An Eye for an I: Adapting Henry James's the Turn of the Screw to the Screen
Recchia, Edward, Literature/Film Quarterly
It has been quite a few years since a desperate radio industry hired comedian Stan Freberg to lure back listeners who were defecting to the visual delights of television by reminding them of the richer creative possibilities of the human imagination. Freberg invited his listening audience to envision such outrageous possibilities as Lake Michigan filled with whipped cream; then they were to imagine a gigantic bird flying over it and dropping a five-hundred pound cherry into the white mass. The only sound effect would be a loud "Plop!" Obviously, Freberg wasn't very successful: the mind may be capable of creating more exotic "realities" than the eye can see, but it takes less effort to let the eye do the work, and both television and other visual media flourished, while radio and that other "non-visual" entertainment-literature-suffered a relative decline in popularity. Nevertheless, Freberg's premise defines an intriguing paradox that frequently faces the creator of a film adaptation of a fictional work: sometimes the very strength of film-the fact that it can be seen-can be its greatest limitation.
Jack Clayton had to be aware of this irony as he adapted Henry James's novella The Turn of the Screw to the screen for his 1961 film production, The Innocents. The typical Jamesian drama is such an internalized thing, based as much on the nuances of the psyche as on external events; and James's method of developing that drama exists not so much in the story told as in the telling, not so much in what the narrator says as in the way he or she says it. In fact, James was so aware of the way that reality is shaped and colored by our attitudes that he made consciousness an integral, working part of his narratives-not just his characters' consciousness, but his readers' too. In his best works, James entices his readers into participating in the same kind of perceptual relationship with the written narrative that the fictional characters are experiencing within that narrative. James's tales therefore become not only stories about the relationship between the human consciousness and experiential reality; they become active dramatizations of that relationship: the reader's experience mirroring the fictional characters'.
Jack Clayton's task was to approximate this three-dimensional drama-extending his narrative not from the pages of a book out to a reader's mind but outward from the images being flashed upon a theater screen and into his viewer's consciousness. He was provided with the basic stuff of this drama both by James's own story and by a screenplay version ofthat story adapted by Truman Capote and William Archibald from Archibald's earlier Broadway play. It is not the screenplay itself which shows how Clayton transformed James's ambiguity into a cinematic experience, however; it is Clayton's and his cinematographer, Freddie Francis's, translation of the screenplay-sometimes, it appears, even drastic revision of it-that allowed Clayton to achieve both the level of ambiguity and the level of viewer involvement that he did. There are some particular adjustments to the shooting script dated February 1961, the one which Clayton himself states he used during the filming of the story,1 that reveal Clayton's sense of the necessity of creating ambiguity in a way different from James's method.
The original Jamesian version deals so intensely with the problem of perception that it cannot help but involve the reader in an experience somewhat analogous to that undergone by the story's protagonist, a young and inexperienced governess who becomes convinced that her two charges, young Miles and his sister, Flora, are acting under the influence of the ghosts of Miss Jessel, the children's former governess, and Peter Quint, who was the groom for the children's legal guardian, a rich bachelor uncle who resides in London and has ensconced the children, along with the governess, in an isolated country estate called Bly. Ever since Edmund Wilson suggested in 1934 that the ghosts were not "real" at all, but were the products of the governess' inexperienced and sexually repressed imagination, critics have debated whether the ghosts really did exist or not2 - some of them never considering the possibility that James himself may have neither known nor cared whether ghosts existed, but was merely concerned with creating an insolubly ambiguous situation, one in which his readers would face the same basic dilemma that the governess faced: determining whether the evidence before their/her eyes was indeed substance or was really the product of their/her imagination. …