turn of the screw and ambiguity

Yesterday I watched the 2009 BBC adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, starring Michelle Dockery and Dan Stevens. Aaaand I wasn’t really impressed. Just getting over the fact that it contained LADY MARY AND MATTHEW was hard enough, but I thought it was so hammy and it ruined the point of the original story, which to me is about not knowing whether the character of the governess is actually experiencing malevolent ghost activity or whether she is just going insane. This adaptation firmly takes the view that she is, indeed, being harassed by ghosts and that everyone else in the story is a fool for not seeing it.

Henry James’ novel is one of the best haunted house stories that have ever been written. The brilliance of it is that it creates confusion and suspense in the viewer, because everything is so ambiguous. Nothing is made explicitly clear – we never know why the uncle seems so completely indifferent, we never find out why exactly Miles was expelled from school (although certain things are sort of implied), we never know whether the two children are actually possessed by the ghosts of Jessel and Quint and, ultimately, we never know whether the governess is seeing things for what they really are, or if she is indeed just a crazy young woman. Nothing is ever made explicit, and every point of view a reader could get behind, has some piece of evidence in the story to disprove it.

But this adaptation did exactly that – it made everything very clear and obvious, so instead of having a movie which was eerie and understated and captured the true spookiness of this story, I just got some horrible bearded man leering at me while Lady Mary tries unsuccessfully and pathetically to deal with two creepy blonde children (who incidentally didn’t really capture the dual nature of the Miles and Flora of the book, in my opinion) and the baffling existence of Matthew Crawley, who gives us no reason why he is so attracted to this particular case, and then in the end starts seeing the same bearded King Leer while they lead Lady Mary off to the gallows.

I think they made a huge mistake in presenting the view that the events of the story are actually the result of the malevolent activity of the dead Quint and Miss Jessel (who is more of a sad figure in the book), instead of allowing their viewers any chance of coming to their own conclusions. Just the fact that Matthew Crawley began to see the apparition of Quint towards the end of the movie was enough to completely close down the story. The key to The Turn of the Screw is not knowing whose truth is true, but that was taken away from the viewer in this adaptation. Instead of experiencing the satisfying ambiguousness of it all, in the end all we got was a dead-eyed creepy little girl repeating the same lines from the beginning to a new governess, heavily implying that the ghosts of Quint, Jessel, and now also Miles, are still there, waiting to wreak more dramatic havoc.

As well as not really caring for the extra character background given to the governess (Ann in the movie), I also didn’t really understand why it was set in the 1920’s? The costumes did look really pretty though. And the production value is pretty high, so the house and the costumes etc. were definitely worth looking at.

I think the Innocents (1961) is a much better adaptation of this book. It has some truly great acting from everyone involved, as well as having probably one of the creepiest opening credits of any movie:

I think it really captured the atmosphere of the story. I was hoping for an updated, lusher version of this, but the 2009 Turn of the Screw did not really deliver anything I was interested in.


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