Turning the Screws

Henry James’  classic novella from 1898, “The Turn of the Screw” opens with a group of friends discussing ghost stories:

“I quite agree–in regard to Griffin’s ghost, or whatever it was-that its appearing first to the little boy, at so tender an age, adds a particular touch.  But it’s not the first occurrence of its charming kind that I know to have been concerned with a child.  If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children–?”

“We say of course,” somebody exclaimed, “that two children give two turns!  Also we want to hear about them.”

Whereas Bram Stoker’s vampire novel Dracula is most thought of as the ultimate example of a horror story expressing the dangers of Victorian Era repression, there is no tale more subtly crafted around the theme than Henry James’ ghost story, “The Turn of the Screw.”

What has kept readers like myself up all night lost within its pages is the slow, methodical pacing and build-up that lead to a shocking climax.  Part of the suspense is in laboring through James’ carefully constructed, sophisticated, overly wordy, and charmingly antiquated prose.  You read on because you get a creeping sense of the disturbing subtexts while waiting almost painfully for something to happen at the end of all this analysis and talk.

Reading the novella in turn brought me to watch the 1961 film adaptation The Innocents.  It astounds as one of the best examples of a film honoring the spirit of its literary source material while standing alone as something purely cinematic.  It’s also creepy as hell in that very reserved old fashioned Victorian Era kind of way.  I highly recommend reading the novella first, and then viewing the film to compare and contrast.

____________________________________

CAPTION:  Oh, let’s not get hysteric.  What would Freud say?

Atmospheric Translation of Classic Ghost Story, 5 May 2008
8/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

Jack Clayton’s The Innocents is a wonderfully atmospheric film translation of Henry James’ classic Victorian Era ghost story, “The Turn of the Screw.” Highlighted by stunning black-and-white cinematography from Freddie Francis (who later worked on David Lynch’s The Elephant Man) and fabulous set designs, The Innocents stays very close to James’ text while adding a few cinematic elements (like the music box, highly suggestive visual symbolism, and the reading of a macabre poem) as it weaves its tale of a governess (Deborah Kerr) trying to unravel the mystery surrounding some strange apparitions on a lavish country estate where she cares for two young children displaying some odd behavior.

The brilliance of the film and the original story is in the ambiguity. There are two logical interpretations: the governess is slowly going mad, or the estate is haunted. Regardless of which interpretation you take, there is still plenty of room to intertwine the disturbing Freudian subtexts involving the governess’ repressed emotions and what the children have actually seen, heard, known, or experienced. I can’t think of a more refined or subtle exploration of what happens when an adult transfers or projects their own psychological hang-ups onto children in their charge than James’ quietly suspenseful potboiler.

The performances are a bit melodramatic at times, but note perfect in their proper context, with Kerr prissy but sympathetic and the children expertly performing the sudden turns from innocent angels to sinister manipulators. The Innocents does feature some dated sound effects that come across as annoying rather than creepy, but the visuals and the shrieking climax are what will stick with the viewer. Unlike recent (and for the most part very worthy) modern updates on the story like The Others and The Orphanage where a twist ending reveals the only true interpretation of the ghastly events, The Innocents leaves it all to the imagination of the viewer. The imagination, it seems, can be a very dangerous thing with which to play.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0055018/usercomments-130

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