the novella, she actually finds the photo after she sees him, but it's reversed in the film.
Now, I have my own interpretation of the film and novella, so if you venture on I'm going to describe that way of looking at the story. I think it's all in Giddens' head. I don't think there are any ghosts. One of the ways that is conveyed is the long reverie and light flare that leads into Gidden's first vision of Quint—the director is telling us that she isn't seeing clearly, that we are entering her subjective state. The reason it was smart of them to put her seeing the portrait before she "sees" Quint outside is to suggest that she spun it out of her imagination. She tells Mrs. Grose that she saw Quint, and makes the simple woman believe her—we are starting to have a case of mass hysteria.
Grose tells Giddens that Miles used to love Quint, used to "trot after him like a little dog." She has another vision—I think again introduced by the flare effect—of Miss Jessel standing across the pond. She tells Grose that Flora saw her too—although it's important to note that upon questioning, it turns out Flora never said so, but Giddens just "knows" it. Before you know it, Giddens is sure that the ghosts of the former caretakers have a conspiracy, and that the kids are in on it. If you are paying careful attention—it's the same way in the novella—she has no evidence for any aspect of the whole elaborate story she tells, it's just something she "knows." Still, if you're not paying very close attention to either, it can seem like she's telling the truth, and that there really are ghosts. There are many, many people out there who think there are ghosts in the book. This was the reason for the essay we had to write on this book in high school: this was my introduction to the unreliable narrator.
Giddens worms out of Grose that Jessel and Quint had an affair, and that Quint beat Jessel, but she loved him, and would come crawling on her hands and knees. They would leave the doors open during broad daylight and there were "rooms used as though they were dark woods…" which I think we're supposed to take to mean that they would have sex during the day with the doors open, the implication being that the kids probably saw. See, and you thought Henry James was so stuffy. Every new detail Giddens learns about the former caretakers adds new corners to her story about what the ghosts want, which is to "reach each other by entering the souls of the children." In every instance, she just whips this shit straight out of her mind; we never see any instance of any of it happening, and no other character ever sees [or, to Gidden's mind, will admit to seeing] the ghosts. The tension continues to mount [hence the title The Turn of the Screw] and soon Gidden is convinced that the two kids are allied with the ghosts against her and Grose, and are "calculating liars." It's not too long before she tragically gasps "the children are possessed."
By now Giddens is certifiably looney, and if you get what’s going on, it can start to become a little tedious and repetitive. I found this to be the case with the novella as well. She’s always leading the kids into saying something, asking “Who were you talking to? Who were you thinking about? Say his name!” It, as James would say “comes to a crisis” when Flora is playing outside in the rain and Giddens sees Miss Jessel. She terrorizes Flora is demanding that she acknowledge that she sees the ghost. Of course she doesn’t, but the kids and Mrs. Grose have been trying to be polite and open-minded. By this time Mrs. Grose has had enough and told Giddens she’s batshit crazy and more of a danger to the kids than anyone, but Giddens pulls rank and sends her and Flora away. She thinks that if she and Miles are alone together he will admit to the influence of ghosts.
HERE COMES THE ENDING: It reaches a climax in the greenhouse and back yard, where Miles, who is through being polite, says “you try to make us admit things that aren’t true,” and that she’s “a damned hussy! A dirty-minded old hag!” Miles hits his head and apparently has a heart attack and dies—evidence to Miss Giddens that his life was destroyed in the struggle for his soul. She believes that in death he has been saved—she killed him, and believes that she set him free! You will notice that the film ends with the sound of birds singing, after it began with the sound of children singing.
< < < SPOILERS END
It was one of the best literary adaptations I’ve ever seen, in that it retains not just the events of the book, but the ENTIRE subtext and ambiguity. It also precisely captures the way I visualized the novella when I read it. It’s limitations, however, are the limitations of the story: if nothing is happening, then nothing is happening, and nothing happening can become a little wearying after a while. But it’s still a diabolically clever idea and is done extremely well here.
The trailer for this film is breathlessly hysterical and contains the description: “the most controversial concept in human relationships ever presented on screen!” It’s a little funny, as I would think most people would walk out having no idea that they had just witnessed a controversial concept in human relationships—let alone THE most controversial one. The disc also includes an amusing trailer for The Phantom of the Paradise that doesn’t even include the name of the film, one for Legend of Hell House [looks uber-trashy] and a modern movie called Cabinet of Caligari. They’re presented in the context of “if you liked The Innocents…” but they all look to be of radically different sensibilities. Maybe what they mean is “if you like movies that are on DVD, you’ll love….”
It's very well done, but I would think it of interest mostly to lovers of old-style ghost stories and readers of the Henry James novella.