- 1 The Turn of the Screw was first published between January and April 1898 in Collier’s Weekly, later (...)
- 2 The filmic elaborations of James’s text have been explored in the following works: Susan M. Griffin (...)
1Since its first publication, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898)1 has always haunted the imagination of artists. It has been set to music by Benjamin Britten in the opera of the same name (1954); it has inspired filmmakers, notably Jack Clayton, whose classic version, The Innocents (1961), has represented a sort of milestone for any subsequent adaptation, with its extremely subtle rendering of the thin line between imagination and reality that is very much part of the original story. Moreover, several films, although they cannot be strictly considered as adaptations, consistently draw their storylines and themes from James’s novella, of which the most famous example is Amenábar’s The Others (2001).2
2Although cinematic adaptations are probably more familiar to the general public, The Turn of the Screw has been widely used as a source for television narratives of different kinds, from Dan Curtis's 1974 TV movie, to a 2000 British-US TV version starring Colin Firth, to the more recent version by Tim Fywell (2009). The fact that Italian fiction, which is notably reluctant to re-work foreign literary material, also engaged with the story in a recent transposition entitled Il mistero del lago (The Mystery of the Lake, 2008) clearly shows the impact this text still has in the collective imagination. Although the main lines of the film are quite faithful to the original – the children’s names, for example, are a plain transposition of their English counterparts (Milo and Flora) – the director Marco Serafini follows a peculiar trend of Italian TV-drama and develops a soap-opera subplot with the romance between the governess and a harsh and hostile foster parent, Elia, who more closely resembles a living Peter Quint than the fascinating uncle of most cinematic versions of The Turn of the Screw. In addition to filmic and televisual adaptations, which are self-enclosed narratives, we must consider serial productions in which James’s story has been the object of extensive quotation and allusion, from the 1960s gothic soap opera Dark Shadows, which partly develops its plot from the novella, to the C.S.I. episode Turn of the Screws (Season 4, Episode 21).
- 3 Dark Shadows is still a cult phenomenon in television nowadays. Notably, Tim Burton is shooting a c (...)
3A milestone in literary history, the story now embodies a set of cultural references conveying different, complex meanings, which can only be disclosed in the light of contemporary forms of representing reality. This is evident in as much as the novella appeals to two apparently opposite tendencies in contemporary television: the morbid display of the real, which takes the form of the dissection of death in its most tangible aspects in C.S.I. and, more generally, is expressed by the display of private everyday experiences in reality TV and, on the other hand, the quest for the supernatural which marks other television productions (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, among many others). A line can be traced from Dark Shadows3, the show that pioneered the genre, to contemporary horror soaps about vampires and supernatural phenomena. In this paper, I investigate the ways in which this sophisticated novella is transfered into popular culture, and how its consistently ambiguous, dilemmatic interplay between reality and imagination can be related to the contemporary public’s simultaneous fascination with hyper-reality and the supernatural.
- 4 T.J. Lustig in the Introduction to the short story (James, xiii). The scholar later points out how (...)
4Just as the text itself has been interpreted in a variety of ways, and “to read The Turn of the Screw is to establish the reading and if necessary to defeat other readings,”4 the filmic and televisual adaptations highlight different aspects according to their aesthetic agenda. I will here consider two TV movies produced ten years apart. The first is a British-American production entitled The Turn of the Screw, directed by Ben Bolt in 1999. It is important to note that the director of this movie has mainly worked in television, having directed different episodes of several TV serials in the course of his career. This film thus does not represent a filmmaker’s foray into a more popular form of entertainment but is, despite its auteur patina, a purely televisual product. However, far from elaborating the material with a medium-specific form, this movie relies on the standard formula of heritage film, both in terms of the relationship to the story and of the visual style. There is no radical alteration to the original text, the function of the adaptation seeming mainly to be to illustrate its source as faithfully as possible, by reproducing the ghost story elements and the young governess’s psychological dilemma through a careful reconstruction of the atmosphere with setting and costumes. It is striking, however, that somehow the film is more accurate in period reconstruction than the text. The setting and characters are described in James’s novella mainly through the psychological tension they create in the governess’s mind. For instance, the representation of the architecture of Bly – which would increase the historical detail of the narration – is limited to one element of the mansion, the tower where Quint appears:
This tower was one of a pair — square, incongruous, crenelated structures—that were distinguished, for some reason, though I could see little difference, as the new and the old. They flanked opposite ends of the house and were probably architectural absurdities, redeemed in a measure indeed by not being wholly disengaged nor of a height too pretentious, dating, in their gingerbread antiquity, from a romantic revival that was already a respectable past (135).
5And even in these lines, the bizarre appearance of the tower is an omen of the strange apparition that is about to take place there. More generally, the predominant aspect in the description of the house is its vastness. This emphasis on the dimensions of the building also changes throughout the text, as the governess initially underlines the contrast with the house she came from: “The scene had a greatness that made it a different affair from my own scant home” (123) and as she later admits that her emotion at that moment might have made the house seem bigger than it actually was: “I have not seen Bly since the day I left it, and I daresay that to my older and more informed eyes it would now appear sufficiently contracted” (127). In contrast, the description of the landscape, especially the changing light on the natural scenery surrounding the house, is particularly detailed because it mirrors the changing feelings of the main character. The psychological rendering of the setting, a sort of staging of the governess’s disturbed mind, is acquired in Jack Clayton’s adaptation through a minimalist visual style which makes us sense the presence – or absence as we wish – of ghosts and at the same time breathe an air dense with psychological tension – through the zoom on the wriggling hands of the governess or by the hallucinating and obsessive Willowy Waly musical score which has become a well-known trademark for the film. In this way, Clayton copes with the main problem in adapting James’s text to the screen: the way the thought of evil is expressed and transposed in visual terms. Is it a horror-like evil, which becomes tangible in the physical manifestations of the ghosts, or a more subtle, psychological evil, which can only be sensed by exploring the governess’s madness in depth?
6Bolt’s movie, differently from Clayton’s, engages with the text’s peculiar dynamic pattern of reality and imagination in a typical heritage fashion, through a merely illustrative and at the same time lavish visual style, where emphasis on period detail overpowers an expressive use of purely cinematic instruments. For example, the ghosts are not announced by peculiar signs, but simply appear as a matter of fact. A preoccupation with accuracy and the “quality” of the adaptation emerges throughout the film. This can also be observed by the circumstances of its broadcasting in the US, which took place after a preview in the UK in December 2011. The TV movie was aired on February 27th, 2000 on the programme Masterpiece Theatre (PBS) and introduced by a commentary by Russell Baker, a regular contributor to the show. The introduction establishes the status of the movie as a filmed text and work of art on the basis of its source and independently, for the most part, from questions of cinematic quality: the film is accessory; the important thing is the text.
- 5 The screenplay is adapted from Jane Austen’s novel by Andrew Davies, who was also one the writers o (...)
7The show’s opening also reinforces the prestige associated with the production through setting and music. The camera lingers on the particulars of a study filled with books, zooming in on portrait pictures and an inkwell, while a classical score is played, and finally stops on Jackson, sitting on a chair, and, beside him, a small sofa with a doll on it, and a rocking horse, while we can hear the comforting sound of the fireplace crackling in the room. In some ways, the opening reinforces the aura of Englishness of the film, as this would confirm the legitimacy of the project and its transatlantic dimension. This clearly shows that, although James was American, his work is perceived as essentially English. Other details of this production attribute it with the aura of authority associated with heritage film and Englishness. The choice of Colin Firth as the master, for example, independently of his quite unremarkable performance, sets the movie within a specific tradition, as he has become the rising star of a recent wave of heritage films. He has also appeared in films that exploit connections to this genre, though not properly belonging to it, such as Bridget Jones's Diary (2001), where reference to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice permeates the story and Firth plays a modern-day Mr. Darcy. Notably, the actor had already played Darcy in a Pride and Prejudice 1995 TV movie directed by Simon Langton5 and was chosen for this specific role for that reason.
8Another aspect to consider is the viewpoint established by the narrative framework. In Bolt’s version, the story starts with Miss Jessel killing herself by jumping from a bridge, leaving out the frame narrative. In the original text, the first-person narration, combined with the literary device of the story-within-the-story, enhances the ambiguity of the account. Leaving it out reduces the text to a simple horror story. In Tim Fywell’s 2009 version, instead, the frame narrative is completely modified and exploited to convey the impression that the governess is mad. In some ways, the operation which is carried out is the inverse of that which Bolt undertakes: the horror story is now less important than the psycho-thriller, which is played out explicitly. The story starts with a young psychiatrist, Dr. Fisher, who visits the woman – who is now called Ann – in a mental institute. Therefore, much of the ambiguity of the original story is lost from the start. Furthermore, the thrilling aspect is expressed in a quite literal way. It is anticipated with a visual collage of typically disturbing images accompanied by ominous sounds in the opening sequence of the film: birds, insects, a rocking horse, dolls, worms, a cemetery and an open grave are mixed with shots of the children and Bly, representing the governess’s flashbacks of past experiences. The typically horrific symbols highlight the contradiction inherent in this rendering of the novella: the drama is purely psychological, but at the same time the viewer is encouraged to feel hooked to the horror story through quite undemanding effects. Apart from this narrative device, which nonetheless maintains the first-person narrator, contrary to Bolt’s film, the adaptation is quite conventional in terms of costumes and settings. Also, the thrilling elements are actually expressed in an even more explicit way. For instance, Miles’s character is presented as disturbing from the start: when the governess and Flora pick him up at the train station, he suddenly appears out of a cloud of steam and smoke, as if he too were a ghost.
9A different process occurs in television series, where the references to James’s story are re-worked quite freely in comparison to the adaptations. The greater creative freedom must be taken into account whilst keeping in mind that television series are a complex cultural product. They are full of contradictions in as much they represent the different ways society fashions itself and attempt to address one social group or the other, sometimes simultaneously. In contrast to art house productions, where literary and “high” culture allusions are more intentional or at least more explicit in their aim, here they must be seen within a more complex question of agency given that, although the role of the individual scriptwriter or the “creator” is important, we are dealing with a collective and multi-layered effort. Series and TV movies are collective productions of a different type to feature films. While TV movies are normally self-enclosed, series last years and often change scriptwriters, and their production is on the whole deeply conditioned both by viewer ratings and target audiences. Cultural references are reworked, according to the different meanings they aim to convey. Television adaptations often seem more conventional than filmic ones, but, at the same time, they are interwoven with complex and sometimes contradictory meanings which make their ambiguity emerge out of an apparently plain and easily readable surface. From this perspective, the practice of quotation and allusion seems to be almost more important than plain adaptations because texts are already transformed in that amalgam of cultural meanings that make them interesting for us to read and re-read. Transitions through different media transform literary works into multimodal texts in their own right.
- 6 William Archibald had adapted The Turn of the Screw for The Innocents, staged in 1950 at the Playho (...)
10The 1968 and 1970 episodes of Dark Shadows narrate a story that bears some resemblance to that of Peter Quint and Alice Jessel. This group of episodes set in 1968 deals with two 1840s ghosts possessing two children: David Collins and Hallie Stokes. Hallie is possessed by the child ghost Carrie Stokes and under her influence she brings Daphne Herridge back with her to the future; Herridge is Carrie’s 1840s governess, who was in love with her master but had at the same time a troubled relationship with her master’s friend Gerald Stiles. The latter, in turn, is possessed by an older villain-like ghost, who obviously reminds us of Peter Quint. Interestingly enough, after inserting elements of the story into the soap opera, Dark Shadows doesn’t follow one storyline at the same time, but exploits parallel plots with flash forwards and retroactions, also merging different features of different characters within a single one (Barnabas or the children themselves). In this respect, the director plays with the structure similarly to how James played with the narrative framework, telling his story within a story. Moreover, the director of Dark Shadows, Dan Curtis, later filmed a TV version of James’s story (1974) written in collaboration with fantasy novelist William F. Nolan. It is interesting to see how Curtis’s first contact with the story was not with the original work but, rather, occurred through the mediation of the theatre play The Innocents6It was only then that Curtis read James’s text, before viewing Jack Clayton’s film, which gave him the idea to make his own cinematic version of the story. Notably, Mrs. Grose, a central character in most interpretations of the Turn of the Screw, was played by the same actress who had had her role in Clayton’s film, Meg Jenkins, so as to establish a connection with its authoritative precedent. The movie was shot on both videotape and film, thus merging different media and showing an interest in formal experimentation.
11Nolan faithfully respected the roles of the characters and the order of events. The text was thus used in two very different ways within a single director’s work: on the one hand a more traditional adaptation and on the other a more creative, expressive use of the literary material. Television operates within a web of intertextual reference and “the sitcom is a form which, despite the simplistic definition of it presented, is instead a complex one, commonly related to many other television (and film) genres” (Mills, 25). In Meinhof and Smiths’s study on intertextuality, the authors point out how genre exists in terms of “the interactions between texts, producers of texts and their readers’ lifeworld” (Meinhof and Smiths, 3). Therefore we can argue that genres are constantly elaborated on screen until they reach autonomy as specific, established TV forms. As Dark Shadows belongs to a different, earlier phase of television history than current television series, its use of literary materials of different kinds and periods, from references to Jane Eyre, to The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Wuthering Heights, can be seen as merging the genre of the soap with a literary and film classic genre of the horror and at the same time foreshadowing a genre to come, the horror sitcom. It is therefore interesting to situate the relationship between the text and the television productions in relation to genre. Although sitcoms are more likely to be compared to other visual media, we can also establish a connection between literary genres and television. After all, literary references have always played a strategic role in the history of film. Literary materials, in particular theatrical sources, together with theatre actors, were used to gain a status of respectability for the new art, which was mainly stigmatized as a popular form of entertainment. It is thus possible to hypothesize a similar influence on television products. TV series represent, almost by definition, a popular form of entertainment that doesn’t attempt to establish itself as an art form most of the time. Literary references in a sitcom can, however, establish it as what is nowadays called ‘quality drama’. Texts must be considered a part of a wider discourse and are seen through their relationship with the subjects that create their meanings, which, in turn, re-define them (Evans, Hall 1999). In this way, the adaptation of The Turn of the Screw must be seen through different cultural contexts, in relation to British and American culture, and to the different ways in which audiences make sense of them. For instance, the ambiguities of the story itself appeal to a well-rooted trend in British cultural history, the visionary tradition that includes artists and writers of the like of William Blake and Britten, and, in the field of film, Powell and Pressburger, Derek Jarman and Ken Russell. This visionary tradition interacts with literary material in a way that is more experimental than the methods of heritage film. As far as the films we have examined are concerned we would be able to place only Jack Clayton’s film within the visionary trend, while the other productions can be more likely connected to heritage film.
12These two trends, far from representing ready-made, immutable categories that can be applied unproblematically to any work of art, are nevertheless very useful to situate a specific production, according to the different ways it deals with issues such as authenticity, realism and mise-en-scène. Interestingly, although these trends belong more specifically to British culture, they are also readable within a wider transatlantic cultural context of which The Turn of the Screw is a part. Moreover, it would not be a stretch to say that the homage to Henry James, with his specific transatlantic attitude, is an effective way to bridge the gaps between English and American cultures, which nevertheless have very different views of television fiction. The country house setting of James’s short story is typically English. However, James’s text offers an external viewpoint on British culture, so it is the perfect artwork to be seen across cultures in a very dynamic way. The elaboration of the original material acquires new cultural meanings according to different cultural contexts, and, at the same time, a certain idea of Britishness reinforces the cultural prestige of such re-workings.
13Therefore, the adaptations – with the exception of The Innocents, in which the text is used in a very expressive way – can be placed in the heritage tradition, while it is through the TV series that the literary source is exploited in a more creative way. For instance, in Dark Shadows, the freedom in the use of the original material and the emphasis on the horrific aspects of the story situate it in the visionary tradition.
14The suggestions from the text are elaborated in an even more imaginative way in the C.S.I. episode The Turn of the Screws, in which the tale is alluded to almost as a pretext for a completely different story. A roller coaster runs off its track, thus causing the death of six people. The C.S.I. team carries out an investigation to establish whether this was an accident or foul play. One of the deaths is not caused by the roller coaster malfunctioning, and this takes the case in an unexpected direction. Meanwhile, two other members of the team, Catherine and Warrick, investigate the death of a 13 year old girl whose body was found outside town.
15The reference to James’s work is introduced in the script by a quotation cited by the main character, the chief investigator Gil Grissom:
GRISSOM: There are three things in human life that are important. The first is to be kind; the second one is to be kind; and the third one is to be kind
SARA: Henry James.
GRISSOM: Very good. Author of one of the greatest horror stories ever written: Turn of the Screw. And I'm looking for one.
(He holds up the baggie with the nut.)
SARA: A screw?
NICK: Oh, well ... technically, these are eccentric shafts, not screws.
GRISSOM: Well, as long as you can screw a nut on it, it's a screw.
SARA: Turn of the Screw isn't really a horror story. It's more of a mystery. Did the governess kill the little boy, or did the ghost do it?
GRISSOM: Well, it's only a mystery if you believe in ghosts.
16This initial dialogue introduces two themes that importantly relate to the series’ use of the text. First of all, Grissom’s almost didactic quotation sets the tone of the episode: literary mystery is introduced in order to suggest the equally mysterious nature of the episode’s plot. However, his discussion with Nick plays down the irrational element, implying that investigators are scientists and must not be carried away by invented stories about ghosts. Sarah’s position seems more open to the mystery. This could suggest a quite conventional opposition between the male – caught in a very technical discussion on the difference between shafts and screws – and the female – open to mystery and the irrational aspects of life. After all, if we think of the original text, we can find the same gender stereotyped association between the female and hysteria – the governess – that was common at the turn of the century.
17This rational approach to the case is immediately contradicted by the discovery that there are more corpses than supposed victims. In this way there is more evidence of death than absence. It is as if the main metaphor of absence of the original tale – the only proof of the existence of the ghosts is the governess’s account, there is no certainty about their visibility for the other characters – were reversed.
18Literature helps the story to be placed within a specific genre: C.S.I. in fact deploys an alternation between the macabre and the thriller element and the reference to James reinforces the second. At the same time, literature helps some characters to gain roundness. For example, literary quotations are frequently made by crime scene investigator Gil Grissom also in other episodes and are doubly useful as they give the character a certain depth and at the same time inscribe him within a wider tradition of detectives committed to investigating both crime and the human soul. Also, James’s story, with its emphasis on psychological analysis, is especially apropos as this is also a particularly useful tool in the stories in C.S.I., which often engage with the psychological aspects of mysterious crimes and of the minds of the criminals themselves (see the different episodes of the The Miniature Killer, from Season 7 to 9). The element of psychological analysis is thus a distinctive trait of the series. This episode does not represent an exception in this regard.
19Furthermore, the theme of corrupted innocence that characterises the short story is brought up in this episode as well. The investigation reveals that one of the victims, the 13 year-old girl Tess, has been killed by her mother, who accused her of seducing her boyfriend. This dynamic clearly reflects James’s plot, both in the theme of sexual hysteria and in the suspicion of corrupted innocence which is raised but finally turns out to be a product of the insane governess’s mind (at least in a few critical interpretations).
20Furthermore, the interplay between appearance and reality is deployed visually. For example, the employees at the park wear masks and costumes. More remarkably, despite its claim of realism, the use of the camera and fast editing in C.S.I. is never merely descriptive. In this specific episode people on the rollercoaster are shown as ghostly appearances in flashes in the mind of the detective who tries to reconstruct the crime scene. Evil cannot simply be thought of, as in James’s intention, it must be shown, due to the visual media. So the directors have to play on the ambiguity of what they show to the viewer. They do so or fail to do so in a variety of ways. The outcome is therefore a double-sided realism. The attempt at reconstruction reaches a point where it becomes excessive and we obtain a sort of hyper-realism. Objects are blown up out of proportion, so that the viewer almost loses focus. Artificial “reconstruction” and accuracy are connected aspects of the same post-modern aesthetic and they work towards the same aim, though in different ways: authenticity. Also, we might think of the “real” offered by television more in terms of a staged one than in terms of the documentary mode. In this way, the affection for the real expressed by the audience and television scriptwriters themselves seems just another side of the same coin.
21For example, the compulsion towards the real is epitomised in C.S.I. by the representation of death under the microscope, in which the typical traits of crime scene investigation series are combined with some features of the medical TV drama, with its morbid attraction to crude details. As we have seen, this attention to detail is double-sided: on the one hand it expresses a quest for absolute certainty in crime investigation and on the other it takes part in a process of building a sort of hyper, and at the same time, staged reality where the distinction between the artificial and the real is blurred.
22In conclusion, different adaptations of the same text offer different ways of interpreting the dichotomy between reality and imagination. This happens because representation of reality itself is of course problematic. Which vision of the real are we dealing with if both heritage films and televisual realism claim to have a hold on reality?
- 7 The elusive nature of Big Brother, often acting as a villain towards people who don’t see him, but (...)
23The influence of reality shows has changed the way TV series and movies are configured. Based on voyeurism and an emphasis on the real, no matter how artificially simulated, they are the result of the merging of previously existing categories such as the quiz show and the sitcom. Although the first edition of Big Brother7 was broadcast in 1999, changes were already underway when the shows we have analysed were aired.
24The success of such a different text as James’s gothic, visionary story, might seem in contrast with this tendency and would more logically be part of the wave of gothic stories and characters which have populated the small screen in recent years: from vampires and vampire slayers, to ghosts and ghost whisperers and the like. However, this has also been interpreted as a reaction to the pervasiveness of technology in our daily lives. This is quite obvious if we look back at other periods of cultural history: the connections between technological developments and the birth of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) is a famous case in point. According to Rosemary Jackson, “fantasy re-combines and inverts the real, but it does not escape it: it exists in a parasitical or symbiotic relation to the real” (Jackson: 20). Notably, both the original Jamesian text and its televisual adaptations were created at two fins-de-siècle. Re-reading a nineteenth century text at the end of the twentieth – and one that so blatantly explores the issues of the visible and the invisible, of reality and imagination – allows us to consider the possibilities of representation. Between the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, television, which has been the most pervasive and powerful medium of the whole century, seems to have exploited all its possibilities and is experiencing a crisis faced with other emerging media such as the internet, especially in the light of its interactive potential. We are therefore at a crucial juncture and only time will show if this crisis in traditional forms of entertainment will be turned into a chance to explore new forms of representation.