Adapting a Classic into a Modern Film

         Henry James's 1898 novella, The Turn of the Screw, is my favorite story covered this semester. It is my favorite because of the story's mysterious aspect. James lends some ambiguity to the story, especially when referring to the children's experiences with the fantastical apparitions. Do Miles and Flora see them? The governess absolutely sees something, but are these apparitions just in her own mixed-up mind or is the family actually haunted by the living dead? We are never sure, which really sets this story apart from good old ghost stories. I would love to have a shot at adapting this classic into a modern film. It would be quite fun, and with today's technology, it would pose quite a challenge not getting caught up in the special effects.

         The story lends itself to psychological special effects. Bringing these parts of the story out will definitely pose a challenge. It is a challenge someone should take.

         What would I change? Jack Clayton does an excellent job with his 1961 film adaptation, The Innocents. I think black and white is superb considering the ghostly aspect of the story. In fact, I would take a chance with today's audience and do the whole thing in black and white myself. After all, I would not care to make a blockbuster hit from this, but a spot in some independent film festival would reach my target audience. It is all about the art, right? It should be.

         Again, what would I change? With a black and white film, I would do more with camera angles, quicker glances, especially at ghosts, maybe even some fuzzy lens shots. Clayton's The Innocents does not do much with the music. A few parts have some suspenseful moments, but the choices are rather disappointing.

         Leitmotifs for the ghosts would be perfect, something slow tempo when Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde in Clayton's film) is about to show his face, then WHAM! loud drum and brass sounds as soon as the viewers see him, and then low, rumbling, dissonant sounds fading away as he exits. Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop) should have high, fast, piercing sounds as the viewer sees her, and then the sounds should fade away with angelic major key stuff, really high-pitched, floating away like birds singing as they fly overhead. I could go on and on with musical motifs and themes, but unless one hears them, music is hard to describe well with words. Tension and release are key here.

         One thing I might add to the story would be some inner thoughts from the governess and other characters. Let us really mix people up by giving the audience a little taste of what the characters think about their situation with the ghost and each other. These inner thoughts would focus mostly on the governess (Deborah Kerr), which I think could really add to everyone thinking her insane. The thoughts might just make the story more suspenseful and confusing. Are the ghosts real? Is the governess crazy? Is it a mix of both? I can just hear the audience now, asking themselves these things as they leave the movie. What fun! I am sure Henry James had as much fun, or more, writing this twisted story as I am with writing this essay.

         As opposed to the film version, I think I would introduce the governess a little better. Maybe I should give some background information as the novel does. I think this is very important to the story. It gives the audience something to refer back to when faced with moral or mental judgments of our main character, rather than throwing the governess into the mix from the get-go as in The Innocents.

         A modern version of this should not forget the time period, so I would absolutely keep all the culture, setting, and historical period the same. I cannot wait for my audience's response.

Josh Coffey

Table of Contents