‘Based on the Writings of Henry James’

The Turn of the Screw, The Innocents and The Haunting of Bly Manor: Stephen Carver takes up the story ‘Based on the Writings of Henry James’.

My late father was one of those strong working-class men. Raised in the Depression, he was a bricklayer by trade; he’d fought on D-Day and wasn’t shy of throwing a devastating punch if he felt the situation required it. He was a big man, too. Our neighbours respected him, and when he was out of humour you gave him a lot of room. He never struck me as frightened of anything. Anyway, a few years back, he told me that when he was courting my mother, she persuaded him to take her to see The Innocents at the Norwich Regal. ‘When I got home,’ he confessed, ‘I turned on every bloody light in the house afore I went to bed…’

The Innocents (UK, 1961) is a scary film based on a scary book. Henry JamesThe Turn of the Screw was first published as a serial in Collier’s Weekly magazine in the spring of 1898, subsequently appearing in James’ collection of stories The Two Magics, published in the autumn of the same year. It starts out as a notionally conventional Victorian ghost story, with the framing narration of old men at a club swapping spooky tales on Christmas Eve. One of them, Douglas, knows one that’s ‘beyond everything’. The unnamed narrator recalls that he asked, ‘For sheer terror?’ to which his friend replied, ‘For dreadful – dreadfulness.’

The frame is elegant, filtering the apparently supernatural tale through several nested narrations. Douglas has an unpublished manuscript he has never shared, written by, and given to him by his little sister’s governess some forty years before, who he was then sweet on. (As the master of the Edwardian ghost story, M.R. James, would later note, ‘a slight haze of distance is desirable.’ The setting should ideally be a few years back to allow for the embellishment of memory, but familiar enough for the reader to think: ‘If I’m not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me!’) The unidentified governess was writing about events she had experienced at least ten years prior to that, and the novel’s narrator further explains that what follows is not a transcription but was written later from notes he took at the time, making the veracity of the account as uncertain as a collection of different witness testimonies. This ambiguity of interpretation was and remains a common gothic device, creating tension through competing frames of explanation. But just as Joseph Conrad was soon to question the uncomplicated imperialism of colonial adventure stories in Heart of Darkness (1902), James does indeed go beyond everything, delving deeply into the unhealthy psychology of obsession. In The Turn of the Screw – a deceptively short novel, a novella in fact – the paradigm of the literary gothic shifts artfully from Victorian to Modernist.

In a preface added by the author in 1908, James provides his own frame for the creation of The Turn of the Screw, not a million miles from the episode that triggers his story. One winter afternoon, ‘round the hall-fire of a grave old country house’, the talk of James and his circle had turned to ‘apparitions and night fears. The host then offered the fragment of a second-hand but allegedly true story:

He had never forgotten the impression made on him as a young man by the withheld glimpse, as it were, of a dreadful matter that had been reported years before, and with a few particulars, to a lady with whom he had youthfully talked. The story would have been thrilling could she but have found herself in better possession of it, dealing as it did with a couple of small children in an out-of-the-way place, to whom the spirits of certain ‘bad’ servants, dead in the employ of the house, were believed to have appeared with the design of ‘getting hold’ of them. This was all, but there had been more…

Years later, when approached by Collier’s to provide ‘something seasonal … in the time-honoured Christmastide joy’ – that is, a Christmas ghost story – James immediately ‘bethought me at once of the vividest little note for sinister romance that I had ever jotted down.’

In James’ novella, the young daughter of a provincial parson takes her first job as a governess to an angelic brother and sister, Miles and Flora (aged ten and eight), in a remote country house called Bly:

a big, ugly, antique, but convenient house, embodying a few features of a building still older, half replaced and half utilised, in which I had the fancy of our being almost as lost as a handful of passengers in a great drifting ship.

The children are orphans in the care of their uncle, a charming and rakish bachelor who does not want the bother of them. As in a fairy tale, there is, therefore, an injunction: ‘That she should never trouble him – but never, never: neither appeal nor complain nor write about anything; only meet all questions herself, receive all amounts of money from his solicitor, take the whole thing over and let him alone.’ Smitten with the gentleman, who she desires to impress, the young lady agrees. After a promising start, the governess becomes increasingly convinced that her charges are being gradually possessed by the ghosts of her employer’s former valet, Peter Quint, and her predecessor, Miss Jessel, both of whom were lovers and who died under not exactly mysterious but obscure circumstances. Supported by an illiterate housekeeper called Mrs Grose, the governess sets out to ‘save’ the children, leading to an inevitably tragic conclusion. ‘The turn of the screw’ metaphor is used twice in the text, once by the framing narrator, referring to the added horror of a haunting involving children, and once by the governess, who applies it to a test of virtue by ordeal. The question of whether Bly is being haunted by Quint and Jessel, or by the governess’ own increasingly extreme delusions remains unanswered. Hints and clues tilt both ways. The children are strange and secretive at times and were definitely corrupted to a certain extent by their previous supervisors – the drunken and controlling Quint had been left in charge and the children were aware of his relationship with Jessel. There are also veiled suggestions that the governess is frustrated, possibly sexually; that there are problems at home, she is out of her depth, and something of a religious enthusiast. But then, her physical descriptions of the apparitions are born out by Mrs Grose (who doesn’t see them) as accurate and precise… Literary theorists have been arguing about this ever since.

The Innocents was originally a play based on James’ novel by William Archibald which premiered on Broadway in 1950. Archibald gave the protagonist a name, ‘Miss Giddens’, and interpreted the text as a straight ghost story. The play was optioned by the British film producer and director Jack Clayton, who was already known for literary adaptation after his Academy Award-winning version of John Braine’s Room at the Top in 1959. Clayton and Archibald disagreed over the meaning of the text, and Truman Capote was hired to redraft Archibald’s screenplay, reintroducing the gothic uncertainty. Crisp additional dialogue was further added by John Mortimer. The screenplay faithfully reproduces the original novel but takes a couple of plot devices from Archibald’s play. The fates of Quint and Miss Jessel are much more explicitly tied to Bly, and the folk song ‘O Willow Waly’ becomes an eerie leitmotif:

We lay my love and I beneath the weeping willow.

But now alone I lie and weep beside the tree.

Singing ‘Oh willow waly’ by the tree that weeps with me.

Singing ‘Oh willow waly’ till my lover return to me.

We lay my love and I beneath the weeping willow.

A broken heart have I. Oh willow I die, oh willow I die.

Deborah Kerr played Miss Giddens beautifully as a well-meaning but brittle spinster, and Hammer stalwart Freddie Francis was the cinematographer, using deep focus and Chiaroscuro lighting to convey the claustrophobic intensity of the original novel. Further adding to the atmosphere of menace, the film also pioneered the use of synthesised electronic sound effects created by musique concrète composer Daphne Oram. French New Wave director François Truffaut told Clayton that, ‘The Innocents is the best English film after Hitchcock goes to America.’ Like my Dad said, it was and remains a very scary movie.

The Turn of the Screw has been adapted many times since (it was even turned into an opera by Benjamin Britten in 1954), but it is Clayton’s film that remains the benchmark. Its stylistic influence can be seen in Robert Wise’s 1963 film The Haunting, adapted from Shirley Jackson’s gothic novel The Haunting of Hill House (1959); Michael Winner directed a prequel called The Nightcomers in 1971 starring Marlon Brando as Peter Quint, and Dan Curtis – the creator of Dark Shadows, the first gothic soap opera – directed a version for American TV in 1974, following his adaptations of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Picture of Dorian Gray. There have also been film versions made in Spain, France, Italy, Germany, Brazil, Mexico, and Canada. Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others (2001), though not a remake, also has striking thematic similarities to James’ novel. More recently, there has been In A Dark Place (2006) directed by Donato Rotunno, an updated version implying that the governess is the abuser; a BBC miniseries (2009) set in the 1920s which is framed by the governess telling her story from an asylum; and The Turning (2020), directed by Floria Sigismondi, better known for her ‘goth’ music videos, including work with Marilyn Manson, The Cure, Leonard Cohen and David Bowie. Sigismondi’s under-rated version is a stylised re-telling set in the early 90s, pursuing the ‘delusional’ reading of the governess’s character.

Like Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, James’ little novella is just one of those literary ghost stories that film-makers and viewers never seem to tire of, even though to its author it was quite a minor work in comparison to his major novels The Portrait of a Lady, The Ambassadors, The Tragic Muse and The Wings of the Dove. This month, therefore, just in time for Halloween, Netflix has dropped the most ambitious reimagining of James’ gothic masterpiece to date: The Haunting of Bly Manor.

The Haunting of Bly Manor is a nine-part series created by Mike Flanagan, who has a successful background in horror cinema. It is the second entry in The Haunting anthology series, following The Haunting of Hill House (2018) – a sophisticated and updated re-working of Jackson’s novel – also created, written and directed by Flanagan. In the show’s opening credits, it states that Bly Manor is ‘Inspired by the Writings of Henry James’. And so it is, most obviously The Turn of the Screw, but also several other of his short stories, the premises of which Flanagan cannily adapts to serve and extend the primary narrative. Miles and Flora, Quint and Jessel, and Mrs Grose are all present, as is the governess – now a gay American au pair called Dani Clayton fleeing her own traumatic past – and the indifferent uncle. The other household staff only cursorily mentioned by James, the cook and the gardener, are developed into significant secondary characters, and the children’s parents are also shown in flashbacks. Bly Manor also leans on The Innocents, retaining ‘O Willow Waly’.

Essentially following the novel’s frame, the story is presented as being told by an initially unidentified elderly guest after a wedding rehearsal dinner in California in 2007; the main body of the story is set in England in 1987, allowing the costume designers to enjoy themselves with the worst excesses of eighties fashion: curly perms, shoulder pads, dungarees, bushy moustaches and baggy jeans. Despite a non-linear plot, multiple point-of-view characters, and a lot of misdirection, there’s never really any doubt that the ghosts are real. As with the previous Hill House series, in which the coming together of an estranged family after a tragedy forces each to re-examine how the experience of living in a haunted house as children has affected them as adults, the drama is more character-driven than shocking. This makes The Haunting project very different in tone to its HBO contemporary, American Horror Story, though there’s more than enough in it to still make you jump. Like James’ novel and, indeed, Jackson’s, the point of the story is the effect of supernatural experience on the individual, as much if not more than the experience itself. The intricate plot manages to pay its respects to James’ original while changing it enough to make the story fresh for a twenty-first-century audience. Events are therefore both familiar and surprising, with a climax and denouement that are imaginative, poignant and original, making something new yet conceptually appropriate from the source material. Ultimately, as one listener at the wedding party observes, ‘It isn’t a ghost story. It’s a love story.’ The show’s leads are Victoria Pedretti as Dani, T’Nia Miller as Mrs Grose, Oliver Jackson-Cohen as Quint, Tahirah Sharif as Miss Jessel, Amelia Eve as Jamie (the gardener), Rahul Kohli as Owen Sharma (the cook), Henry Thomas as the uncle, and Carla Gugino as the storyteller. The children are ably played by Amelie Bea Smith and Benjamin Evan Ainsworth. Reviews are thus far more than favourable, with the show trending for several hours this week on social media, the consensus being that T’Nia Miller owned it and that the ending made everyone cry.

What is perhaps most interesting about Bly Manor, however, are the other Jamesian intertexts, several of which have never been adapted for the screen before. Each episode is named after a short story by James. These are: ‘The Great Good Place’, ‘The Pupil’, ‘The Two Faces’ (Parts One and Two), ‘The Way It Came’, ‘The Altar of the Dead’, ‘The Jolly Corner’, ‘The Romance of Certain Old Clothes’, and ‘The Beast in the Jungle’. Some, but not all of these are supernatural stories, but each has a deeply psychological component, as did all of James’ writing. Flanagan’s applications are also far from literal. What he takes from these stories are their essence.

Without giving away how these essences are woven into the fabric of Bly Manor/The Turn of the Screw, ‘The Great Good Place’ (1900) was originally about a stressed-out writer (called Dane, which is probably the root of ‘Dani’ – her surname, of course, refers to Jack Clayton), who apparently journeys to a rather ordinary retreat in what might be a dream or a supernatural and time-bending experience, possibly initiated by a mysterious visitor. ‘The Pupil’ (1891) is a boy from a dysfunctional family who befriends his tutor, the only adult in his life he feels able to trust. This is mapped on to Miles’ last term at boarding school. In ‘The Two Faces’ (1888), Lord Gwyther recklessly asks his former mistress to help present his shy new wife to London Society. (There are two ‘Two Faces’ episodes, both of which centre on Quint and Jessel.) ‘The Way It Came’ (1896) is a story about the meeting of minds and the possibility of uniting after death, which rather speaks for itself. ‘The Altar of the Dead’ (for my money the strongest episode, concentrating on Mrs Grose), originally published in 1895, concerns the memory of dead loved ones, a subject explored from several angles in Bly Manor, including a character whose mother has Alzheimer’s Disease. ‘The Jolly Corner’ (1908) is the affectionate name for a childhood home and a doppelgänger story which Flanagan relates to the uncle, who is tormented by his grinning double. ‘The Romance of Certain Old Clothes’ is an early story first published in the Atlantic in 1868 about the fatal rivalry between two sisters in 18th century Massachusetts. Flanagan cleverly expands this to integrate it into the history of Bly Manor. The episode is shot in black and white and has the feel of an early sixties period gothic movies, such as Mario Bava’s Black Sunday or Roger Corman’s ‘Poe Cycle’ of films starring Vincent Price. Finally, The Beast in the Jungle was a novella written in 1903. It’s a tale of loneliness, fate, love and death in which the protagonist, a hopeless fatalist, convinces himself that an unspecified but catastrophic event is lying in wait for him in the future like ‘a beast in the jungle’. This constant state of foreboding makes it impossible for him to commit to the woman that loves him.

Flanagan’s use of each of these stories – there are several different scriptwriters but as creator and editor he will have set down the major character arcs – demonstrates a real knowledge and love of James’ short fiction. Bly Manor is also an invitation to track down and revisit the original stories, which are just as rewarding as The Turn of the Screw but considerably less well known these days, at least outside the academy. A good place to start is the Wordsworth Editions Ghost Stories of Henry James, which includes The Turn of the Screw, ‘The Romance of Certain Old Clothes’ and ‘The Jolly Corner’, as well as seven other of his major supernatural tales, odd flourishes of which also receive a nod in Bly Manor, and his later prefaces. As the nights draw in, Christmas creeps stealthily towards us and there is a whistling of wild winter wind outside that many of us could well do without, snuggle by the fire with these stories and then see if you can sleep with the lights out.

Stephen Carver.

For information on Stephen Carver’s books and other writing, go to: http://stephenjcarver.com/

Image: Deborah Kerr in the 1961 film The Innocents. Credit: Collection Christophel / Alamy Stock Photo