The Turn of the Screw and The Innocents
(How a Boring Story Becomes a Ridiculous Film)

        Henry James’s 1898 novella, The Turn of The Screw and Jack Clayton’s 1961film adaptation, The Innocents, follow the same basic plotline: a rich and good looking bachelor (Michael Redgrave) hires a governess, Miss Giddens in the film (Deborah Kerr), to move out to his secluded mansion in the country and look after his children on the condition that she agrees to never bother him again. The prospective governess immediately accepts the position on the basis of her new employer’s aforementioned hotness and packs her bags. Arriving at the mansion, she finds that the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins) is friendly, Flora (Pamela Franklin), the child who lives at home is delightful, and Miles (Martin Stephens), the child who lives at boarding school will soon be living at home because has been expelled. She decides to tutor the expelled child herself, and not only develops a mild pedophiliac obsession with him but also begins seeing the ghosts of his old tutor and driver all over the grounds—this is where the plots diverge.

        In the novella, the poor governess is presumably insane, her wild hallucinations likely the result of a psychotic break with reality over her inability to cope with her desire and resulting in her unintentional smothering of the object of her affection between her breasts. In the film, however, the death of the boy is apparently the result of ghost-attack—as he is briefly possessed and then collapses for no apparent reason ten yards away from his governess. There is only one small problem with this interpretation of the story: ghosts are not real.

        This is not a viable plotline conclusion outside of comedy, horror, or children’s films about dead dads who are inexplicably reincarnated as snowmen in order to foil the bad guys. The reason for this is that it is just plain nonsensical and annoying—if you were watching Murder on The Orient Express and Poirot revealed in the final scene that Mr. Ratchett was in fact murdered by none other than the ghost of his butler’s former roommate, you would be rightfully irritated and resentful at the waste of two hours and eight minutes of your life. Ghosts can only exist in the fantasy worlds authors create for them—in these worlds, there are rules designed to secure suspension of disbelief on the part of their audiences.

        1. First and foremost, there must be a reason for ghosts to exist, and it cannot just be because somebody died; otherwise the planet would be overrun with pesky ectoplasmic manifestations. In the real world, physics mandate that energy functions on a very conservative basis; it diffuses along the path of least resistance until it reaches equilibrium with its environment—so if you are going have energy structure and maintain itself in the physical approximation of a person who no longer possesses the neurons, axons, or synapses prerequisite for thought, memory, or motivation, you had better supply a good reason for it.

        2. There has to be a reason some people can see the ghosts and others cannot—if everyone can see them, creepy ambiance gives way to senate debates on discrimination against apparitions in the workplace, but if only one or two people can see them, the audience has to know why.

        3. The ghosts have to want something, and the something must be plausible. Why is your ghost haunting you? This is tricky when you consider that ghosts lack nervous systems, digestive tracts, and corporeal form in general, which pretty much eliminates warmth, food, rest, sex, money, or any of the other things that motivate humans. If what your ghosts want is the souls of little children, then you are going to have to fill in a little background on that—what do ghosts do with child-souls once they have them? What makes a creature that is arguably beyond comfort or need crave the death of innocents?

        In the book, there is no reason to believe that the ghosts are anything more than figments of the governess’ imagination because there is nothing about the world James has created that is conducive to ghosts, while it is plenty conducive to madness. The author of the screenplay apparently forgot this, and as a result, created a film that if more entertaining, as at least as trite as James’s story is boring.

Joan Royalty