Film Music as Sister Art: Adaptations of 'The Turn of the Screw.' (Analysis of Musical Soundtracks Used in Various Interpretations of Henry James' Novel)

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The art of film, which emerged in the 20th century, assimilated elements from several older arts - not merely the visual and verbal but also music. In the silent film era, indeed, live musical performances, especially piano solos, were often performed in tandem with such films, and if the advent of recorded soundtracks meant that the verbal arts began to claim the audience's aural attention, recently the role of music in film has emerged as a central issue in critical debate. Claudia Gorbman, for example, has argued that film scores are primarily "unheard melodies" that manipulate audiences subconsciously (73), while Jeff Smith contends that most viewers integrate the representational suggestiveness and emotional expressivity of music into their experience of viewing a film (239). And if film music is consciously perceived, does it simply reinforce by parallelism or contradict by counterpoint a film's visual and verbal messages, or does the music, as critics like Roy M. Prendergast argue, function as a true sister art - what Kathryn Kalinak calls "an interactive agent in the narrative process"? (31). Such issues become even more intriguing in the case of films adapted from literary works, especially insofar as a film adaptation is now regarded not as a mere translation from one medium to another but as a creative transformation that is an act of interpretation, even of criticism. What arises here is not only the question of how a director might enlist music to illuminate the literary text but also how he might enlist music to suggest more than can be either "said" or "seen" on film.

The opportunities and complexities surrounding the role of music in film could be said to reach their zenith in adaptations of a literary work that seems deliberately designed to invite opposing or multiple interpretations, of which Henry James's novella The Turn of the Screw (1899) may be the classic instance. Few works of literature have inspired more controversy in the literary community, few have attracted more adaptations in other art forms, and few exhibit characteristics so ideally suited to musical treatment. Just how well suited is suggested by the rich history of musical compositions inspired by a text antecedent to James's story, Goethe's folk-like ballad Erlkonig (1781). Sharing with The Turn of the Screw the evocation of a spirit seducing a child, uncertainty about the supernatural, tension between rational explanation and gothic terror, and powerful use of incremental repetition and a shock ending, Erlkonig inspired more than one hundred vocal music settings, of which Franz Schubert's lied is the best known (During 1: 41-75). James's novella in its turn inspired a number of visual adaptations that also use music in prominent ways: Benjamin Britten's admired modern opera, a 1980 ballet score by Luigi Zaninelli, four feature films (by directors Jack Clayton, Michael Winner, Rusty Lemorande, and Eloy de la Iglesia), and six television movies (by directors John Frankenheimer, Dan Curtis, Petr Weigl, Graeme Clifford, and Tom McLoughlin, and a 1955 CBS version with Geraldine Page).

My purpose in this essay, therefore, is to explore the function of music in film adaptations through a study of the four most widely available cinematic versions of James's enigmatic tale - those by Curtis, Clifford, Clayton, and Weigl. I will begin by identifying some of the options for interpretation that James's The Turn of the Screw suggests, ranging from a chilling ghost story to a study in psychological disintegration, and in so doing highlight central features of the story that invite musical treatment because they do not lend themselves readily to visual or verbal presentation. Next, I will discuss a technique known as the film-music motif, and show how, in combination with related musical effects, it has been used in the respective treatments of this complex literary text. Overall, my purpose is to demonstrate how music can conjoin with visual and verbal elements in creating unique and coherent interpretations of James's classic novella, illustrating thereby the roles for film music as sister art. …


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