In his 1898 novella, The Turn of the Screw, Henry James paints the portrait of a young woman on her first assignment as a governess. Far from home and with little company besides the children and an eccentric housekeeper, the governess begins to go just a wee bit crazy. Or does she? The brilliance of James leaves us with no clear answer. In the 1961 movie version The Innocents, directed and produced by Jack Clayton, various visual elements are used to make the story come to life. While these visual elements help to tell the story, they leave the casual viewer with the impression that the governess is indeed sane and that there is something strange going on at Bly.
In James's novella, the governess shows all of the symptoms of a paranoid schizophrenic. Schizophrenia usually develops as the affected individual has a life-changing event. The condition develops as the individual's way of coping with the new stress. The governess had just accepted her first position as a governess, left her home and moved to a strange place with complete strangers, and also had not been sleeping well when the "ghosts" first began to appear. The next clue is that no one but the governess ever admits to having seen these ghosts. The paranoia starts when the governess becomes convinced that the ghosts are out to get the children and that it is her duty to protect them. Then, she becomes convinced that the children have secretly been meeting with the ghosts and have been made to turn evil. She decides that she must deliver them from this evil and causes one to have an emotional breakdown and holds the other so tightly for so long that she suffocates him and kills him. Yikes! Although James cleverly writes the story so that it is never really clear, he certainly went to great efforts to perfectly describe the actions of a paranoid schizophrenic. Still, it is the readers who are left to ultimately decide what they want to believe.
In The Innocents, it becomes much harder to believe that the governess is insane, partly due to the nature of film. In order to have Miss Giddens, played by Deborah Kerr, see ghosts, they have to actually be on the screen. This means that the viewer also has to see the ghosts. It is much harder to believe that they do not really exist when they are right there in black and white, Miss Jessel, as depicted by Clytie Jessop, and Peter Quint, as portrayed by Peter Wyngarde. Also, the movie goes to great lengths in order to portray both children, Flora (Pamela Franklin) and Miles (Martin Stephens), as a little bit demonic. Their mannerisms, the look in their eyes, and their behavior make the viewer readily believe that there is something not right with these children. The movie also takes away the idea of Miss Giddens being so obsessed with delivering the boy from evil that she kills him. Instead, the boy drops dead after coming face to face with one of the ghosts. It may be that the boy drops dead of a weak heart and that the on-screen ghost is only in Miss Giddens' mind, but once again, it is hard to argue the ghost does not really exist when he is standing right there on-screen.
To be quite honest, I much prefer The Turn of the Screw to The Innocents. In the novella, I was left to determine for myself whether or not I thought the ghosts existed. I was also left to determine that the governess was a paranoid schizophrenic in a time when they still did not have a name or description for it. As for the movie, the ghosts were right in front of my face; and it was hard to believe that they did not exist, especially when the young boy came face to face with one of them and dropped dead immediately. Although the movie was good, I much preferred the governess from the novella, who I believe had a few screws loose.