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An adaptation of Henry James’, ‘The Turn of the Screw’ – Victorian and Modern Literature (1870-1945) http://bobnational.net/record/298557/media_id/298671

Review by Jenny Richards 

Students studying a module on Novel or those studying the work of Henry James may find this relatively recent dramatization of ‘The Turn of the Screw’ an interesting watch. The way the novel is designed makes the question of narration particularly intriguing, for James both constructs mediating layers of narrative, – the preface’s unnamed narrator portrays Douglas, who in turn gives voice to the governess’ written account of events, essentially relating the story to us third hand – and makes the governess’ uniquely supernatural account seem more and more dubitable as the story progresses.

In dramatizing the novel then, there are three key considerations that interlink; how religiously the adaptation follows the narrative of the novel, how reliably the governess’ perception of events is presented and finally the stage at which the viewer enters the story – this could be directly with the governess’ immediate experience, retrospectively with Douglas and the unnamed narrator at the fireside as in the novel’s preface, or when the governess later recounts events on paper. How the adaptation navigates these decisions will determine how far it suggests either the apparitionist (the belief that the ghosts are real) or non-apparitionist (the belief that the ghost are a product of the governess’ unbalanced mental state) interpretation of events.

Though the adaptation still uses retrospective narrative framing as James does in the preface of the novel, the programme does so in a way that departs from the original story and sets up the governess’ character in a different light. The novel’s preface sees Douglas remembering the governess with warmth and love; the setting is by a fireplace, a space symbolic of warmth and safety, and we thus approach the character in the main body of the novel as a trustworthy protagonist. By contrast the opening scene of this programme establishes a dark, cold tone both in colour palette and what the setting represents; the governess’ incarceration in a mental institution (which doesn’t feature in the novel) instantly suggests her interpretation of events to be questionable. The way in which the character is introduced or established has a significant effect on the audience or reader’s response to them – is the governess necessarily more trustworthy at the beginning of the James’ version or does her incongruently lucid demeanour at the beginning of the programme suggest her diagnosis of insanity to be a superficial explanation for the supernatural?

It might be interesting to note how your feelings about the governess’ reliability are altered or manipulated throughout the adaptation in comparison to changes in your perspective of her in the novel. Unlike James’ novel, this adaptation punctuates and ends the governess’ narrative with cuts back into the present. How do these differences in structure and setting affect the way that you view the governess and the events at Bly in the end? Is your reaction different to the one evoked by the novel?