‘The Turn of the Screw’ and ‘The Innocents’

6 10 2010

[written by writer and editor (and Ghost Appreciation Month team member), KV Taylor]

Right, to expand on the themes introduced in that review of The Innocents

The biggest and most important difference between book and film, to my mind, is the governess herself. I have to admit my bias, though I mentioned it before–I believe that Henry James was singularly interested in showing the effects of his society’s demands on the psyche, and in particular the way it stereotyped and repressed what it called feminine.* I’m definitely not claiming this as original scholarship, books and books have been written on the subject, but I am saying it** colors my reading of The Turn of the Screw.

In his novella, James casts doubt on his nameless governess’s reason right from the meeting with the careless uncle; she makes excuses for him, protests much too loudly that he has done everything for the children–and then James shows us how wrong she is repeatedly. He is the master of the unreliable narrator. (The movie is much more forthright; the uncle unabashedly selfish, if still way too charming.) The pattern continues throughout–the astounding leaps in logic she makes in only the last 1/3 of the movie exist from the very beginning of the book. She imagines hearing things–unrelated things!–in the house long before she ever sees a ghost. When she finally does see one, it’s while she’s taking a walk, obsessing about her charming employer and how she’s so glad and proud and lucky to make him happy by never speaking to him; she sees the specter, thinks it’s him at first, and then it’s not.

That’s when things go downhill. She perpetually attributes her paranormal suspicions to intuition and inane “certitudes” in the manner of stereotypical Victorian women in a Sherlock Holmes mystery who “just know” their fiancé has had something dreadful happen to him. (My husband and I laugh about this all the time–there’s a particular Holmes mystery in which the woman says they have “a deep bond of sympathy” that ties them emotionally. I put that exact phrase into “The Horologist” to make him laugh, I kid you not.) Except that James, as usual, presents this with extreme sympathy.

Apart from our governess’s self-professed preoccupations with fantasy and her absent and careless employer, her alternating obsessive beliefs that Miles is angelic and that he must’ve done something horrible, her adoration of the children and desire to be adored in return, the governess is also out of her depth and knows it. The children entertain themselves and are noticeably more well-educated than she–they are polite, sweet-tempered, and obviously tolerating her out of affection more than respect or need. Her only other companion is Mrs. Grose, who is a different animal in the book: her lack of education and station make her far, far more malleable to the hysterical governess’s will and whim, and said governess takes full advantage of that–with a lot less scruple than her little charges show toward her. Mrs. Grose is also saddled very clearly by her own guilt at letting the children be badly treated by Quint and Jessel; it colors her character from the beginning.

And where in the film we see some things that might be construed as evidence of paranormal influence–Miles’s expulsion coming from words he claims just “came into his head” out of nowhere, Flora’s magically quick rowing to the other side of the lake, implied abilities to make wind blow, candles go out, or otherwise perform nerve-shaking parlor tricks–there are none in the novella. All of the children’s behavior is completely explained by their upbringing, precocity, and the strong implications that they were not only influenced, but abused by their last guardians. The events that set the governess off in the book would be easily dismissed by someone with a little more education and experience, or even just sense, and her logic is even more fallacious than in the film–Mrs. Grose’s going along with them only reinforces that idea.

The lone proof that can’t be refuted is that, in the novella, the governess describes Quint and Jessel’s specters perfectly enough that Mrs. Grose recognizes the descriptions and–though she has not shown any evidence of suspecting anything paranormal is going on previously–names them as the source of the governess’s visions. In the film we see the picture of Quint in the attic before his face becomes evident in her visions; oddly, then, the film turns the one piece of supposed evidence*** for the existence of the ghosts in the book on its head and uses it against that particular theory.

Maybe I just don’t want there to be ghosts because it’s a lot scarier if she’s really just going completely mad and dragging us with her–or because, as I said in that last post, the literary accomplishment seems dulled by it, and I like Henry James. Either way, it’s also much more strongly implied that the governess was directly responsible for Miles’s death. The final scene is similar and yet not… but it’s fair to say that for all these differences, in spirit and impact, the film and book stand up to each other. Favorites can only be decided by subjective means. Kind of like question of the existence of the ghosts, really.

And did I mention yet that I need a drink? Because my god, what a depressing story.

* Daisy Miller is misunderstood in her simplicity, to the eternal sadness of the narrator, in the end. The Jeffrey Aspern Papers are held by a widow and her tragic spinster daughter, forced by society into a position where they can be shamelessly manipulated by the rather awful “hero”. Portrait of a Lady is about a woman who had rather be safe from her own passions than live a free life for which she is in all ways equipped–and it is, as any other character in the book would tell you, a complete waste. It’s always a waste, when James writes it, though he never has to come out and say it. He’s just that good.

**That and the fact that his brother was William James. I mean, come on.

***”Supposed” because, as James has taken such pains to show us, she is as unreliable as unreliable narrators come, and these are her words we’re reading, by that time. Again, these aren’t my theories, wikipedia even has a little section on the war over whether or not this is a ghost story here .

[Tomorrow Sharon Kae Reamer, has a little look at The Haunting of Hill House.]

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6 10 2010
Another Turn of the Screw - KV Taylor – SpecFic and Nonsense

[…] what Ghost Appreciation is all about–ghosts! (Or not, as it were.) So my James Rant is over at the official GAM blog instead, […]

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