“The Turn of the Screw” and “The Innocents”

The explicit is rarely frightening. Disgusting, perhaps, nauseating even, but not really frightening, as such. The best horror stories imply more than they tell. And this made Henry James – who had perfected the art of saying nothing and yet implying everything – ideal for the genre. While it is his contemporary and namesake M. R. James who is more closely associated with the form of the ghost story, Henry James, more closely associated with what are generally reckoned to be more worthy literary forms, also excelled. Indeed, with The Turn of the Screw, he wrote what is perhaps the finest single instance of the genre.

I remember one night reading the whole thing in one sitting. It took a few hours – it’s some 120 pages or so of often quite tortuous prose – but I don’t think any other work of fiction I have encountered has evoked so powerful a sense of supernatural terror. There is a sense of evil lurking about the work.

And yet, nothing is explicitly said. James knew exactly how to drop the subtlest of hints at just the right time, give it just the right weight, and allow the reader’s mind to do all the work. Famously, we aren’t even sure whether the ghosts actually exist.

As with many ghost stories, the story itself is told within another story, and is a first person narration, purporting to be true. Obviously, we may judge that it isn’t: good ghost stories often allow us a get-out clause of some nature. The story may not be true – or, at least, may not be quite what we are told – either because the narrator, an inexperienced young governess, is deliberately lying, or, more probably, because she herself is mentally unbalanced. But of course, the possibility exists that she is neither, and what she tells us is true, and the ghosts really do exist. There is little point in arguing over this point: the very uncertainty concerning how much of this, if any, can be taken at face value contributes to the horror of the thing. For this is horror, there is an immense evil lurking in these pages: the uncertainty lies not in the existence of the evil, but where that evil is coming from.

The story seems to be almost a sort of parody of Jane Eyre. A young, inexperienced governess is sent to a mysterious and rather creepy house. In Jane Eyre, Jane soon meets the master of the house, the domineering male presence of Mr Rochester; falls in love with him, but stands up for her own sense of dignity and worth; and, by the end, once barriers are eventually swept away and they can meet on an equal footing, reader, she marries him. In The Turn of the Screw, the governess also falls in love with the master of the house (although she does not acknowledge this even to herself), but the master makes it abundantly clear that he is going to be absent, and that he wants nothing further to do with the two children in his charge; nor, indeed, with the governess, who is to assume sole and total responsibility. But once there, she finds another male presence – a very dominating male presence, and possibly a substitute for the master who isn’t there: this presence is Peter Quint, the former valet. And Peter Quint is dead.

Although written a few years before Freud’s ground-breaking publications, it is surely no accident that the governess first sees Peter Quint on top of a tower. And another ghost appears – the former governess, Miss Jessel, who is first seen on the far side of a lake. And the governess begins to see, or, perhaps, to imagine, that Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, the former governess and Quint’s lover, are haunting the two children, and are, somehow, feeding their lust for each other beyond death through this diabolic possession. Perhaps.

It is important to add the word “perhaps”, for we can never quite tell what is happening. Everything that terrifies us so is merely suggested, hinted at: nothing is told. What exactly had been the relationship between Quint and Miss Jessel? We are made to believe that he had been a brutal and violent man. And, possibly, that he and Miss Jessel had some sort of sado-masochistic relationship together. And that, somwhow, they had involved the children. The children, these innocents, may already be corrupted. They may, indeed, be not unwilling victims of the possession. And – who knows? – they may even have been involved, perhaps even physically, in the vile and disgusting practices of the former governess and the former valet. Who knows? Nothing is stated clearly.

But either the evil spirits are practising on the innocence of the children, or the governess is. The governess is determined to save the children: she is not entirely sure from what, but she is determined, whether there is anything to be saved from or not. It is for the children, she tells herself, for the children. And maybe it is she who is projecting on to the children her own frustrations, her own sexual neuroses. Once again, nothing is clear. But whatever the truth of the matter, the children are haunted.

Henry James was fascinated by human motivations and by the power struggles humans have with each other, and often presented in his fiction the motif of two people fighting for the possession of a third: we may see this clearly in, say The Bostonians, where Olive Chancellor and Basil Ransome fight for possession of Verena Tarrant, both citing as their motives the welfare of Miss Tarrant, but both harbouring other motives that are far from altruistic. This motif recurs frequently in many of James’ work, until, in his final enigmatic novel The Golden Bowl, we are presented with four figures any two of whom appear to be fighting for possession of a third. In The Aspern Papers, the novella published alongside The Turn of the Screw, we find a twist in the motif: the narrator, a literary scholar, is trying to obtain the letters of the deceased poet Jeffrey Aspern from the poet’s mistress, now an old lady, who is unwilling to part with the documents personal to her: the narrator and the lady, effectively, fight for possession of a dead person. And in The Turn of the Screw, the narrator, the governess, fights for possession of the children against the dead. The motif is recognisably Jamesian, but its expression takes us into areas not often broached by writers of serious literature: the area is that of supernatural terror. And no other story terrifies quite like this. Underneath the apparent gentility of James’ writing there often lurks the deeply sordid, and it is hard to imagine anything more deeply sordid , or, indeed, a greater evil, than what is clearly hinted at here – child abuse. But if the abuse is but imagined, it is she who imagines it who is the source of the sordidness, the source of the evil. That we can never be sure of anything but adds to the horror.

One would think that a work whose effects are so literary would be virtually impossible to translate into another medium, but astonishingly, it has been the source of an opera and of a film, both of the very highest quality. The opera, of course, is Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, a musical and dramatic masterpiece from one of the greatest of twentieth century opera composers. The film version, made in Britain and dating from 1961, is The Innocents: it is directed by Jack Clayton, and deserves, I think, to be better known. If Britten’s version is an operatic masterpiece, then The Innocents is, it seems to me, a cinematic masterpiece of comparable stature.

Jack Clayton had long been fascinated by James’ story, and it had been his ambition to film it. He bought the rights to a play by William Archibald, The Innocents, based on James’ novella, but he wasn’t entirely happy with Archibald’s script: it was too conventional a ghost story, and Clayton wanted something that would more accurately reflect the qualities of James’ original: he wanted the script re-written. Among the early contenders for this job was a young dramatist who had recently made a name for himself – Harold Pinter: Pinter was interested in the project, but was otherwise engaged, so he merely sent Clayton a piece of advice: do not, he said, include flashbacks. The past – whether it’s the past relationship between Quint and Miss Jessel, or their relationship with the children, or the governess’ own past – must be kept mysterious and enigmatic. Then, Clayton found another young and up and coming dramatist, John Mortimer: Mortimer had only two weeks or so to work on the script, but he added some of its finest touches, and was reportedly proud of his contribution to it. (The line spoken by the housekeeper about Quint and Jessel using the rooms of the house as if they were the “wild woods”, and hinting that the children had been present while they had carried on their affair, was, apparently, Mortimer’s work.) Then, Clayton hit the jackpot: he managed to obtain the services of Truman Capote, no less. Capote introduced elements of what is usually called “Southern Gothic”, and the result was a script which, if sensitively directed, photographed and acted, could result in something very special.

For cinematographer, Jack Clayton obtained the services of Freddie Francis, and his black and white photography is astounding. I am not sufficiently knowledgeable about the technical aspects of the art of cinematography to give an account of what it was that Freddie Francis did, but whatever it was he did, it was absolute perfection: those visual images haunt the mind, just as they should, and they keep on haunting the mind long after one has finished watching the film. It is hard to imagine a visual style more suited to the content than this. (Freddie Francis won an Oscar for best cinematography for his work on the film version of Sons and Lovers, made one year after The Innocents. His cinematography on that film was, as ever, of a very high standard, but the Oscar he got for it was, I suppose, Hollywood’s way of saying “Sorry for not giving this to you when you really deserved it.”)

A scene (not necessarily the “scariest”, despite the title in YouTube) from “The Innocents”, copyright 1961 Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment Inc, DVD released by British Film Institute

And then, there was the casting. The uncle of the children, who appears only in the first scene, has to be charismatic: this is the man the governess falls in love with, after all. For a while, Cary Grant seemed interested, but that didn’t work out. However, one cannot complain: this small but vital part was taken by Michael Redgrave, who had all the charm and charisma required for the role, and who played his few minutes on screen to absolute perfection. For the housekeeper, Clayton cast Megs Jenkins, who seemed to have cornered the market for the kindly and warm-hearted housekeeper (she played a similar role in Carol Reed’s Oliver! a few years later). And for the children, Jack Clayton found a remarkable pair – Pamela Franklin as Flora, and, best of all, a young lad called Martin Stephens as Miles, who was, alternately, innocent and vulnerable, and sinister and menacing: it is one of the most remarkable performances I have seen from a child actor. And then, of course, there was the casting of the governess: Deborah Kerr got the part, and it was the part of a lifetime. (Ms Kerr herself considered this her best performance.) Ms Kerr implies, but doesn’t overplay, the governess’ attraction for her employer, her delight in the children, her sense of terror and also her sense of determination, and, as the film progresses, a mounting hysteria. As with everything else in this film, it is hard to imagine this performance improved upon.

There remained the direction. Jack Clayton has always been a dependable director: perhaps, except for this film, he never quite rose to the heights, but he was a master craftsman, and rarely disappointed. Here, when everything was at hand to make the film he had always wanted to make, he gave us more than mere craftsmanship: with extraordinary skill, he translated what had been purely literary effects in James’ novella into cinematic effects. The deep ambiguity, this sense of everything hinted at but nothing ever stated directly or made explicit, and, above all, the sheer sense of supernatural terror – they all find here perfect expression. The pacing is masterly: not a single scene, not a single shot is wasted: the tension, once it starts building, never falters: the screw keeps turning without pause, and the pitch of intensity reached by the end has to be experienced to be believed.

In films such as this where there is a long and deliberate tightening of tension, of steady turns of the screw, there is always the danger that the climactic sequence won’t live up to the build-up, but there is no danger of bathos here. The final sequence, prefaced by those horrendous nerve-jangling screams of the girl Flora, is every bit as horrific as it should be. The governess here finally confronts Miles with what she claims to be the truth, while the ghost of Quint lurks behind. For those who have neither read the book nor seen the film, it would be unfair to give more away, but, while a dramatically satisfying denouement is reached, the mystery at the heart of the story remains unresolved: the horror is not laid to rest.

This is the only horror film I have seen that I find disquieting even after I have finished watching it. When people list the great film-makers, Clayton is unlikely to be mentioned alongside the likes of Chaplin or Welles or Renoir or Bergman, but this single film is, within my personal canon at any rate, as remarkable a cinematic achievement as any, and is easily in my personal Top 5, irrespective of genre.

Recently, the BBC presented us with a dramatisation of The Turn of the Screw as Christmas special: it was embarrassingly inept. Amongst other things, it made you realise how shrewd Harold Pinter’s advice had been not to show any flashbacks: the more you explain, the more you take away from the mysteries at the heart of the story – the mysteries that make this story work. Jack Clayton understood the story well and knew how it worked: the result is, I think, the finest supernatural film based on the finest supernatural story, and one which continues to disturb and to terrify even on repeated viewings.

15 responses to this post.

  1. Ah… Turn of the Screw. I remember an enjoyable read-along and discussion about that story at Anna’s Dusty Shelf a few years ago. I’ve reread it a couple times since then. Good stuff! 🙂


  2. Posted by Amanda Collis on July 18, 2011 at 1:24 pm

    Is it possible to find out what Capote contributed to the screenplay exactly? I also agree about Potter’s performance: absolutely mesmerising. I always assumed Miles was gay, and that being a “transgressive” thing in the context, is interesting, but I’ve always felt the evil depicted and the fearsome thing is the conscious greed of the stronger and wilier to possess and exploit, coldly, the vulnerable. And that Miles was possessed with that and acted it out in some way. Like Blake’s lines (paraphrasing) “he who binds to himself a joy /doth the winged life destroy”.


    • Hello Amanda, good to see you here. (I am, I admit, a bit puzzled by your reference to Potter; did you mean Deborah Kerr?)
      I don’t know if you have the BFI release ofThe Innocents, but watching the documentary on the making of the film that was included as a supplementary feature, I got the impression that the greater bulk of the final shooting script was Truman Capote’s work. They didn’t detail exactly which bits were his, and which bits were John Mortimer’s (or even from the original script by William Archibald). I believe the scene where Miles recites that spooky poem was from Capote’s work.
      I think it is interesting that while Britten gave Quint very seductive and sensual melismatic musical lines, there is no hint of sensuality at all about Quint in the film. He is depicted throughout as a cold-hearted predator. This seems to me how Quint is presented also in James’ novella. In both film and book, Quint is depicted as someone who could impose his strong will on weaker wills, and bring these weaker willed people under his control: he had, it appears, dominated Miss Jessel in this manner. (In the film, Mrs Grose alludes to the difference in class between Quint and Miss Jessel, and how incongruous it was for someone of Miss Jessel’s class to be so completely under Quint’s influence.) It is implied (everything is implied!) that Quint exerted – and continues to exert, even beyond death – his powerful will upon the children also, particularly upon Miles. The introduction of an element of sensuality seems to be Britten’s decision: there seems little hint of it in either the book or in the film.
      I don’t know the Britten opera as well as I know the book or the film: I’ll give it another listen this coming weekend. In my post, I forgot to mention the contribution of the composer f the film score, George Auric. It must have been a daunting task to compose music for this story only a few years after Britten had composed his opera, but Auric did a splendid job. In particular, that haunting nursery rhyme tune he composed plays a major part in creating the atmosphere of the film.


  3. Posted by Faith on January 31, 2013 at 3:57 pm

    Hello. I wanted to say that I agree with you 110% about how magnificent this film is. This and “The Haunting” from that same period, are by far the two most frightening films I have ever seen. I didn’t understand or grasp the ambiguity of this story at first, being perhaps 10 or 11 when I first saw it. I have watched it every year however, since then, and in recent years looked at all the various other adaptions, including both a stage recored production of the Opera, and a film version of it. I also saw the Masterpiece BBC version with Colin Firth, and remember not liking it at all. I finally discovered the 1995 made for tv version with Diana Rigg playing Mrs. Grose, it is under a different title (“The Haunting of Helen Walker”) and is the only version I have seen where the children were very well cast and directed, though the film as a whole still comes no where near “The Innocents”. I have read the book, and personally don’t care for James’ prose, though I like his work. I will try reading it again, as it has been many years.

    I am glad to find this review, because you are so completely right. I also recently found a 2009 version that brings the story into the 1920’s and it was actually quite awful. They take out ALL ambiguity, and it is amazing how little one cares about the characters when this is done. Shameful! Thank goodness we have “The Innocents”. I especially liked your comment about the evil possibly coming from the governess. I have often wondered that if it were all in her mind, if what she did ultimately was force this suppressed abuse out into the open, and the children were not able to handle that. But of course, we cannot know this, and that is, as you say, the beauty and terror of this story. Did you know Deborah Kerr believed and played it as thought it were all in the mind of the governess? I read this in a bio of her. Clayton told her to make up her own mind regarding whether this was “really” happening or not, etc.

    I have never watched it on DVD, is the documentary you refer to in your previous comment this one I found online? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-7HSpJbCIW4

    They mention more of Capote’s additions to the script as well as more detail about the cinematography. They also mentioned how the clothing of the Governess changes slowly to black so that she comes more and more to resemble Miss Jessel, as Miles comes more and more to resemble Quint.

    This film shows us what film is. All of the elements were present, and it is a perfect representation of what cinema and film can be when at their best.

    I enjoyed reading your review!!! :DD Thanks so much! :DD

    P.S. I read “The Woman in Black” and saw the movie, and she was obviously very influenced by “The Turn of the Screw”. If you have not read it, I urge you to do so. Like James’ book it is short. It’s ending is quite terrifying, just in a different way. It sent chills down my spine. WAY better than the film and VERY different.

    Also, if you haven’t seen Robert Wise’s “The Haunting” based on Shirley Jackson’s novel “The Haunting of Hill House”, oh I highly recommend that you do. I have always placed these two films together (the Haunting and the Innocents) as the perfect examples of a brilliant haunted house story, and a ghost story.

    Thanks again for the review!! 😀


    • Hello Faith, and welcome,

      I too first saw The Innocents when I was about 11 or so, and although it mostly went over my head, I was terrified. The later versions of this novel have been poor, as you say. The 2009 version, especially, is a disgrace. It is all symptomatic of the decline of drama, both on television and in the cinema. The underlying assumptions of modern drama seem to be that the audience will lose its concentration if any individual scene is allowed to run for more than a couple of minutes at the most; and that the audience is so thick that everything must be spelt out. Such an approach is obviously disastrous for something like The Turn of the Screw, any successful adaptation of which must be prepared to challenge and stretch the audience’s concentration span; and also be reticent – hinting rather than telling. It is in these hints and in the ambiguities they introduce that the horror lies. In the modern climate, it would be impossible to make a film such as The Innocents, even if the talent is around to make such a film.

      And yes, I did enjoy Robert Wise’s film of The Haunting (a comparison with the remake will demonstrate once again the extent to which the art of film-making has deteriotated, and how little the audience’s intelligence is trusted these days). I wrote about Shirley Jackson’s novel on this blog only quite recently. I also wrote about the recent film version of The Woman in Black. Like you, I did like Susan Hill’s book (although none of her subsequent ghost stories have lived up to this), but the film, after a promising first half, seemed to me to lose its way, mainly, I think, through pandering to the expectations of its target audience as defined by the marketing department.

      I am an aficionado of the old Hammer horror films (I grew up with these!), and particularly enjoy the Dracula films (I love Bram Stoker’s novel also). But when It comes to a good fright, nothing beats a creepy ghost story in bed at night! M. R. James is the acknowledged master of the genre, and rightly so, but the palm for the single most frightening ghost story must, for me at least, go to Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw: there is something uniquely evil and disquieting about this work.

      All the best, Himadri


    • PS The documentary you link to is indeed the one on the DVD.


  4. […] again – about reading – yet again – The Turn of the Screw. Himadri had written a wonderful post on Henry James’s infuriating, fascinating novel and on the terrific 1961 film, called The […]


  5. “There is no terror in the bang, only the anticipation of it.” -Alfred Hitchcock

    That quote came to mind when I read your wonderful line near the beginning of this post, “The best horror stories imply more than they tell.”

    I am so looking forward to reading The Turn of the Screw this week, and then I can comment lucidly on your post. Thanks for the link in your tweet.


    • p.s. I didn’t like The Woman in Black as much as I thought I would when the Telegraph “told me” it was great. Far better is The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, to which I saw The Turn of The Screw compared regarding the psychological need of a lonely woman to create a ghostly presence. Also, I do adore Daphne du Maurier’s writing.


      • Hello, and sorry for replying so late.

        I loved The Haunting of Hill House: I wrote a post about it here. The Woman in Black, I must admit, I also like, although, unlike the Henry James or the Shirley Jackson stories, Susan Hill’s story is not a psychological study: it is a straightforward chiller.

        I suppose I am a bit biased, as I love the genre of the ghost story, and have done since I used to scare myself silly as a child reading them in bed. M. R. JAmes is, for me, still the master of the genre.

        I hope you enjoy your reading of “The Turn of the Screw”. And I’d certainly recommend the film as well – far and away, in my opinion, the best ghost story put on film. (Isn’t it strange that we have so many horror films, but so few ghost stories on film?)

        All the best, Himadri

  6. I couldn’t agree more. The Innocence is in my top 5 as well. I’ve been obsessed with it since they released it on video back in the 90’s. And to watch it knowing it’s from the POV of the governess makes each viewing more captivating. The subtlety of the book and film blows my mind. The first scene of the movie literally fades in with the question, “Do you have an imagination?” She was imagining even then. Incredible.


    • It really is a wonderful film in every respect, isn’t it? I think it’s the only horror film I have seen (I think we may classify it as such) that continues to horrify even after you’ve finished watching it.


  7. Posted by Maggie Carman on September 25, 2017 at 7:04 pm

    So agree with you. The Innocents scared the shit out of me many years before I read The Turn of the Screw. Later, when I became a teacher in an FE college I delighted in intoducing my students to the book and film. Perfect book for teaching as short but stuffed full of ambiguity and terror.


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