Picture Frames

     Sometimes a story is much like a picture in that placing it within a frame can enhance the meaning and aesthetic value of both. Henry James's 1898 classic novella, The Turn of the Screw, is a prime example of this simile. James's story opens around a fire on Christmas Eve. Houseguests are sharing the usual tales to produce thrills and chills in their fellow partygoers. However, one guest has a story that, in terms of thrill-factor, is beyond compare. The storyteller, Douglas, builds suspense by solemnly putting off the tale's telling until he can send for the manuscript. The 1961 film adaptation, The Innocents, based on the 1950 play version of the same name, does away with this frame and moves immediately into the central action of the story. A serious question for discussion is whether or not the exclusion of the frame detracts from the intentions of the story. I believe the answer to the question is conditional.

     The film, directed by Jack Clayton, and the play, written by William Archibald, are not significantly different from Henry James's original novella. Minor alterations are made but are ultimately inconsequential to the story's idea. The main difference is the removal of the frame. A skilled reader will be sensitive to the importance of the frame, but a merely casual reader might not think the frame significant to understanding the story. This is the reason that I believe the exclusion of the frame is conditional to the meaning of the story.

     The introduction to the Airmont edition of The Turn of the Screw explains James's interests in the way the reader interacts with the text to arrive at the meaning:
     "The idea [of the story] appealed to James because it could be developed in such a way that the reader's imagination would not be inhibited in any way-either by the details supplied or because of the authorial intrusions commonly found in other nineteenth century novels. James knew that the true terror which the story would be aroused in his reader's minds. The result of this lack of authorial interference of control is a delightful ambiguity" (6-7).

     It is certainly true that both The Turn of the Screw and The Innocents are delightfully ambiguous; however, the skilled reader may pick up on subtleties in the frame of the novella that the untrained reader may miss. The most significant subtlety is the relationship between Douglas (the storyteller) and the governess. In accordance with James's theories on authorial intrusions, no attention is drawn to the parallel relationship of the governess and Douglas with the governess's fixation with young, beautiful Miles. As the skilled reader becomes aware of the governess's preoccupation, he or she will reflect back on the relationship described in the frame. Even though James insists that the audience must create the terror for itself, he leaves clues to help along the way. The parallel of relationships is one way. The reader is left to decide whether or not the ghosts actually exist or are figments of the governess' warped imagination. If she is unstable enough to develop a unhealthy affection for Miles, as the pattern developed in the frame suggests, she may very well conjure up horrific images of the individuals that hamper her becoming number one in the children's affections.

     In the novella, the governess is not even given a name. The reader is told she is the twenty-year-old daughter of a country parson, and not much else is revealed. This parallel is an insight into the character of the governess. It seems a pattern emerges regarding the governess' taste for much younger males. In the film, without the additional information provided by the frame, the viewer is unaware that Miss Giddens (a most appropriate name for the disturbed governess) moves on to another appointment as governess for a young girl with an older brother, with whom she develops a close relationship. This could greatly alter the viewer's interpretation of the film. However, if the reader overlooks the significance of the parallel relationships, the frame loses its importance, and other interpretations may be invoked. That is the reason that the frame is conditional, and I believe Henry James would agree.

Jenni Sizemore

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