Henry James’ classic 19th Century ghost story, The Turn of the Screw, has had a bit of a revival lately. The Turning, released earlier this year, is loosely based on the novella. Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor, directed by Mike Flanagan, has finished filming and most likely will debut this fall. There have been countless other screen adaptations, but few come as close to matching the complexities and ambiguities of the novella as 1961’s The Innocents, directed by Jack Clayton. From the casting, to the atmosphere, to the camera work, The Innocents is a faithful and frightful adaptation.
For the most part, The Innocents makes very few changes to the novella. The screenplay was written by Truman Capote, John Mortimer, and William Archibald, and key themes are kept intact. The story follows Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), who is hired to take care of two children, Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin), at Bly Manor, while their uncle is away. She is assisted by Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins). From the get-go, Kerr’s performance invokes the innocence that the governess has at the beginning of the novella. She wants nothing more than to take care of the children and have purpose in life, to the point that she calls Flora “enchanting” and says that she plans to work at Bly Manor for a very long time.
As the film progresses, however, Miss Giddens starts to hear strange noises, including whispers, voices, and knocking. Eventually, she’s certain that she sees the ghosts of Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde) and Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop), two workers who used to reside at the manor and died violently. Unlike the novella, the film fleshes out more of their backstory. Quint was an abusive drunk who spurned Miss Jessel, to the point that she committed suicide. This added backstory is a welcome addition and enhances the house’s tragic and violent history. Much of it is told through Mrs. Grose’s recollections. During these scenes, her dialogue is spell-binding and eerie. She recounts hearing Miss Jessel wandering the manor at all hours, sobbing. She talks about seeing Quint lying on the stairs in front of the house, dead with his eyes still open. Her words hang in the air and have a chilling effect.
James’ novella is so affecting because it’s unclear whether or not the ghosts are real. They are only seen through the governess’ perspective. This feat is easier to pull off in prose, but Clayton handles it well with a few camera tricks. Each time that the governess claims to see a ghost, the camera zooms in on her reaction first before showing anything else. It’s up to the viewer to decide whether or not ghosts dwell at the manor. Often, it’s unclear if anything is actually in the frame because the “ghosts” are presented through mist or frosted windows or, in the case of Miss Jessel, near a lake. Her all-black clothing blends in with the surroundings or shadows. Additionally, Clayton fuzzed out the corner of the frames with special lenses, and often, it’s Miss Giddens who appears center frame and cast in light, while the “ghosts” are in the corner of the frame, not fully visible to the eye. It’s a brilliant use of camera work and lighting, and it maintains the ambiguity of James’ prose.
The children are also arresting. The opening begins with Flora singing a traditional song “O Willow Waly,” and the tune echoes throughout the film, coming back time and time again. It is haunting and hair-raising. Miss Giddens hears it as she roams the long hallways late at night, even when Flora isn’t present. Miles, meanwhile, is bedeviling, and it’s debatable whether or not he and Flora see the ghosts or if they enjoy playing tricks upon the poor governess. Just like the novella, Miles very much acts like an adult trapped in a boy’s body. Nothing seems to scare him, to the point he tells Miss Giddens, “Don’t be frightened, my dear, it’s only the wind,” after a gust of wind bellows through the open window and blows out a candle in his bedroom.
The setting of Bly Manor also plays a crucial role. Its unsettling history impacts the present, making the house feel very much alive. The floors creak. Wind howls through open windows. Children’s laughter fills shadowy hallways and empty rooms. Footsteps sound during late hours. Despite the spook factor, the children very much feel part of the house. At one point, Miles says he loves the manor, while Flora brags that it’s the biggest house in England. The Innocents makes effective use of setting and the house becomes a character, living and breathing an ugly history.
Additionally, The Innocents is a film that warrants a re-watch. It’s likely you’ll pick up on something that you didn’t see the first time, be it a figure in the corner of a frame or symbolism, like the use of roses to represent decay. There’s also something to be said for the costume design and the flowing Victorian dresses that Miss Giddens wears. As the film progresses, the color of her dresses changes, until she wears all black, just like Miss Jessel. Furthermore, rewatch the opening scene and decide if it comes at the end of the narrative or the beginning. Again, there’s a lot to unpack in terms of imagery and symbolism.
Unlike some of the other haunted house films from the era, including House on Haunted Hill and the Abbott and Costello Universal films, there is nothing gimmicky about The Innocents. It’s an old-fashioned Gothic tale that maintains the eeriness and ambiguity of James’ novella. Its influence would be seen on everything from Robert Wise’s The Haunting, to more contemporary horror cinema like The Others and Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House. It’s a faithful adaptation that still holds up relatively well, thanks to the stellar casting, effective use of setting, and clever camera work. The Turn of the Screw is more about what isn’t seen and what’s left to the imagination. Likewise, The Innocents allows the viewer to decide what’s real and what isn’t. Give it a stream and decide for yourself whether or not ghosts really reside at Bly Manor.
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