In Henry James's 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, written as a play, The Innocents, by William Archibald, in 1950 and filmed in 1961 by director Jack Clayton, many questions are left unanswered due to the ambiguity of what is and what could be. We ask ourselves if the house truly is haunted by the ghosts of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint, or if we are simply deceived because we are seeing things through the blurry eyes of a governess cracking under pressure. One of the prominent ideals throughout the novella, however, is the rampant sexual anxiety recognizable once a reader reflects on the novella. It exists beneath the surface of the novella and serves as a large source of action, which can be seen in many of the characters. The later adapted play and movie, The Innocents, do not go through so much trouble to hide the undertones of sexuality and even makes them overtones instead. Since the sexual anxiety the governess suffers is an apparent catalyst for the action in the novella, the adaptation The Innocents makes many of these undertones much more prominent, leading the viewer to believe that the governess, Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) is truly crazy.
Sexual matters were not a polite thing to discuss in Victorian culture. Since it was such a taboo at that time, especially amongst those in high society, sexual tones can be found in nearly everything that went unmentioned. This is one of the many things that leads me to find that The Turn of The Screw is filled with sexual imagery. When Douglas is describing the characters in the manuscript of the prologue, the other guests immediately assume romantic attachments between those characters. The language used, although seemingly ambiguous, can be linked to sexual matters. Once one begins to see this, almost every matter and even becomes open to be interpreted as sexual in some way, although it is also true that nothing is blatantly stated about affection between characters.
The opening to The Innocents, however, immediately causes the viewer to feel the sexual tension. It begins with the discussion between Miss Giddens and the Uncle (Michael Redgrave), who has asked her to care for his niece and nephew. Their dialogue leads one to realize that there may be something else at work here. The uncle's use of "love and affection" in certain phases definitely steers one to feel that way.
This novella, although hiding much beneath its surface, was a difficult one to grasp right away. That is what makes the hidden innuendos so interesting. Once the reader notices them surfacing, they are easily identified if looking for the right clues. Much of them exist directly in the wording James uses when his characters speak to each other. For example, the repetitive use of the pronoun "you" seems to have a sexual meaning since it usually follows or precedes the characters "gazing" at each other, and the continued descriptions seem to back this idea.
The Innocents, however, has the ability to have the actors actually show what how they are feeling based purely on expressions and actions which are difficult to otherwise see in a novel. The consistently glazed-over look of the governess' eyes is a clue as well as is her talk of the uncle, which comes up with relative frequency. The main kicker, of course, is the forbidden and somewhat creepy kiss between Miles (Martin Stephens) and the governess. It shows her desires to be loved in almost a depraved sense just by the way that the two kiss. In short, it is no ordinary peck of the cheek or quick lip-brushing: it is a long, slow open-mouthed kiss.
The Innocents also uses imagery to lead the viewer to see the sexuality in the play. In one of the first scenes where the governess first sees the manor, there is a vase of wilting roses in a few of the shots. These seem to represent almost a wilting love since roses usually symbolize love. There are also quite a few scenes where there are white pigeons fluttering about, and those too are very symbolic since they leave the viewer wondering about the intention of the movie in general.
Henry James's novella, The Turn of the Screw, serves as a work about sexual needs. Moreover, the key to action and destruction in this novel is the sexual repression that takes place throughout the story. This theme can even be taken so far as to say that this novella reflects not only the characters sexual repression, but also the repression that went on during the Victorian time. Thus, we can see that the story reflects the society it was written in.