On the Most Adapted Ghost Story of All Time

Adam Scovell Looks Into the Cinematic Appeal of Henry James’s Turn of the Screw

Ghost stories are about seeing. If their earnest intention in simplistic terms is to scare, then that fear first and foremost arises from witnessing. Seeing becomes séance in tales of the supernatural. In the history of the literary ghost story, several writers have taken the form to its zenith through terrifying temporal lapses of perception. Those glimpsed stories of M.R. James’s or those witnessed horrors of Charles Dickens; all stories in which the act of seeing becomes the spine of the narrative.

With this in mind, it’s clear to see why several of the strongest ghost stories of the last two hundred years or so have found their way onto screens in various forms. With the act of seeing so pivotal to their narrative arcs, there is an obvious visual quality within them that renders their potential for screen adaptation irresistible. It could almost be argued that the most adapted of writers and their stories are those that convey this visual terror most effectively.

M.R. James is likely the most adapted of ghost story writers (perhaps with some competition from Algernon Blackwood), in terms of the sheer number of different stories that have made it onto the screen. An upcoming adaptation of his story The Mezzotint is due to be screened at Christmas this year on the BBC. In terms of singular stories, one of the most adapted is arguably Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, partly (like James) due to its firm position within Christmas tradition.

One story above all is returned to again and again by filmmakers across countries and eras, suggesting that it may be the most visually alarming of all English language eerie tales. That story is Henry James’s 1898 novella, The Turn of the Screw.

The novella follows the haunted and disturbing events at a manor in Bly, Essex. A group of men are being read a manuscript authored by a governess who was charged with the care of the children of the manor, Miles and Flora. Miles has been mysteriously expelled from school and returns home. The governess becomes increasingly unnerved by their behavior and the presence of a man and a woman seen variously around the property. They are said to be the spirits of the previous governess Miss Jessel and her lover Peter Quint. Soon, the governess suspects liaisons between the ghosts and children, her investigations resulting in horror and tragedy.

James’s heady novella is arguably the most successful ghost story ever written, at least in terms of creative responses to it. A cursory glance over IMDb entries reveals over two dozen screen adaptations, and that’s before including filmed versions of the chamber opera of the story by composer Benjamin Britten.

The Innocents epitomized one of James’s most perfectly eerily lines: “He was there or was not there: not there if I didn’t see him.”

In particular, the last two decades have seen a slew of television adaptations, 2020 itself boasting no less than six screen versions of various kinds. Even this year, there have already been two adaptations, and filmmakers seem to sleepwalk into recreating it in the same somnambulist fashion as the children of the narrative; possessed of spirits older and darker than themselves.

Out of the many adaptations, Jack Clayton’s 1961 version is considered the benchmark. The film celebrated its 60th anniversary this year, having premiered in London on the 24th of November, 1961. Considering the sheer number of competitors to Clayton’s version, it is telling of the film’s qualities that it still stands far and above its many peers. In fact, it is difficult to see James’s story without those stark black-and-white images of the film coming to mind, as well as its stunning central performance by Deborah Kerr. Suffice to say, 60 years on, Jamess’ screen ghosts still haunt.

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The Turn of the Screw has the sort of ambiguous ghostly heritage expected of such a celebrated tale. James was acquainted with another noted exponent of the English ghost story, E.F. Benson. Benson’s father Edward White Benson was the Archbishop of Canterbury and, on a visit to his house in 1895, the archbishop purportedly told James a story. The story was one vaguely similar to the narrative he was soon to produce, in which two children were left in the care of ill-suited servants, both of whom died and haunted the children, corrupting them even from the grave.

Roger Clarke, the author of The Natural History of Ghosts, has researched the story’s history thoroughly and highlighted the murky contradictions within its possible inspirations. “The general scholarly view is that The Turn of the Screw is not based on any known story but,” he writes, “in fact, the story recounted one January evening at the archbishop’s house in Addington…” Clarke sees some connection to the famous haunting of Hinton Ampner and its occupant Mary Ricketts, perhaps passed down through the upper echelons of society to the archbishop. He does stress, however, that E.F. Benson, along with the archbishop’s wife, could never recall the man recounting such a ghost story.

The novella was originally published by Collier’s Weekly in a 12-part serial form in 1898 between January and April. Tellingly, the visual potential of the narrative was already understood by the publishers who commissioned several pieces of artwork for each instalment, with title illustrations by John La Farge and episode illustrations by Eric Pape. Looking back on the visual culture surrounding James’s story, it’s easy to see the influence these drawings had on future adaptations. One illustration by Pape, entitled “I must have thrown myself, on my face, on the ground” looks like a possible piece of storyboard for Clayton’s later film.

James’s story quickly garnered critical interpretation. In particular, the deeply disturbing undertones of sexuality, as well as possible psychological implications of the ghosts’ presence, came to the fore in a number of well known analyses.

Virginia Woolf was particularly intrigued, and aptly turned to James’s investigation of perception to explore the undertones of his story and its fine line between inner demons and the physical body. In an essay for The Times Literary Supplement she wrote that James’s characters “…with their extreme fineness of perception are already half-way out of the body.”

The horror of James’s story is that seeing ghosts doesn’t necessarily mean a visitation of them to our world, but of the perceiver into theirs. We are midway towards death in seeing a ghost, within a momentary halfway house which we can either step back from or descend into.

Similarly to Woolf, in one of the most famous analyses of James’s story, the critic Edmund Wilson went further in determining the ghosts to be of the governess’ own psyche. Wilson was far less positive in his mildly infamous critique of James in a 1934 issue of Hound and Horn. “Observe that there is never any evidence that anybody but the governess sees the ghosts,” he wrote. The irony within his turn of phrase is that it exemplifies James’s skill. Look, the critic suggests, at the lack of evidence. He is playing James’s game without realizing. Woolf suggested something similar, albeit more positively, in that James’s ghosts “…have their origin within us.”

“The more I go over it,” James wrote in his novella, “the more I see in it, and the more I see in it, the more I fear.”

Wilson may have directed future discussion of James’s story down increasingly psychoanalytical paths but he, along with Woolf and many others, did highlight its chief facet: perception. Seeing and interpreting what is witnessed is key, and is really why the story has worked so well in visual formats; media whose aesthetic can further aid the original so-called trickery, and take the audience into disturbing psychological or supernatural realms.

The Turn of the Screw lived by James’s belief that happy endings and morally pure characters were of little consequence: “It matters little that, as a work of art,” he wrote in Longman’s Magazine in 1884, “it should really be as little or as much concerned to supply happy endings, sympathetic characters, and an objective tone, as if it were a work of mechanics.” In the century that followed, this potential for darkness became a ripe field, especially with the new awareness of the world and its despair in the post-war years. It was here when James’s story became in vogue to adapt on stage and screen. It was also the time when the best adaptations of James’s story were made.

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Jack Clayton’s production of The Innocents is legendary for the many stories surrounding it. From script to filming, many names are associated with the adaptation. The change in name to The Innocents came from William Archibald’s 1950 stageplay. Clayton wasn’t the first to use Archibald’s stage rendering, with Lionel Harris adapting a version of it for ITV’s Play of the Week in 1956. Pamela Brown played the unfortunate governess in that rendition.

Clayton’s film took Archibald’s play and paired it down further. With the help of Truman Capote, who paused writing on In Cold Blood to work on it, the adaptation put even more emphasis on what was seen, glimpsed, and imagined. Future adapter of Merriam Modell’s Bunny Lake is Missing John Mortimer further edited the dialogue. Even Harold Pinter, who later worked with the director on an adaptation of Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater in 1964, went against type and suggested, contrary to the temporal collage of his own film work, not to use flashbacks in the script.

On a visual level, Clayton’s interpretation is rich yet sparse. Such was the intensity of lighting used by cinematographer Freddie Francis that Deborah Kerr was said to wear sunglasses in between takes. Jokes abounded as to Francis’s intent to set fire to Sheppteron Studios where the bulk of the studio work was shot, when not using the enigmatic location of Sheffield Park House and Garden. The resulting film became a widely celebrated British horror; one that its director was at pains to separate from other horror films made around it, particularly Hammer Studios’ colorful Gothic romps.

The Innocents epitomized one of James’s most perfectly eerily lines: “He was there or was not there: not there if I didn’t see him.” There’s a disturbing omnipresence throughout the narrative, in which visuals work via insinuation, strange shadows in the reeds and behind icy windows become apparent in their macabre nature only when slowly considered in hindsight.

A great deal of effort goes into the visual composition of Clayton’s film. Bearing witness to such unusual goings on is shared between viewer and main character. It’s a shared experience that, while only echoed in the novella via its epistemological credentials, explains why so many filmmakers are drawn to the story. We and Miss Giddings are seeing things that neither can understand. “We were cut off, really, together; we were united in our danger,” as James wrote. He could have been describing the terrifying pleasures of the cinema experience itself.

In spite of owing as much to Archibald’s stage play as James’s prose, The Innocents captures more than most that half imagined horror of the original novella. Things may or may not be seen, something of a subtlety that feels increasingly rare in screen media. “Ten years ago you could still get away with a film like The Innocents,” Clayton concluded in a 1983 interview with Starburst Magazine, “which frightened people but used no special effects and made the audience use their imagination.” How things would change as The Turn of the Screw started to rack up adaptation upon adaptation.

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Adapting The Turn of the Screw has become a messy ritual in recent decades. This is partly because there’s a sense of going through the motions. It really is the most unlikely of screen traditions. But the main reason for the strangeness is that, such is the volume of adaptation, versions begin to resemble each other. The success of The Innocents has some part to play in this, but cannot be helped considering that the film itself is also a response to an adapted stageplay. Spectral echoes continue on.

Adapting The Turn of the Screw has become a messy ritual in recent decades.

In foreshadow to The Innocents, the already discussed ITV play of 1956 played some role in laying the groundwork for its staging, as did the earliest of its screen adaptations, the surprisingly still surviving episode of Omnibus from 1955. The American anthology show adapted the story into a short television play starring the great Geraldine Page. Miles is played by Rex Thompson, the irony being that the young actor would actually have Deborah Kerr play a mother figure to him in several films, namely Young Bess (1953) and The King and I (1956)

The Omnibus script was by Gore Vidal and his version heightened the psychological readings that had dominated the criticism of James’s story; to the point where the play almost explicitly shows the ghosts to be an irresponsible projection on the governess’ part. The little-seen television play can be watched in segments today on YouTube and is still claustrophobic and effective, especially as it toes the line with James’s emphasis on vision. Characters look off behind camera, showing what they see through widening eyes and leering delusion.

Even as Clayton’s film was released, television versions were already proving popular. Aside from these two versions, adaptations were made in Canada and Germany. It was not until the 1970s when filmmakers in particular dared touch the narrative again, especially after the success of Clayton’s film.

In an odd turn, Michael Winner made a prequel to the film called The Nightcomers (1971). It follows Peter Quint played by Marlon Brando as he slowly begins his corruption of the previous governess and the children. Admittedly, the corruption seems to be lighthearted and, as a film, it cannot decide precisely how good or evil to make Quint. The corruption seems at times to be little more than breaking the codes of Victorian decorum.

Out of the later television adaptations, few stand out. The strongest is arguably Dan Curtis’s 1974 feature length adaptation (script by William F. Nolan) starring Lynn Redgrave as the governess. The version has some continuity with Clayton’s, using one member of the original cast (Megs Jenkins as Mrs. Grose) and creating a different but equally heady atmosphere in which the soft focus of the hazy television cameras lulls the viewer into a false sense of ease.

Soon, adaptations were finding other ways to stand out from the pack. Many looked to Benjamin Britten’s complex opera, filming it in relatively straightforward terms. Ironically, it became less about the witnessing of ghosts through sight and more overtly to do with sound. The same aspect could be applied to the growing jump-scare traditions of later versions, which relied on sound for scares rather than the creeping dread of a well realized image.

They would have done better to look to Kate Bush’s “The Infant Kiss,” her song inspired by James’s story featured on the 1980 album Never For Ever. Aside from emphasizing the creepiness of the story’s undertone, the lyrics show an understanding of the role perception plays in James’s story. “There’s a man behind those eyes…” she sings; an eerie reversal of one of her earlier, more famous songs, “The Man with the Child in His Eyes.” In The Turn of the Screw there is very much a child with a man and his eyes, and that man is vile. Eloy de la Iglesia’s 1985 Spanish adaptation comes closest to realizing these disturbing undertones, casting the role of the governess as a troubled male priest.

By the 1990s, the story was on screen in various forms on an almost yearly basis. Consider Rusty Lemorande’s 1992 version with Patsy Kensit, the BBC’s 1994 Britten adaptation introduced by David Hemmings (who played Miles in the early staging of the opera), or Tom McCloughlin’s 1995 adaptation, broadcast under the title of The Haunting of Helen Walker. The end of the decade finalized the trend for endless adaptations. 1999 saw multiple versions released: Antoni Aloy’s Presence of Mind starring Lauren Bacall and a PBS version by Ben Bolt.

In the last two decades, there have been over a dozen versions of the story, most of which are superfluous to use. In cinema, these include Donato Rotunno’s In a Dark Place (2004), Walter Lima Jr.’s Through the Shadow (2015), and Floria Sigismondi’s recent The Turning (2020). Television is responsible for the bulk of adaptations, however, whether it be the bland Netflix rendition The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020) by Mike Flanagan, Tim Fywell’s 2009 version with Michelle Dockery, or Alex Galvin’s 2020 strange meta-take on the narrative which sets itself within a staging of Britten’s chamber opera. 2020 was the final turn in oversaturation, a point where there’s been so many that the coffin is now more metal than wood, to paraphrase one writer.

“The more I go over it,” James wrote in his novella, “the more I see in it, and the more I see in it, the more I fear.” The same cannot be said for the experience of his story on screen. The more versions of The Turn of the Screw that clog up Halloween and Yuletide schedules, the lesser their shocks and shivers become. Equally, it does allow appreciation for Clayton’s version to grow; to understand the precise and water-clear intention of a James adaptation that sees ghosts as glimpsed glitches of the ongoing moment. The governess argues in James’s novella that “I was a screen… I was their protector. The more I saw, the less they would.” How ironic that those fateful days at Bly would ironically become the most seen out of any supernatural fable ever told.

Adam Scovell
Adam Scovell
Adam Scovell is a writer and filmmaker from Merseyside now based in London. He completed his PhD in Music at Goldsmiths in 2018. He has written for the BFI, The Times, Financial Times, Little White Lies, and the BBC as well as for many other outlets. He has collaborated with the writer Robert Macfarlane on several films, including adaptations of Holloway (2015) and Ness (2019). In 2017, his first book Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange was published by Auteur and University of Columbia Press. In 2019, his first novel Mothlight was published by Influx Press in 2019. His latest novel, How Pale The Winter Has Made Us, was published in 2020 by Influx Press.





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