Since its publication in 1898, Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw" has absorbed our collective imaginations. It is a story that pits innocence against corruption, desire against duty, and children against ghosts. While it has been filmed over a dozen times for both the small and silver screens, not all of those adaptations have been worth watching. Listed here are eight of the most visually, dramatically, and thematically compelling adaptions of its central story.
8. THE TURN OF THE SCREW, 2009.
I won’t say much about this notable yet regrettable interpretation starring Michelle Dockery. Dressed up as a typical horror film, it begins with the governess being psychoanalyzed by a police psychologist who gradually comes to believe her story of psychotic ghosts but is ultimately helpless to stop their plan to silence her. There are far too many horror movie clichés, unambiguous uses of the supernatural, and sensational moments of terror to make it a worthy addition to the canon. The corny twist at the end is enough to lay it to rest: Quint’s face appears on one of the policemen leading the governess away to death row. It is, nonetheless, a fun and creepy horror movie, but does a grave injustice to James’ delicacy.
7. THE TURN OF THE SCREW, 1974
Directed by "Dark Shadows" alum Dan Curtis, who added this to a series of TV films based on classic thrillers (also including Frankenstein, Dracula, and Jekyll & Hyde), this made-for-TV adapation positively drips with the pleasantly campy atmosphere that made "Dark Shadows" a Gothic icon. Cold, gauzy, and embellished, it low-production quality works in its favor, making it seem stripped of frills and affectations, and darkened with the sort of realism that James himself was famous for. Notwithstanding, it still brings something of a soap opera atmosphere to the story, complete with steamy dreams of Quint slipping into the governess' (Lynn Redgrave) bed (made steamier by using a blurry filter), a sinister, reedy soundtrack straight from the "Dark Shadows" playbook, and two sensual, livid-skinned ghosts. This version is also creepier because Miles is older, and his deepening, preteen voice and leering behavior make his relationship with the ghosts and governess all the more inappropriate. Cold, stark, and soapy, this is by no means a high-production masterpiece, but is in many ways among the creepiest adaptations I've seen.
6. THE HAUNTING OF HELEN WALKER, 1995.
Although it is not particularly outstanding or unique, this version of “The Turn of the Screw” is worth watching for the strangeness of the ghost scenes: it features the creepiest Quint I’ve encountered (an ogling, leering, suggestive lech), and includes some shockingly erotic elements: Quint and Jessel beckon the governess (a ludicrously miscast Valerie Bertinelli) into a three-way, Miles French kisses the governess while moaning in Quint’s voice, and she imagines (or has a vision of) Miles, Flora, Quint, and Jessel participating in what seems to be a four-way – meeting at a bed and closing the door suggestively. This is a poorly-acted period supernatural drama that doesn’t merit much time, but is interesting for some of its more salacious and chilling material – none of these movies were as genuinely creepy (not necessarily in a good way). It has the vibe of an Are You Afraid of the Dark, Goosebumps, or Eerie, Indiana episode: sensational, Gothic, and unmistakably filmed in the ‘90s: the ghoulish lighting, Dutch angles, and general fun-house/carnival vibe will not let you forget that.
5. THE NIGHTCOMERS, 1972.
Starring a world-weary Marlon Brando, this prequel to the main action is perhaps the most influential adaptation other than The Innocents. Filmed in the throes of the sexual revolution, it is no wonder that the film is larger consumed with sex, especially considering the subject matter: the relationship between Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. The tension, however, is fascinatingly shifted, with the children taking on the roles of antagonists and the adults becoming their victims. The briefly featured Master is now a Freud-look-alike, authoritative, but grey-haired, bearded, and fusty – hardly a London playboy – and Brando’s Quint is almost fifty, a kindly man with lightening hair and a cynical weariness that makes him seem vulnerable when compared to his energetic wards (whose ages have been advanced to put them in the opening years of puberty).
Quint is a roguish but lovable entertainer – a storyteller, philosopher, and clown – who harbors fascinating theories on love (that love and hate are the same) and death (that it is only in death where people can be together). Quint and Jessel conduct a violent BDSM affair under the peering eyes of the voyeuristic Miles and Flora, who begin to willfully adopt their manners and fetishes into an incestuous relationship. Ultimately, Mrs Grose’s moral outrage at the servant’s sadomasochistic lovemaking causes the children to sabotage Grose’s efforts to separate them – with psychopathic results. The Nightcomers is erotic, chilling, bizarre, and shocking. It is a psychosexual thriller which begs the question: what if the predators weren’t the servants (people trying desperately to express a forbidden love and attraction), but the (sociopathic, incestuous, voodoo practicing, and murderous) children?
4. THE TURN OF THE SCREW, 1954 (Opera), 1982, 2011 (Adaptations).
English composer Benjamin Britten was fascinated by the psychological complexity of his supernatural tales, turning “Owen Wingrave” into a world-acclaimed chamber opera in 1973, but his first and most famous adaptation was The Turn of the Screw. Written for a small stage, small cast, and small orchestra, the atmosphere is strangely intimate yet simultaneously distant. He follows a Freudian interpretation, and an apparitionist point of view, in which the ghosts are real, but the motives are sexual. Britten’s score is eerie, atonal, dissonant, and haunting, and the librettos are fearfully intense, coloring in details that James omits, providing a genuinely sinister interpretation of Quint and Jessel’s motives for appearing, namely to supernaturally act out their love affair through the children whom they molested in life. A lush, cinematic production of this piece was filmed in 1982, and can be found online. Another, and I think better, adaptation filmed on the stage was produced in 2011, starring Miah Persson.
3. THE TURN OF THE SCREW, 1992.
This jarring interpretation is set in England during the Swinging 1960s is clearly inspired by The Innocents, making use of daring photography and direction, Freudian undertones, and thematic ambiguity. The relocation to a more modern date is surprisingly effective, and the deep eroticism is narcotic (the Master is a crack-smoking, earring-wearing, ‘60s swinger with a leopard skin rug and a pirate shirt and the governess is a buttoned-up, wide-eyed, Catholic-school-girl type with a blond ponytail, conservative clothes, and an Olivia Newton John aura). The claustrophobic directing, powerful visuals, and ambiguous hauntings combine into what genuinely feels like a bad high, or what one reviewer called “a beautiful nightmare” and another a “dizzying display of hypnotic beauty.” It is sensual, luscious, delectable, and poisonous, like a venomous orchid marked with garish colors both as an attraction and a warning. The camera shots and lighting are discombobulating, sending us into vertigo as we navigate through Bly’s creepy litter of toys, windows gushing with sunlight, and the dense foliage outside. The equalization of the children, the religious devotion of the governess, and the moral corruption of those around them all conspire to make an immensely uncomfortable, and thoroughly effective film. One of the best of the bunch, and highly recommended in spite of its dramatic silences.
2. THE TURN OF THE SCREW, 1999.
This Masterpiece Theater adaptation is among the most highly recommended, due in large part to its uncommon ambiguity and the superb acting. It includes the knowing cast choice of Collin Firth as the Master (as Bridget Jones’ Diary will attest Firth’s 1995 appearance as Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice made him the living embodiment of the Master for many viewers: a sexy, distant, desirable man who invited obsession), and the brilliant acting of Jodhi May: alternatingly pitiable and vulnerable, hysterical and insane. This high-brow adaptation suffers from a lack of atmosphere: it is bright but not ironically so, colorful but not lush, and has all the personality of a tasteful picnic in June. Just a bit too sunny and pleasant, but even this helps lend and ambiguous nature to the governess’ reliability (a truly spooky setting makes us belief without much work, but here were pitch back and forth between trust and doubt, pity and annoyance).
The acting is extraordinary – May is ingenious in her role as the emotional governess whose motives are anything but transparent and whose attraction to Firth’s character is electric – and the accuracy is the best of any adaptation, and the children are played supremely well: they are absolute angels at the beginning, but when chinks begin to show in their goodness, it is as if a trap-door opens under us, and we suddenly doubt whether they have been faking all along. It is amazingly ambiguous, and nearly any type of reading is possible (unlike The Innocents, for instance, which doesn’t lend itself to a non-apparitionist vision). This is the one to show to a college or high school English class. I only wish it had included some more terror and had a little less of the PBS polish and shine. Notwithstanding, a very accurate rendering of the book, and one which does the nearly impossible: introduces the ambiguity of the governess’ insanity. This is one of the few versions where one feels pulled back and forth between believing and disbelieving her. On one end her emotional hysterics are very off putting, and her bias is clear, but on the other we are driven to suspect the children of complicity with the ghosts. In any case, this is the only version I know of that accurately casts doubt on the governess without falling into misogynistic character assassinations.
1. THE INNOCENTS, 1961.
The most famous adaptation – often considered one of the best horror movies in history – is this Freudian interpretation of James’ tale, directed by Jack Clayton and starring Deborah Kerr. The direction and photography are truly unsettling and inventive, tormenting the viewer in stark chiaroscuro tones of black and white – a landscape dominated by shadow and light, good and evil, right and wrong. This adaptation is famous for avoiding cheap thrills and horror for intense psychological dread and terror. The score – made of music boxes, children’s songs, sinister flute airs, and synthetic layering – too, is notably chilling, and the acting is superb. But it is truly Clayton’s masterful vision as a director – watchful, voyeuristic, and invasive – that has attracted so much attention for what most critics consider the best adaptation of the novel.
Clayton, like Britten, takes a psychoanalytic approach but remains an apparitionist (it is very hard to doubt that something supernatural is occurring in a house ringing with maniacal laughter in the dead of night), causing the audience to wonder what the insecure, infatuated governess might be projecting onto the specters, but never really calling her into doubt (indeed, this is very hard to do in a film version – James hints at the governess’ odd expressions, emotional overreactions, and misinterpretations, but films seem to gain more power by building faith in the governess rather than wicking it away). Sexuality boils heavily beneath the film, from Quint’s leering, undressing eyes to the final shot of the governess laying her quivering lips onto Miles’ cold mouth. The screenplay was written by Truman Capote of Cold Blood fame. Capote is well known for his flair for the Southern Gothic style of Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, and his script has been noted for its use of this lens. The whole environment has a very Faulkneresque air, one writer noting that Kerr’s “repressed erotic sensibility [is] counterpointed by shots of lush and decaying plants and rapacious insect life” in a manner that owes a debt to the Southern Gothic tradition. Themes of moral repression, latent evil, and social hypocrisy float effortlessly around Bly as easily as they would a Spanish moss-covered plantation in the Alabama swamps. Peter Bradshaw reviews the film in the following manner:
“[It] is an elegant, sinister and scalp-prickling ghost story – as scary in its way as Rosemary's Baby or The Exorcist. It has to be the most sure-footed screen adaptation of Henry James … clarifying some of the original's ambiguities and obscurities, but without damaging the story's subtlety… [The governess] finds something she describes as "secret, whispery, and indecent": the house is haunted by the souls of Peter Quint, a drunken, disreputable valet, and Miss Jessel, the former governess whom he seduced. Without admitting it, the children can see the ghosts as well; the spectres have become their secret, parasitical friends. Flora's pertly knowing innocence and Miles's insolent adult hauteur show how the children become possessed and corrupted by them. Clayton brilliantly uses slow dissolves to create ghostly superimpositions, and the harmless squeals of bath-time fun, or squeakings of a pencil, suggest uncanny screams. The most disturbing scenes take place in daylight: Quint's appearance in the garden is heralded by the sudden silencing of the birdsong. It's a moment that makes your blood run cold. The whole film does that.
The Innocents remains the unquestionable masterpiece to which all adaptations must needs be compared – atmospheric, psychological, stark and bleak, and often terrifying, it is one of the best ghost stories in cinema.
BONUS: The Others, 2001.
Not a direct adaptation of “The Turn of the Screw,” this Nicole Kidman film is largely inspired by the mood and plot of James’ novel, even borrowing its title from the governess’ fear of “the others.” It is notwithstanding, often regarded as a loose adaptation, and is indeed a brilliant and truly terrifying horror film in the psychological vein of The Innocents. A woman is living in a remote house with her two children (who are both allergic to sunlight) after World War II. They are soon joined by a group of servants, which sparks a series of ghostly events and disturbing discoveries, including the appearance of the presumed KIA father, and the children’s obsession with death. Fog envelops the home, preventing them from leaving for help when she becomes convinced that the house is possessed, and she is certain that the servants are up to horrible things when she catches them burying headstones under leaves. To say much more is to ruin an intelligent horror film.