Adaptation: Turn of the Screw

By Silvia Moreno-Garcia

mouraDuring the 1960s and 70s, there was a craze for Gothic novels. The covers of many paperbacks featured a woman (often in a white nightgown) running away from a castle, tower, or other ominous landmark. The women in the covers were, of course, the literary descendants of Jane Eyre.

The books often had exciting titles, such as The House of Secrets, The Black Dog, or Festival of Darkness. Back in the day, these covers held much of my attention. I say the covers because I didn’t actually read the books. It wasn’t the kind of stuff that could be passed as literature at the family table and while my dad might let me read comic books (Alucine, the Spanish equivalent of Tales from the Crypt), I never dared to ask for one of those Gothic novels.

The next best thing, of course, was to read The Turn of The Screw by Henry James, which seemed to be a classy Gothic story. If you’ve never read it (and you should), Turn of The Screw tells the story of a young governess in a remote estate who discovers that the two children under her charge are possessed by the ghosts of two former employees. Or, she may just be going bonkers. Probably a combination of both.

Literature and films love crazy women. Crazy men have their place (The Horla, most of Lovecraft’s protagonists if they don’t get eaten by some evil thing from beyond the stars), but crazy women have proliferated, due in part to the Gothic craze of years past and works such as The Yellow Wallpaper.

The perfect complement to a ghost story seems to be a nervous woman who might be going insane. This explains why Turn of The Screw has been adapted many times, with various degrees of success. The best adaptation is probably The Innocents. Deborah Kerr is fragile, neurotic and prim, oozing repression as she walks through the large estate, which seems to hide a secret corruption beneath its lush fa├žade.

While The Innocents is about the secrets hidden beneath the surface, The Nightcomers (1972) delights itself in using in-your-face sex and violence. A prequel of sorts, it imagines events before the beginning of Turn of the Screw. It’s neither scary nor very interesting.

The Turn of the Screw (1993) moves the action to the 1960s, but keeps most of its Victorian feel (barring Julian Sands in ’60s clothing) by placing the story inside a big, old mansion. It’s not a very good movie: clunky, with bad pacing and a knack for making what should be mysterious seem mundane and dull. This includes the ghosts, who stomp around the house and make themselves more of a nuisance than a menace. Like The Nightcomers, this adaptation also tries to play up the sexual aspects of the story, with as much delicacy as a brick thrown against the viewer’s skull.

Presence Of Mind (1999) retained its period setting, but added some sexual fantasy sequences for good measure. The one thing of note in this adaptation is the bad casting, with Lauren Bacall as the housekeeper lurking in the shadows and Harvey Keitel as the master of the manor.

In a Dark Place (2006), a loose adaptation of James’ novel, adds gratuitous nudity and a lesbian relationship to the story. Rule Number 23 of horror movies: when two women are left in a large house with only small children to keep them company, they will immediately fall into bed together. I guess when you can’t have blood on screen, you should at least have boobies.

More successful than these adaptations are The Orphanage, The Others and The Devil’s Backbone, which, although not based on the Turn of the Screw, manage to convey a similar feeling of ghostly menace. Curiously, these movies are all directed by Spanish-speakers.

I don’t think there’s some genetic predisposition for Gothic horror in Spanish or Latin-American writers or directors, even if I do suffer from an affinity to Gothic stories. You can probably blame smaller budgets for some of the restraint shown by these filmmakers.

Or, perhaps, they figured out the same thing I discovered about the covers of Gothic novels: the best part is imagining what lies inside. And, in this spirit, I dare you to write your own imaginary blurbs for these fabulous covers.

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