The Valet Did It: The Turn of the Screw

         The Turn of the Screw is a well thought-out novella, written by Henry James in 1898. It is probably a good example of his later work and is indeed a work in which his writing style has become a bit convoluted. However, I think that this particular writing benefits from this style. The mere definition of "convoluted," according to the Cambridge International Dictionary, is "very twisted, or (of sentences, explanations and arguments etc.) unreasonably long and difficult to follow and understand." This is exactly how I felt as I read the novella, but is it by choice he writes this way? It certainly adds to the longevity of the novella and begs the readers to make many discoveries on their own. This work has been studied in many ways, from sexual undertones to a mere schizoid teacher, but the big question is; are the ghosts real? It is in the movie The Innocents, written by William Archibald and Truman Capote and directed by Jack Clayton in 1961, that this question is put to the test.

         The Turn of the Screw, along with its cinematic counterpart, The Innocents, is a story of two innocent children who have a rough start in life. It is a story of influences and possible manifestations of the ghostly type. If we are influenced by people in our lives, then we possess their influence; and, if our actions are reflections of that influence, then we are truly possessed. We possess the teachings and influence of people around us, and at times we may do things that are odd in the eyes of other people. I believe the exposure to the bad influences of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel influenced the children in ways that they could not understand and left them without a good reference to judge their own selves.

         These children, exposed to promiscuity, foul language, and abuse in a time not far removed from the tragedy of losing their parents, are in possession of morals and ethics of unscrupulous people. It is no wonder that Miles got sent home from school as a danger to those around him. It is easy to see he had been witness to too much.

         We want to believe the best in people, especially the children who are the innocents of our society. Being faced with children who are so bad, and not wanting to believe that they are responsible for such horrors, pushes the governess to her limits. The governess believes that the only way that these children can act this way is if they are being possessed. This is the premise that the governess acts upon and is the reason to the tragic end during her fight to save the children through exorcism.

         So, are the ghosts real, or did the governess just make the children face their naughtiness? The novella sets up this ambiguity; and it is up to the 1961 movie, The Innocents, to bring this ambiguity out. To stay true to the novella, the movie must present two precocious children, Miles, played by Martin Stephens, and Flora, portrayed by Pamela Franklin, who have been exposed to two adults, Peter Quint, depicted by Peter Wyngarde and Miss Jessop, acted by Clytie Jessop, who have left their mark on them and who have left this earth. Furthermore, the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, played by Megs Jenkins, must be a little vague and questionable. The governess, Miss Giddens, portrayed by Deborah Kerr, has to be young and impressionable, from a religious background, and susceptible to either seeing ghosts or illusions.

         These the movie does quite well but goes one step farther. To increase the ambiguity and overall perception that the children might just be playing games, the film makers altered the ages of the children to be a bit more plausible. The movie keeps the ghosts consistent throughout: they appear during stress or on occasions in which they can appear as illusions to Miss Giddens. This ambiguity reinforces the possibility that Miss Giddens could be mentally ill. When one considers the fact that the children maintain their innocents by not seeing them, the ambiguity is farther reinforced.

         Another character that reinforces the possibility of ghosts is Mrs. Grose. It is hard to tell whether she is in denial, or she is just so truly relieved that the children are in a better environment. It is hard to tell whether she cannot stand to think of the past or bring herself to justify the ghosts.

         All in all, The Innocents is a very good adaptation of the novella,The Turn of the Screw, with excellent performances turned in by the children and Deborah Kerr. Hence, after forty years we are still asking, "Are the ghosts real?"

Ron Watkins

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