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Haunting Children

Originally published October 2019

Henry James’s “Turn of the Screw” has been chewed up and swallowed by many film adaptations. Before I read the novella, my one and only exposure to this psychological ghost story was the one I still think is the best. More on that version later.

I am this moment viewing In A Dark Place, issued in 2007, directed by Donaldo Rotunno, a producer turned director for this one film. Maybe he should have stuck with the former. Starring cleavage-heavy Leelee Sobieski as the possessed nannie Anna Veigh, and the impeccable Tara Fitzgerald as Mrs. Grose, the script veres into disturbed-nannie territory, as if the puritan fervor of the nameless heroine in James’s story was not enough to compel the plot.

Miles and Flora, the beautiful, haunted children, are present, and so is the isolated manor house and towers; Peter Quint and Miss Jessel make their ghostly statements. In the novel, and more so in my favorite version, the motivations behind the governess’s actions are vaguely entwined with badness, descriptors such as “contamination” and “corruption”. The translation of this fear for modern audiences is justified by the heroine’s own sexual attack as a young girl, an event that sets her up as unreliable and neurotic. For myself, I don’t need a brick thrown at my head to feel the obsession, guilt and gullability of someone easily influenced by nuance and suggestion. The more complex, the better.

Potential sexual abuse of the youngsters in the novella is never mentioned, proven, or even the least possible scenario the young governess can summon from her “privately bred” nature.

Anna the nanny’s spiral into delusion is thoroughly disbelieved by the modern Mrs Grose. As the movie unfolds, we are convinced that Anna’s ghost sightings solely in her head. In the final scenes, Peter Quint appears to have been vanquished by Anna’s belief in possession, Anna sees how her irrational actions have terrorized the children, and in her belief that she has “saved” them, she ends up losing everything.

This rendition of “The Turn of the Screw” loses all the governess’s cultish obsession with “saving the children.” But saving them from what?

As you might have guessed, my favorite “Turn of the Screw” version doesn’t, like the film I have just reviewed, even want to use James’s title. “Turn of the Screw” refers to the taleteller’s description of “doubling” the horror of the ghost story by two: two haunted children rather than one. The Innocents, Jack Clayton’s 1961 production, filmed in moody back and white, has chosen a title describing the heart of the story: the definition of “innocence”.

With some misgivings, Deborah Kerr, in a spot-on portayal of Miss Giddons, comes to the lonely estate and meets the beautiful and pert Flora, played by Pamela Franklyn (also in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie). Brother Miles, after his third eviction from a private school, is coming home—probably for good and under unexplained, but ominous circumstances.

“Injury” becomes, in Miss Giddens’ mind, synonymous with “contamination”. Already she has a certain prejudice about him. Perhaps James, in his composition, enterains the notion that women of a certain “privately bred” nature, are prone to fantasy. Miss Giddens’ nurturing urges cross a line to “saving” the children from what she perceives as evil—of a sexual nature perhaps, which James can only hint about with words like “contamination” and “corruption”.

Nevertheless, Jack Clayton’s masterful directive choices are chilling. Manifestations of the ghosts occur in eerie silence. A soundtrack accompanies storms and childish laughter, but when Peter Quint and Miss Jessel appear, they are noiseless.

Then final scenes of this ghost story are hard to take. The Innocents replicates James’s abrupt and total finality. In a Dark Place adds an unnecessary dollop of drama.

The difference between imagination and reality, in both magnitude and distance, is the stuff of interpretation. Despite ambiguity, and verification of whether ghosts exist or not, The Innocents is a damn good ghost story.


1 thought on “Haunting Children”

  1. Howard Brazee

    I always intended to read it when I thought it was about ships. But now that I know it’s about ghosts, I know not to bother.

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