The Turn of the Screw versus The Hammer of the Nail

     Many times a piece of literature can end with the reader dumbfounded, not knowing exactly what to think about the characters or the events that took place. However, a film maker may make his audience guess throughout his movie, but he must resolve these questions at the conclusion. If he does not, he had better have a sequel lined up or risk the wrath of an angry mob.

     The Turn of the Screw, written by Henry James in 1898, is a good example of a novella that does not give any concrete answers to what has taken place. It is essentially a ghost story, but there is evidence throughout that the ghosts may or may not be a figment of the narrator's imagination. In its film adaptation, The Innocents, directed by Jack Clayton in 1961, there is little doubt as to the ghosts' existence.

     The main reason in the book to doubt the ghosts' reality is that it is told entirely by the childrens' governess, who has no name, but who is called Miss Giddens in the film. She describes the ghosts and makes us believe they are real; but, when she asks Flora to concur, she says, "I don't know what you mean. I see nobody." Ms. Grose also asks, "Where on earth do you see anything?" So despite the strange events Miss Giddens recounts, we are not sure if she is telling the truth.

     In the film it is not really possible to show everything through the eyes of Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr). However, the film makers alleviate this problem somewhat through fine acting. She is so frightened of the children and naïve about their demonic behavior that we get a good sense of her insanity. There is one scene in which she runs around the house, followed by haunting voices. It is hard to tell if these noises are really there or just inside her head.

     The guessing in The Innocents stops in its final scene. The question of whether the children are possessed, or whether Miss Giddens is insane is answered when Miles (Miles Stephens) begins speaking in a different voice, and with the help of the governess, is exorcised of his demon, which unfortunately kills him.

     The difference in the book is that it is unsure if Miles really acknowledges his affliction or curses the insane governess. She says to him, "It's there--the coward horror, there for the last time!" His reply, "Peter Quint-- you devil!" can be read in two ways. He could be finally coming to terms with his affliction; or the words, "you devil" could be directed towards Miss Giddens for suggesting such a crazy thing.

     Ambiguity is a good thing for both film and literature. The best books make you ask questions that can be answered in more than one way. It is unfortunate that more films cannot be made in this way.

Brooks Dawkins

Table of Contents