Forever Haunting: ‘The Turn of the Screw’ Scares Again and Again
Just in time for Halloween, we thought we’d take a look at one of the most malleable British ghost stories of all time, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw.
First published in 1898, the novella has been adapted to the big and small screen nearly a dozen times and also as a play and opera.
Why is this a fit topic for Anglophenia? Two reasons: James (1843-1916) was born an American but spent his adult life in England and became a British citizen shortly before his death. And the book’s setting is an English country manor.
The story itself, set during the Victorian era, is seemingly simple. A young woman is hired in London to serve as a governess to an orphaned pair, a boy and girl, at a country house. No sooner is the new governess breathing in that fresh rural air then she begins to think that she’s seeing ghosts. From there, the chills and thrills just keep coming.
The material has proved catnip to filmmakers, who’ve made both faithful versions of Turn of the Screw and inventive adaptations that are barely recognizable. Here’s a quick run-down on some of the major efforts:
The Innocents (1961) Probably the best cinematic rendering of the tale, this black and white movie stars Deborah Kerr, one of England’s most successful leading ladies, and was directed by fellow countryman Jack Clayton (Room at the Top). Michael Redgrave, the patriarch of the well known Redgrave acting clan, costarred. The trailer alone will give you the creeps. Take a look:
The Turn of the Screw (1974) The Redgrave family continued its association with James’ tale when Lynn Redgrave, daughter of Michael and younger sister to VanessaRedgrave, starred in an American TV version directed and produced by Dan Curtis, the guiding hand behind the campy gothic soap opera, Dark Shadows. Scenes from this Screw can be glimpsed (starting at the :52 time mark) in this promo for a collection of Curtis’ films:
The Turn of the Screw (1992) Director-screenwriter Rusty Lemonorande (Journey to the Center of the Earth) not very successfully updated James’ story to the swinging ‘60s in a hopped-up effort, thereby apparently justifying the inclusion of sex and violence plus a psychedelic score. Patsy Kensit played the governess and Julian Sands showed up as her employer, the uncle of the orphaned children. Worth noting: gravel-voiced singer Marianne Faithfull served as the narrator. In this clip, Sands interviews Kensit for the job:
The Haunting of Helen Walker (1995) We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention this TV movie version of Turn of the Screw, which starred sitcom cutie Valerie Bertinelli and aired on CBS. While a pale effort compared to many of the others here, it was filmed on location in England and Diana Rigg had fun playing Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper. Here’s a clip:
The Turn of the Screw (1999) Anglophenia favorite Colin Firth made hearts beat a little faster when he showed up for a few scenes in a British TV movie version that aired on PBS in the U.S. Jodhi May portrayed the governess and Pam Ferris (who currently plays bossy Sister Evangelina in Call the Midwife) was the housekeeper. Here’s a clip:
The Turn of the Screw (2009) Proving there was life in the old ghosts still, BBC remade James’ novella yet again with those soon-to-be sweethearts of Downton Abbey, Michelle Dockery and Dan Stevens. Dockery nabbed the leading role, as the governess, while Stevens had a supporting part. And yet another Redgrave, this time Corin (brother to Lynn and Vanessa), popped up in what would turn out to be his penultimate role before his death in 2010. Check out these highlights:
Which is your favorite version of The Turn of the Screw?