‘The Turning’ could be the perfect film version of its source material, if hindsight is involved.
Floria Sigismondi, one-time feature director, recent TV rookie, and innovative helmer of music videos (including Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People”), has just been named as the director for The Turning, the latest cinematic iteration of Henry James’s horror novella “The Turn of the Screw.” Due to begin production early next year, this adaptation will follow a long line of TV and film renderings of the classic short story.
We know that this version, based on a script by The Conjuring writers Chad and Carey Hayes, will be a contemporary one, but there is no indication as of yet that the plot will otherwise deviate from the source material.
If you haven’t read James’s novella or need reminding, the story revolves around a governess hired to care for two young children she’s never met: Miles and Flora. After Miles arrives home for the summer, having been mysteriously expelled from boarding school, the unnamed governess begins to see apparitions of a young man and a woman on the house’s grounds. Their identities become clear when the housekeeper, Mrs Grose, recognizes the governess’s descriptions as matching those of Peter Quint, a now deceased valet at the house, and Miss Jessel, the current governess’s missing predecessor. The two had had a scandalous, cross-class intimate relationship and apparently had spent much of their time with Miles and Flora.
James’s writing delicately hints at a sense of impropriety here, both regarding Jessel and Quint’s relationship (understood by many to be less romantic, more darkly sexual) and the deceased adults’ interaction with the two children. Although she suspects Miles and Flora can see the ghosts, the governess can’t get a clear answer from anyone, only infuriating evasion and much too ardent denials.
A psychologically harrowing story, “The Turn of the Screw” ends with a disquieting death that leaves readers in the dark. We’re never quite sure of the cause: is the culprit an abstract supernatural force, or psychosis-induced suffocation? James’s writing is deliberately noncommittal to both explanations and consciously vague in its allusions to indecency, making this story a classic of horror’s “leave it to the imagination” sub-genre.
The ambiguity of the ending, as well as pervading doubts over the dependability of the governess’s narrating voice, are undoubtedly the primary reason for its enduring audience appeal (the story was originally written in 1898). Perhaps this is why the novella has spawned over 20 adaptations; it’s such a shape-shifter of a story that it allures writers and filmmakers into attempting to wring out some kind of decisive interpretation from the book’s intentionally obscure narrative. But most adapters who do this miss the point, and the poignancy, of the original by nailing down its murky subtext into something stiff and conclusive, thereby doing away with its characteristic and unique appeal as a horror.
Some examples: in many adaptations, the subtle sexual undercurrents present in “A Turn of the Screw” are made so explicit (in more ways than one) that they demystify the uneasy sense of transgression present in Miss Jessel and Peter Quint’s relationship, making it tedious rather than genuinely disturbing. The BBC’s 2009 rendition, starring a pre-Downton Abbey Michelle Dockery and Dan Stevens, spends too much energy literalizing Quint’s sadism and Miss Jessel’s enjoyment of it. It also spins a sexual web between the governess (Dockery) and the master of the house, the children’s uncle (Mark Umbers), that is superfluous to the plot, and hints too heavily at the Victorian-era idea of repressed desires producing mania in women (also a weak spot in the otherwise excellent The Innocents).
Echoing the Freudian fixation with sexual transgression, Presence of Mind, a starry-casted ‘90s adaptation, and the Leelee Sobieski-led In A Dark Place also ratchet up the eroticism and perversion that James only just hints at. Both insist on referencing pedophilia, turning the original author’s muted suggestions of darkness between the children, Quint, and Miss Jessel into heavy-handed, categorical assertions.
Elsewhere, the original ambiguity of James’s ending — is the governess a trustworthy narrator? — is spoilt by surplus insinuation that she is suffering from some kind of psychosis. Scripted by Truman Capote, Jack Clayton’s The Innocents was unmistakably inspired by critic Edmund Wilson’s reading of the governess as sex-starved and psychologically disturbed, and perhaps spelt things out too much for some audiences — although this distortion of the original story is at least better executed than later adaptations.
Rather than using James’s set-up of a friend of the governess’s reading out a manuscript she wrote before her death, the BBC’s version makes Dockery’s governess an inpatient at a hospital, where she recounts the spooky tale to a psychiatrist (Stevens). While it isn’t necessarily the only way to present the governess’s memories, James’s framing at least sets the story up in a way that allows the ending to be so open to debate. 1992’s The Turn of the Screw, which stars Patsy Kensit, bungles this element, too, by having the governess narrate the story in a group therapy setting. Both of these renditions excessively nanny audiences into making one particular conclusion: that the governess is unhinged, and her account unreliable.
Sigismondi’s involvement with this adaptation is encouraging news. For her debut feature, The Runaways, the director deftly captured the atmosphere of the ‘70s, making it a vivid film full of “manic energy” and the “sleaze and innocence” of the era. With this proof that Sigismondi is adept at translating the particular nuances of a time to create a powerfully evocative piece of art, it’s not too much of a reach to hope that The Turning’s contemporary setting will be similarly well captured, and its horror suffused with a deep sense of recognizability.
The involvement of Hayeses is promising, too: their script for The Conjuring earned praise for its mature restraint and “impressively patient” pacing — elements so crucial to making a good horror film. Based on this, we can hope their adaptation will retain the enigmatic qualities of James’s novella (so central to its enduring appeal) and avoid the gaucherie that mars so many of its previous adaptations.
If any of these are to influence The Turning, it should be The Innocents, which, despite having an obvious preference for which conclusion audiences make, got so much else right about the author’s terrifying classic of psychological horror.