The new television adaptation of Henry James's ghost story The Turn of the Screw, screened on BBC1 on December 30th, proved disappointing. Jack Clayton’s 1961 film of the story, The Innocents (from a script by Truman Capote and John Mortimer among others), is a classic: beautiful, atmospheric, and appropriately haunting, with startling performances, particularly from Deborah Kerr as the governess convinced that her two apparently angelic charges, Miles and Flora, are possessed by the spirits of two corrupt servants. Re-reading the Henry James story over the past few days, I was surprised at just what a perverse, suggestive and unsettling text it is; its powerful undertones of sexual disgust and class terror are truly disturbing. (This must surely be the James story that Virginia Woolf, as reported in her diaries, was reprimanded by an editor for describing as “lewd”.)
The meaning of the story has of course been debated for years: are the governess’s visions of the dead servants “real” or the product of an imagination stoked by repressed sexuality and a hidebound religious background? Are the children at risk from the servants, or from her? For James, writing in his notebook, the answer was clear: the ghosts were real; the governess's fears justified. But the tale keeps its psychosexual ambiguities until the bitter end, in a way that has succeeded in getting several generations of literary critics very excited indeed.
The new BBC version, directed by Tim Fywell from a script by Sandy Welch, had some intriguing elements. Relocated to the post-WW1 period (1921), it attempted (as The Innocents did not) to create a frame structure analogous to the tale-being-told device in the original story: here the governess (competently played by Michelle Dockery) is given first-person narrative agency, as she recounts her experiences at Bly to a psychiatrist (Dan Stevens) in a mental hospital where she has been incarcerated. The drama certainly made the most of the governess’s own sexual appetites: fantasy scenes of her romping with the children’s mysterious uncle (played by Mark Umbers, a talented and sadly underused actor) spelled this aspect out in no uncertain terms. But Welch’s adaptation ultimately seemed to vindicate the governess’s visions, critiquing a reading of them as feminine hysteria and linking the character, by implication, to the shell-shocked soldiers seen throughout the film. (A nod to Mrs Dalloway, perhaps?) This conceit, though very interesting, ultimately served to bog the story down, distracting from the central events at Bly, which were not terribly well executed in this version. We may not have expected the sensuous elegance of the Clayton film but Fywell’s style became downright clunky, the tension dissipating scene by scene. Thus the adaptation gradually became a rather incoherent amalgam of generic effects: scenes spuriously relocated to graveyards, appallingly heavy-handed flashbacks demonstrating the servants’ deviance, an intrusive score. Even the governess's sympathetic confidante Mrs Grose (Sue Johnston) was turned, rather bizarrely, into a figure of suspicion, with a habit of hanging around in cemeteries. Since the performances of the two child actors playing Miles and Flora were, sadly, not quite adequate, the adaptation lost much of its power to disturb, and was never very scary. James, with his special gift for dialogue and his genius for scene-making, created a story much more intrinsically dramatic than the adaptation proved to be.
As well as the memory of the Clayton film casting its long shadow, The Turn of the Screw has also been homaged brilliantly by Alejandro Amenábar in The Others (2001), in which Nicole Kidman memorably channelled Kerr’s woman-on-the-verge intensity. Capped by a confused and derivative ending which suggested that the saga was about to begin all over again, with another governess as the victim, Welch and Fywell’s version sacrificed its more interesting ideas and fell sadly flat.