Mindless Exercise

         It could be argued that anytime you watch a movie or a play based on a book, instead of actually reading the book, you lose out on a certain amount of ability to think for yourself. I find this especially true in the case of the 1961 movie The Innocents, directed by Jack Clayton. The movie was based on Henry James's 1898 novella, Turn of the Screw.

         While I must say that James's novella is certainly not what I would call an "easy read" (since you have to try and follow his sometimes convoluted train of thoughts), if you enjoy a good ghost story, it might be worth your time to read. The best part of the book, I thought, was the fact that the reader was never quite sure where the novella was going. Were the ghosts real, or was the governess simply suffering from some sort of mental breakdown complete with acute paranoia? As a reader, I was never actually sure, and James does a good job of keeping readers like me guessing. This is the mark of any great ghost story in my opinion--the "on the edge of your seat" feeling.

         While I can see that there could be some difficulty translating this onto the screen, I believe that a well-written script and well-directed movie could do the story justice. Unfortunately, I do not think that Clayton's movie accomplished this. One of the biggest shortcomings of the film, I believe, was the fact that even in the beginning I did not believe for a second that the children in this movie, Miles and Flora (Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin) could ever be called "innocent." Even from the children's earliest appearances on the screen, it seemed quite obvious to me that there was an element of evil in them. So it was really no big shock, at least to me, to find that they were possessed by ghosts. This takes away the element of shock that was a part of James's novella. In the beginning of The Turn of the Screw, James describes the children as looking like little angels. So when the governess begins suspecting them of evil, we wonder whether she is imagining things, or if things really are amiss. Perhaps this loss of the surprise factor is why the scriptwriters, William Archibald, who had written the 1950 play, The Innocents, and John Mortimer, and director found it necessary to have Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) make out with her young charge, the just deceased Miles, not once, but twice, near the end of the movie. I must admit that this was entirely unexpected. So, if the intent was to shock viewers with this, I suppose the attempt was successful. However, I found this scene to be more revolting than anything else.

         I also did not feel that the movie did a good job of building up suspense because it reveals the ghosts quite early on in the movie. I think that often we are more scared of what we do not see or do not know. Had the director had the ghosts appear to Miss Giddens, while remaining unseen to the viewer, perhaps I would have felt a more suspenseful build-up. It seems to me, that whoever wrote the screenplay for this movie, entirely missed all of James's brilliant subplots and only picked up on the mention of ghosts. Or perhaps, the writers simply doubted the intelligence of the viewers, and felt the need to lay out a very simplistic plot.

         In either case, the result is the same. In my opinion, the writers and director made it such that watching the movie becomes a mindless exercise instead of being the mind-bending experience the novella is.

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