Few works of fiction have sparked as much exegesis over the last 100 years as The Turn of the Screw, the enigmatic gothic novella that Henry James first published as a serial in 1898. It took roughly 40 years for the critical wars to begin, when Edmund Wilson published “The Ambiguity of Henry James,” an essay theorizing that the ordeals of the protagonist (an unnamed governess) are distortions of her neurotic mind.

Since then, The Turn of the Screw has not only maintained its status as a conundrum but has also become an evergreen cultural touchstone, resurrected every few years for a new treatment in assorted mediums. It’s been the basis of an opera (composed by Benjamin Britten), a radio drama (featuring Edna Best), a play (written by William Archibald), a ballet (choreographed by Will Tuckett), and a graphic novel (illustrated by Guido Crepax). Its Victorian setting, limited cast of characters, and literary pedigree made it a small-screen favorite in the Masterpiece Theater mold, with PBS and the BBC both producing versions. The made-for-TV era spawned several budget adaptations involving a motley crew of talents ranging from schlockmeister Dan Curtis to sitcom starlet Valerie Bertinelli. (One of the earliest television adaptations, broadcast in 1959 as an episode of Ford Startime, was directed by John Frankenheimer and starred Ingrid Bergman as the governess.)

On celluloid, The Turn of the Screw has proved even more prevalent, if not exactly popular, with nearly a dozen variations filmed across the globe. It has been updated to the 1920s, the 1960s, the 1980s, and in its latest incarnation, The Haunting of Bly Manor, currently streaming on Netflix, it is set in the present.

No matter how many versions are produced, however, none have equaled the earliest attempt: The Innocents, released in 1961 and directed by Jack Clayton, fresh off the runaway success of his kitchen-sink drama Room at the Top. Based on the play written by William Archibald, The Innocents, in keeping with the general theme of interpretation, is one step removed from its source. As part of a package deal with 20th Century Fox that allowed Clayton to film The Turn of the Screw, Archibald came aboard as screenwriter, reproducing much of his play verbatim in the process. Unsatisfied by early drafts, Clayton relied on script doctoring from a pre-Rumpole John Mortimer. But the grotesque hothouse atmosphere of The Innocents belongs to Truman Capote, then in the midst of composing In Cold Blood and mailing rewrites, dialogue, and edits from Switzerland, where he had hunkered down to complete his revolutionary nonfiction novel.

Unlike The Turn of the Screw, with its myriad possible interpretations, it is clear where The Innocents stands: Clayton had a typescript of “The Ambiguity of Henry James” included in his production notes and a copy attached to an early script. Even the Fox marketing department developed an ad that aimed at the heart of the matter: “Did she really see these evil spirits . . . or was she really the love-starved spinster ‘the innocents’ said she was?”

In The Turn of the Screw, a young, inexperienced governess (named Miss Giddens in the film) is sent to an isolated country estate, Bly, where apparitions seemingly threaten the two children under her care. This bare-bones plot is straight out of the Gothic playbook, dogeared even in 1898 from repeated thumbings and overuse, but open-ended enough for James to construct a frame for his ingenious manipulations. The psychologically disturbed narrator was uncommon in 1898 when James published the novella as a serial, but it had certainly been established, gruesomely, by Edgar Allan Poe decades earlier. From this point of departure, Clayton and Capote constructed a mystifier based on a “non-apparitionist” reading of the novella.

The Innocents begins as it ends: a haunting lullaby, moonlit gloom, and Miss Giddens (played by an earnest Deborah Kerr) in anguished prayer mode, a tortured voiceover revealing her despondent thoughts after a tragedy of her own making has occurred. A dissolve leads us to the narrative proper, when Miss Giddens interviews for a position as the governess of Bly. Here she meets the cavalier uncle of her future charges, a charismatic albeit overripe Michael Redgrave, who leaves Miss Giddens spellbound and all but seduces her into accepting the job. As if to underscore the psychodrama about to ensue, a phrenology head sits on the desk, hinting at the interiority of the narrative. The uncle’s first question sets the tone: “Miss Giddens, may I ask you a somewhat personal question? Do you have an imagination?”

Though Miss Giddens has never had a position of any kind before, the uncle hires her based on her acceptance of one condition: that she never trouble him with any matters concerning his niece and nephew. She has, he tells her, “supreme authority” henceforth, which places her in a perilous situation.

When Miss Giddens arrives at Bly, she immediately announces her presence as a destructive force, delicately fingering an arrangement of flowers whose petals crumble at her touch. From then on, she is at the mercy of—take your pick—her imagination, her thwarted libido, her nightmares, her roiling subconscious, her unearthly charges (Miles and Flora), or the ghosts of her predecessor Miss Jessel and the former valet, Peter Quint, two servants who had engaged in a sometimes-violent love affair.

To the role of a sheltered naif, Kerr brings not only her keen intelligence and nuanced style but also associations from previous roles. She had played a governess in the King and I and a repressed spinster-to-be in Separate Tables. Her upright/uptight air of reserve gradually unravels, and what we’re left with is an unsettling tale of disintegration and messianic destruction.

James originally conceived the governess as a sheltered 20-year-old further primed for suggestibility by a habit of reading romance novels. The first-person narrative of The Turn of the Screw is peppered with references to Ann Radcliffe, Charlotte Bronte, Henry Fielding, and fairy tales, giving the novella a metafictional veneer appropriate for its theme of interpretation and misinterpretation. Though Kerr is far older than the governess is in the novella, she effectively represents the byproducts of Victorian repression. As a character, Miss Giddens is largely a cipher, with only the occasional hint at a backstory, but the viewer empathizes with this inexperienced woman, who has been thrown into circumstances ultimately beyond her control. She is instantly smitten by the cavalier playboy uncle in London, she is awed by the opulent house and its expansive grounds, she is terrified by the phantoms that appear to her, and she is so overwhelmed by her first job that it culminates in a spectacular catastrophe. All of this is set against a backdrop of decadent statuary and deep-focus camera work that accentuates the symbolism of the set design, including a white rose motif that dominates the film’s first half.

Miss Giddens fights mounting dread as she realizes that the spirits she has seen at Bly—including a manifestation of Miss Jessel hovering in the lake—are a danger to Miles and Flora. To her, the dead have arrived at Bly to corrupt the children, who act out in ways that disturb her. In one scene, Miles tears around the estate on a pony, demonstrating a daring meant to suggest a transgressive edge. A game of hide-and-seek sees Miles ambush Miss Giddens from behind and place her in a stiff headlock. An impromptu costume party features Miles reciting a gloomy poem and looking ghoulish in the process. These incidents involving Miles and Flora add another level of uncertainty to a tale whose subtexts seem infinite.

By dramatizing Miles and Flora, the film creates doubt in the viewer, mirroring the governess’s own mistrust. In The Innocents, Miles is positively sinister, Flora only slightly less so, and these characterizations (muted in the novella) give credence to the outlandish suspicions Miss Giddens begins to harbor about them. Flora and Miles both reveal offhand cruelty—Flora when she gleefully watches a spider maul a butterfly, and Miles when he is found with a dead pigeon under his pillow, likely killed by a stone from his slingshot. Already a recognizable avatar of tween evil from his role as one of the Hitler Youth-like alien children in Village of the Damned, Stephens is remarkable as an all-too-adult ten-year-old who has already seen too much.

And Miss Giddens? What, exactly, has she seen? There is no “objective” sighting of the apparitions; that is to say, no one sees them but her, and she is in every scene in which Quint and Jessel appear. Twice, the film offers clever transposition scenes, where Miss Giddens winds up in locations where she has the ghosts in effect replacing them, which suggests how important she is to their materialization. Each time, the housekeeper Mrs. Grose walks in, startled to see Miss Giddens and her haunted/haunting look. In fact, there is only one occasion that hints at the existence of the ghosts: when Miss Giddens discovers tears left behind by Miss Jessel in the schoolroom, a scene that Capote would later regard as a mistake.

A lurid dream sequence, with hints of perversity, reflects just how psychologically troubled Miss Giddens is. (Under Capote, the sexual undertones of the novella also boil to the surface, culminating in the shocking climax—a gloss on necrophilia that would have incinerated the Hays office just a year or two earlier. Indeed, the British Board of Film Censors gave the film an X rating.) Kerr plays Miss Giddens with a sense of disquiet and a rising uneasiness that becomes harder and harder for her to suppress as she begins to disintegrate. The forces behind her collapse seemingly go beyond her obsession with supernatural events (real or imagined): they also include class and status.

Miss Giddens, from modest circumstances, the spinsterish daughter of a country parson, suddenly finds herself in control of a lavish estate, and in the presence of aristocratic charges and all the accouterments of high society. From the moment she arrives at Bly, however, she is undermined, first, by a disembodied voice calling out for Flora; then by the apparitions of Quint and Jessel; and finally, by those over whom she has been given “supreme authority.” Throughout the film, Miles and Flora exchange conspiratorial glances as they undermine the governess, but their mischievousness eventually leads to tragedy. Because Miss Giddens sees malevolence in their every naughty act, they unwittingly generate their own affliction.

Now considered something of a classic, The Innocents had few precedents (perhaps only The Uninvited), and its importance as a film landmark has been understated. As Christopher Frayling noted in his BFI monograph on the film, ghosts were mostly played for laughs on the silver screen. Even The Haunting, released a few years later and generally ranked as one of the masterworks of supernatural cinema, featured Russ Tamblyn in a role clearly drawn up for comic relief. Aside from the expository introduction dominated by a hammy Redgrave and the idyllic, sunlit early scenes, when Bly has yet to work its black magic on Miss Giddins, The Innocents is unrelentingly grim, certainly the first Hollywood film to take ghosts seriously—a belated milestone, considering how writers including Charles Dickens, Ambrose Bierce, Guy De Maupassant, Rudyard Kipling, Henry James, Edith Wharton, and E. F. Benson all penned works featuring apparitions, doubles, and what the American Society for Psychical Research (co-founded by William James) would call the “paranormal.”

When The Innocents, originally filmed in CinemaScope, was released on DVD in 2005 in a widescreen (letterbox) format, it became a revelation: pan-and-scan had never seemed so ruinous. And from this revival emerged the true star of the film: cinematographer Freddie Francis, who had just won an Oscar for his work on Sons and Lovers. The atmosphere of The Innocents is both eerie and exquisite, alternately tenebrous and picturesque.

At times, Miss Giddens is hemmed in by the darkness at Bly. To achieve this claustrophobic look during night scenes, Francis used lens filters with their edges painted black. (Robert Wise would also tinker with lenses for expressionistic effect in The Haunting.) For pragmatic purposes, this process “centered” the images of what is essentially a chamber piece; aesthetically, it created a phantasmagoric otherworld. As Miss Giddens stalks the corridors of the house, with trick candles (up to five wicks in each stick, actually visible on Blu-Ray) to guide her way, she is enveloped in shadows, as wraithlike as the phantoms she believes are haunting the grounds of Bly.

“The innocents” is a phrase that Miss Giddens uses sarcastically about Miles and Flora, but like so much in the film (and the book), its meaning is questionable. The fact remains that Miles and Flora are traumatized before Miss Giddens ever arrives at Bly. Both their parents have died, and their previous governess, Miss Jessel, has committed suicide. It was Miles who found the body of Quint, dead after a drunken accident. And their legal guardian, too busy globetrotting from his base in London, barely has a thought to spare for them. Finally, Miles and Flora have suffered from an unwholesome environment promoted by the sadistic—and lascivious—relationship between Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. “There was no cruelty she wouldn’t suffer,” says Mrs. Grose about Miss Jessel. “If he struck her—yes, and I’ve seen him knock her to the floor—she’d look at him as though she wanted the weight of his hand. No pride, no shame . . . rooms—used by daylight—as though they were dark woods.” In the end, then, what Miss Giddens says about Miles and Flora is one of the few moments of verity in a world-within-a-world of illusion.

If The Innocents no longer produces chills in the modern viewer (partly because its effects have diminished over time from subsequent imitations), it remains a tour de force by virtue of its craftsmanship and its formalism—motifs, symbols, mise en scene, dialogue, set design—which work in concert to create an unsettling vision of a mind in extremis.

Photo: 20th Century Fox / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next