The Turn of the Screw vs The Innocents
September 28, 2013
In any list of the greatest ghost stories of all time, Henry James’ novel ‘The Turn of the Screw’ (published 1898) comes in the top five, and usually makes number one.
Alberto Manguel, editor of one of the best ghost story collections I’ve read, ‘Black Water: The Book of Fantastic Literature’, wrote that for him the mere appearance of a ghost is never enough. There must be another element to the story. ‘The Turn of the Screw’ definitely has that ‘other’ element: a deliciously unreliable narrator in the form of a governess.
The most enjoyable aspect of the book thus becomes the puzzle at the heart of it. Are the two kids in the governess’ care, Miles and Flora, being haunted by ghosts, or are the so-called apparitions merely a product of her overworked imagination, and might it in fact be she that’s preying on the children? Since the governess tells the tale in her own words (apart from a small preamble), deciding which is all the more difficult, since we predominately only have her recollection of events.
I’m a Henry James fan, but he can be painful at times. I’m currently reading his novel ‘The Wings of the Dove’ (which, incidentally, was made into a fabulous film starring Helena Bonham Carter), and I’m finding the endless circumlocutions and parentheses a little tiring. ‘The Wings of the Dove’ is told in the third person, so that longwindedness is strange in a supposedly omniscient narrator.
But ‘The Turn of the Screw’ is narrated by the governess, and so that oblique style of James’ therefore works in favour of the story, because the governess comes across as a person who perhaps does not fully know her own mind – the numerous dissections of the minutiae of emotions seems a tic of her character rather than a annoying stylistic trait of the author’s.
A contemporary and friend of James’, H. G. Wells, once described James’ writing style as like a hippopotamus intent on eating a pea. They didn’t remain friends after that. There is some truth in Wells’ observation, but in ‘The Turn of the Screw’, that style works wonderfully because the joy is in watching the hippopotamus try to get to the pea, and because that pea is perhaps a far more nourishing and significant morsel than Wells gives credit to.
Which brings me to the novel’s 1961 film adaptation, ‘The Innocents’. I only recently saw it. The reason it’s taken me so long was because, one, I’d never managed to track it down till now and, two, I didn’t think it was possible to make a film of James’ book. How could you successfully film a book whose main strength is in the way it makes us doubt and question its narrator?
Well, I was very excited to find that ‘The Innocents’ does a wonderful job of tracking the governess’ perhaps distorting perspective. It probably comes down more on the side that she is mad, whereas the book remains gloriously ambivalent throughout, but it is nonetheless still a fantastically brilliant film that pulls off something incredibly hard in the oh-so-literal medium of film: namely, ambiguity. It also has one of the most shocking kisses you’re ever likely to see, and which I don’t think another filmmaker would replicate today. Not to mention great black-and-white cinematography, fabulous locations, an exceptional supporting cast, and a knockout lead performance from Deborah Kerr.
It was directed by Jack Clayton who went on to make ‘The Great Gatsby’, another adaption of a book with an unreliable narrator. (Nick Carraway says he reserves judgement but then goes on to judge all and sundry. And is Gatsby great or merely the embodiment of a meretricious dream that Nick is haunted by?) I don’t think Clayton’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ is as successful as his Henry James’ adaptation, although it is still a fine film. ‘The Innocents’, however, is a tour de force.
In a time when there seem to be few limits on what you can put into a book, and apparently no limits on what you can put on screen (given money and sophisticated computer graphics), ‘The Turn of the Screw’ and ‘The Innocents’ are reminders that what you leave out of your story can be the most memorable and teasing aspect of it.