Losing Innocence: a Comparative Analysis of Henry James’s the Turn of the Screw and Jack Clayton’s Film Adaptation, the Innocents

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  • Topic: Henry James, The Innocents, The Turn of the Screw
  • Pages : 5 (2080 words )
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  • Published : September 10, 2008
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Henry James’s novella, The Turn of the Screw, has entranced readers and held them in a finely woven web of ambiguity for over one hundred years. During that time, readers, scholars, and critics have tried to escape its clutches by offering a myriad of interpretations, a vast spectrum of critical opinions which make a definitive solution an impossibility. James’s masterful use of uncertainty truly supports, if not promotes, the ability of readers to discover numerous meanings to the tales mysteries. Does the governess really see the ghostly figures of Quint and Miss Jessel? Are the apparitions merely figments of an overactive imagination? Are the children accurately perceived as angelic innocents, or are they willing participants to possession by the evil manifestations? To answer these questions, James craftily leaves only veiled hints for the reader to collect and decipher along the way. The same vagueness that provides for endless critical study, however, poses a large problem when adapting the story to film. Careful consideration is given to which elements of character and plot need to be included, as well as how focus needs to be placed on them in order to achieve the desired effect. Movies are almost never an exact match to the text from which they are taken; they are merely the director’s vision of that text. Creating an adaptation of The Turn of the Screw is made all the more difficult by the seemingly infinite positions that can be taken. In 1961, Jack Clayton directed what is still known as the definitive cinematic version of James’s ghostly tale: The Innocents. His artistic vision of the events at Bly, combined with a skillfully designed script by legendary screenwriters William Archibald and Truman Capote, creates a chilling visual look into the psychological terror of James’s literary classic. It is also a somewhat imperfect one. James presents The Turn of the Screw as the manuscript of the governess’s recollections, transcribed, preserved and read twenty years after her death by Douglas, then retold years later by an unnamed narrator. In the book, this initial first person narration establishes the setting of the story at the remote country estate, and Douglas’s testimony to the character of the governess is the only one we get aside from our own judgment. With the insinuation of an illicit affair, the reliability of these characters and veracity of the tale are immediately called into question, though, and the lack of answers is our first indication that James will leave much to the reader’s imagination. In The Innocents, however, this entire prologue is omitted and viewers are not privilege to the initial perceptions it grants; the first person narration of the story’s telling and retelling is lost. Instead, Archibald and Capote leave it to Clayton and the camera to provide only the third person perspective, bringing us in to witness what appears to be the emotional breakdown of the governess after her ordeal; her hands in supplication, she bemoans her failure to save the children. It is an introduction to the governess that gives us an insight to her character after the ordeal that is not a part of the original, and reduces some of the ambiguity James leaves about the conclusion. In both versions, her story then begins with her meeting the privacy-demanding gentleman of Harley Street. It is here that we quickly perceive another key example of Clayton’s failure to follow too closely in James’s ambiguous footsteps. While James had left three of his characters without one, the governess, known only as such throughout the entirety of The Turn of the Screw, is given a name: Miss Giddens. It is during her interview with the uncle that we learn the circumstances, and peculiar requirement, of the position Miss Giddens seeks. In the movie we are additionally introduced to the character of Miss Jessel, her death, and young Flora’s love for her. The connection between the two is firmly and quickly...
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