Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Screw This: The Challenge of Representing Ambiguity in Filmic Adaptations of Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw”

cr88's picture

 The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories


Krishnan Raghavan


Screw This: The Challenge of Representing Ambiguity in Filmic Adaptations of Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw”


            I am writing my thesis on the 1898 Henry James novella “The Turn of the Screw” and while the scope of my thesis is confined only to the novella itself, I have become interested in the film adaptations of the novella. I am particularly interested in these adaptations because my close study of this narrative has led me to believe that this story cannot be legitimately adapted through the visual medium of cinema. “The Turn of the Screw” is the account of a young governess who begins her first job, looking after the orphaned niece and nephew of a wealthy London bachelor at his country estate. She is charmed by her young charges Flora and Miles, but her experience quickly sours when she begins seeing what she comes to believe are the ghosts of her master’s former valet and the children’s former governess, Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. As the ghosts continue to manifest themselves, the governess concludes that they are after the children and that the children are hiding their ability to see and interact with the ghosts. Yet “The Turn of the Screw” is not quite so straightforward a ghost story as it might initially seem. Although the governess never questions whether or not the ghosts truly exist, her reliability is somewhat problematized by the fact that none of the story’s other characters explicitly avow knowledge of the ghosts. The narrative is told from the governess’ perspective alone, and the fact hat the ghosts definitively appear within the story only to her suggest they might well be her private delusions. Modern psychiatry was just beginning to emerge as a discipline when James released this story, and public cures of “hysteria”, a now outmoded medical term encompassing various neurotic complaints, through hypnosis were a common spectacle across Europe at the time. “The Turn of the Screw” thus also lends itself to psychological readings that frame the ghosts as symptomatic of the governess’ unstable mental state.

            Within the novella, James offers compelling evidence in favor of both the supernatural and psychological readings of the story’s ghosts. After her second encounter with the male ghost, the governess who at this point believes him to be merely some sort of trespasser, describes the figure she has just seen to the estate’s housekeeper, Mrs. Grose. “He has red hair, very red, close-curling, and a pale face, long in shape, with straight good features and little rather queer whiskers…his eyes are sharp, strange – awfully. His mouth’s wide, and his lips are thin” (James, 23). This description is so detailed that the housekeeper promptly identifies the figure as “Peter Quint – [the master’s] own man, his valet, when he was here” (James, 23). At this point in the story, the governess has neither heard of nor seen Peter Quint, nor does she know that he is deceased; that she is able to describe him in such detail regardless suggests that she must actually have seen his ghost and that the ghosts are therefore quite real. However, other aspects of the story suggest that the ghosts are actually a product of the governess’ “hysterical” mental instability. The children’s ability to see the ghosts, in which the governess firmly believes, would seem to dispel the notion that the ghosts are merely symptomatic of the governess’s hysteria. However, the evidence the governess uses to justify this belief is actually shown to be rather insufficient.  During the second manifestation of the ghost of Jessel, the governess is watching Flora play when she suddenly catches sight of the ghost. The governess waits “with the wonder and terror of the question of whether [Flora] too would see” for some indication that Flora can see the figure, but Flora gives no such sign, though the governess does note that “within a minute, she had in her play, turned her back to the water” and “all spontaneous sounds from her had dropped (James, 29). These innocuous actions certainly do not justify the conclusion the governess draws from them; namely, that Flora “was perfectly aware” of the ghost but concealed this awareness from the governess (James, 29). The governess’s irrational reasoning here thus suggests she is mentally unstable. That this “encounter” forms the basis of the governess’ subsequent conviction that the children are able to see the ghosts frames the ghosts as delusions brought on by her mental instability whose existence is never confirmed, in spite of the what the governess as unreliable narrator may claim, by an external party. Evidence supporting the notion that the ghosts in James’ novella exist is thus offset by evidence suggesting that they are merely delusions of the hysterical governess. The narrative never decisively foregrounds one reading or the other even once it is concluded; it is thus ultimately left up to the reader to decide whether the novella is a tale of paranormal or psychological horror.

            It is this enduring ambiguity central to “The Turn of the Screw” that is necessarily lost in the process of its filmic adaptation. James’ novella is narrated in the first-person by the governess, and the reader must determine whether or not she is a reliable narrator in order to interpret the events of the story. Implicit suggestions that she is not a reliable narrator, such as her tendency to jump to logically inconsistent conclusions in order to support her claims, are offset by the governess’ unwavering belief that the ghosts truly exist. As a first-person narrator, the governess retains a certain authorial credibility that obliges the reader to identify with her account; she may be unreliable, but she is not so unreliable as to be completely discreditable. The ambiguity of James’ novella thus stems from the tension between the “actual” supernatural events that take place within the novel and seem to characterize the governess as delusional and the governess’ perception of these events, which in her narrative are too real to completely discredit. This sort of perspectivism, however, cannot be visually reproduced through standard filmmaking. Were one to truly do filmic justice to James’ narrative, the camera would have to remain completely subjective throughout the film, representing events as seen through the governess’ eyes. In other words, the audience would not see the governess at all; though we might hear her talking and even a voiceover of her thoughts, the camera would necessarily need to replace her vision such that the audience would be shown things exactly as the governess perceives them.  An objective camera that existed with a viewpoint external to that of the governess would have to make what in the novella is the reader’s choice, representing the governess either as mentally unstable or as the victim of supernatural persecution; the fundamental ambiguity of James’ novella is thus necessarily lost through filmic adaptation.

            A review of three major English-language adaptations of James’ novella serves to confirm this hypothesis. Jack Clayton’s The Innocents suggests that the ghost in fact do exist, while Rusty Lemorande’s “The Turn of the Screw” and Masterpiece Theatre’s adaptation of the novella suggest that the governess is in fact insane. Lemorande’s 1992 version most explicitly suggests that the ghosts are in fact products of the governess’ delusions. This can be seen in the following scene, in which the governess encounters Quint’s ghost for the first time.


In this version, the voiceover immediately frames the governess’ visitation as rooted in her own psychological problems; it is described as “a trap…one she was actually laying for herself” brought on by her newfound “space and freedom.” This voiceover, that of the story’s frame narrator, is later revealed to be that of Flora, who blames the governess for her brother’s death; this suggests why this version chooses to frame the governess as mad. The disturbing mise-en-scène of the tower filled with taxidermied animals, the grass labyrinth, and birds ominously fleeing en masse further work to suggest that the governess’s visions are being influenced by the disturbing atmosphere of the estate.

             The Masterpiece Theatre version, though more evenhanded than Lemorande’s adaptation, still suggests that the ghosts as a product of the governess’ delusions. In many respects, this version is the most faithful to the novella itself; nearly all of the dialogue is transcribed word for word from the novella, and the scenes and setting also remain extremely faithful to the way in which they are presented in the novella. The film nevertheless fails to capture the ambiguity of James’ novella, and the ghosts do seem to be more a product of the governess’ delusions. This can be seen from 2:45-3:45 in this clip (embedding unfortunately disabled), the scene where the governess attempts to point out the ghost of Miss Jessel to Mrs. Grose and Flora. In this clip, the ghost of Miss Jessel appears immediately as the governess asks Flora where she is, as though the governess were summoning her. The film attempts to capture Mrs. Grose and Flora’s professed inability to see the ghosts by having the ghost disappear on screen when the governess attempts to point her out to Mrs. Grose and Flora; she reappears a moment later, when the governess tries to make Mrs. Grose see the ghost is there. This momentary disappearance however closes the possibility left open by James’ novella that Mrs. Grose and Flora are lying about their inability to see the ghost; the viewer is forced to conclude that they are incapable of seeing the ghost and that the governess is merely hysterical.

            The Innocents’ representation of the novella’s final scene, in which Miles dies in the governess’s arms under Quint’s gaze after speaking Quint’s name, suggests that ghosts are in fact responsible for his death. In the novella, the governess attributes Miles’ death to his having been suddenly “dispossessed” by the ghost of Quint, who disappears in the novella’s final moments. Proponents of the theory that she is psychologically unstable, however, suggest that it is the frightening nature of this confrontation, in which the governess first confronts Miles about his expulsion from school then holds him to her until he will admit that Quint is present, causes Miles to literally die of fright. The Innocents challenges this popular interpretation.

Miles does not die in the governess’ arms, nor does his death seem linked to the trauma of the confrontation; he is able to walk away from the governess quite intact. It is finally Quint who seems to cause his death; the ghost can be seen to raise a hand before the boy suddenly stops and falls down dead.

            Filmic interpretations of “The Turn of the Screw” thus fail to capture the ambiguity central to the novella, the ambiguity which obliges the reader to hesitate between explaining the governess’ supernatural visitations in either paranormal or psychological terms. While this is perhaps not particularly significant in the grand scheme, my thesis is concerned with the ways in which the ambiguity of James’ text is itself an adaptation. I argue in my thesis that the scientific climate of the nineteenth-century demanded that supernatural stories become more “realistic.” I further argue that James’ novella subverts this rationalist pressure by simultaneously appearing to conform to these pressures yet remaining ultimately ambiguous in contrast to the definitive answers privileged by the scientism of that century. The loss of ambiguity in these filmic adaptations of “The Turn of the Screw” thus represents a fundamental loss of significance to my thesis.


Works Cited


1.     Warren, Jonathan, and Deborah Esch. The Turn of the Screw: Authoritative Text, Contexts, Critism. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999. Print.

2.      The Turn of the Screw. Dir. Rusty Lemorande. Perf. Patsy Kensit, Stéphane Audran, Julian Sands, Marianne Faithfull. 1992.

3.     The Turn of the Screw. Dir. Ben Bolt. Perf. Jodhi May, Pam Ferris, Colin Firth. Masterpiece Theatre, 1999.

4.     The Innocents. Dir. Jack Clayton. Perf. Deborah Kerr, Michael Redgrave. Twentieth Century Fox, 1961.