Viewing the Story vs. Reading the Movie: Turn of the Screw

This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

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Viewing the Story vs. Reading the Movie: Turn of the Screw

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Henry James' novella Turn of the Screw is well-known even outside of literary circles for its effectiveness as a psychological thriller, so its fame made it an excellent project for Masterpiece Theater. The story was first shown on that program in 1999, with a plotline changed only a little, but critically enough to lose some of the original's potency and terror. Obviously lots of changes occur when a book becomes a movie – the addition of everything from soundtrack to definite setting and costuming effects our viewing and interpretation of the story, but since I am not a film scholar I will leave these things aside and focus on changes in the storyline and presentation of the original's ambiguities. I feel the film is less effective for these changes, less emotionally involving and mentally engaging to the viewer, who is also a "reader" of the story onscreen because of the interpretation that automatically happens.

A great and often-cited reason for the success of James' novella as a ghost story and classic thriller is the ambiguity that modern audiences also often lament. He very carefully avoids anything that would have been considered vulgar by his audience, and therefore leaves a lot of the tale's interpretation – especially regarding the horrible crimes of the ghosts and the deaths of several characters – up to the reader's imagination. We as readers, who become viewers of the story as it is played out in our heads, make up the details to our own gristly satisfaction and make the story just as scary as we want it to be. This means that the story can be read with naïveté but not innocence, since we become voyeurs to whatever vulgarities we choose to fill in the blanks with. It leaves the viewer/reader feeling a lot of things – perhaps feeling frustrated, or frightened, or just plain dirty, but never untouched.

I personally came away with a mix of satisfaction for understanding, to some degree, what James was doing, and a serious case of the willies caused by the horrible things I had been imagining for the last eighty pages. The novella was very effective for me because I was willing to go along with the complex and deliberately complicated flow of the story and the language, and because I embraced the scary things I thought of to explain the initially bizarre omissions of detail. I remember thinking when I finished that I would hate to know for certain what had happened, that I would simply feel pity for the characters then, or revulsion, but not the delightful wondering jitters that I had gotten from the play I watched in my mind's eye. I was honestly surprised to find that so many of my peers had found this same conclusion distasteful, and had reacted with annoyance or even anger at James for his choices.

The film version I saw put a very definite spin on certain aspects of the story, which I found somewhat disappointing and limiting in terms of how the tale could be "read." As I have said, I do not profess to be a scholar of cinema; however, I do not believe that a film absolutely must present a story without the kind of ambiguity James wrote. It must be harder, of course, to make a movie that maintains the vagueness and detail-evasion of James' writing, and of course his style and use of language could not be easily mimicked onscreen, if it could be used at all. But it must be possible to keep a sense of horrors unknown, and gently skirt the "vulgarity" that results from making every "terrible" thing easy and accessible and straightforward.

The movie ties the story down in several places by making those scenes show or say things which are more definite that anything James gives us. Specifically we see Miss Jessel (before we know it is her, in the very first scene) throw herself off a bridge; her death is no longer a mystery, there is only the mortal sin of suicide and not the ambiguity of what could have been disease, murder, or death in childbirth. Later on, we recognize the suicide figure as Miss Jessel and learn of her scandalous relationship with Peter Quint and her illegitimate and cross-class pregnancy. The new governess states definitively in yet another scene that Miss Jessel has confessed her shameful death and that this is the reason she seeks Flora – she needs someone to share her "tortures of the damned." The horror becomes definite, real and specific, assuming we believe in ghosts and a judgmental afterlife like the governess does. This definitiveness takes away some of the terror – murder is far more sinister than suicide, and the possibility of murder perhaps even more so. Death in childbirth would have been more tragic, as would disease; we can no longer suppose Miss Jessel to be better or worse that the film lets her be, but only see her in one light.

Just as Miss Jessel's death loses its ambiguity in the film, Miles' demise is presented as an obvious accidental killing. He is very clearly smothered by the governess in her fanatic joy at getting rid of Peter Quint for good; his very moment of death is made specific by the flailing of limbs and sudden drop of his hand. There is no longer any question of whether or not he dies, or whether he dies from her overzealousness or from some effect of Quint's. Indeed, the entire line of argument that Miles is the original reader of the story, from the framing device written in the novella, is lost because that framing device is left out and there is no chance at continuance from the ghost story's end. Several readings of the film are eliminated simply by killing Miles so obviously, and several more by omitting the side-story of Douglass and the narrator and their small convention of story-telling. The reader of the film has none of the detached safety of the book's viewers, but also none of the personalization that can be read into the book.

To me, the film felt very limited in its possibilities, in a way that the book very actively and effectively avoided. While watching the movie I never felt the frustrated suspense that I had with the novella, the nagging thought that I had missed something critical that would ease my growing fear. I was engaged in the story of the film, of course, but not as much as I had been with the original story, even though I was paying close attention to what happened and what people said. The movie did not scare me much until the very end, although Peter Quint and Miss Jessel were certainly well-designed to be preternaturally creepy. The ending really worked on my emotions, of course, but more because a little boy was being killed by a woman he had tried to trust than because the characters themselves mattered much to me. On the other hand, I found myself much more suspicious of the governess that I had been originally, and felt much more strongly that she was a little crazy. This again spoke to me of the forced reading of the film – she had crazy behind her eyes, so how could I trust her? My viewing of the novella had been a little naïve in this point, since it never occurred to be that she was mad, but that reading came out clearly – and a little involuntarily – in the film.

In the end I was disappointed with this movie version of Turn of the Screw after reading the story as James intended it, because the filmmakers had chosen to limit the incredibly original multiplicity of interpretive possibilities by making certain character traits and plot points so specific. James would have considered this reading of his story vulgar and perhaps incorrect, since the most powerful aspect of the tale was diminished. I understand, of course, that this reading in film is much less difficult to produce, and more accessible to a modern audience who may have neither the patience or the desire to be immersed in James' version of the story, but I cannot help feeling the loss of that ambiguity I found so enjoyable. Perhaps it is artless of me to think that a movie could be made with the level of mystery with which James wrote, but I would like it to be possible. After all, it might be worthwhile to do something unusual cinematically to bring to a contemporary audience the emotions James engenders in his viewers/readers.

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