The Turn of the Screw Is More Understandable in Film

         Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw, written in 1898, is a thick read and at times confusing due to the writing style.  James is effective with this style in conveying the mood of the piece, which is of course that of a ghost story; but, for the average reader wanting just a good scary story, the film version The Innocents, directed by Jack Clayton in 1961, is more of a black and white pleasure.

         The heart of the story is whether if these ghosts are real or imagined by the governess, named Miss Giddens and played by Deborah Kerr in the film.  The novella goes out of its way to confuse the issue with language and the framing story that it is being told to the listeners around the fire, plus the reader, by a man reading it from a narrative written by the now deceased governess.  The ghosts are seen by only the governess as far as we know, and the film is faithful in showing the ghosts, Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop) and Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde), as being possibly witnessed only by a woman who may be unreliable.

         The children, Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin), are the issue; and from them we can only guess at the extent of their spook seeing. The fancy language that works well but which is rather arduous in written form is conveyed just as effectively with the full weight of direction on film, which is more on the brief side but perhaps more potent.

         The story leaves us full of questions; and one can make arguments for or against the side of real ghosts by considering the actions of the mysteriously dead Miles, Miss Flora, and the former governess. Fortunately, the film keeps true in showing these most puzzling aspects of the story, although the film makers' ability to tell the story through the nuances of acting and camera work makes the story easier to digest than the thickly rich novella is.

Anthony Russell

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