In his short novel The Turn of the Screw Henry James through a gradual accretion of situations, details, hints, and improbable moments builds the case that his central character, a young governess charged with the care of two young children, isn’t really seeing the apparitions she thinks she is seeing. One can read the story as a straight tale of the supernatural, a story in which the ghosts are really there. Or one can read it as a study in psychological deviance in which the ghosts are the projections of a neurotic young woman. The genius of the story in part rests in the fact that you are never sure how to read it—though once you glimpse the outline of the psychological reading, it is difficult to put out of your mind.
The 1961 film adaptation The Innocents (dir. Jack Clayton) begins with a scene of the disturbed young governess, in distress and in prayer, agonizing over her desire to protect the children in her charge. She is clearly an upset and hysterical woman. From its first scene, this film leaves little doubt which reading it will undertake. From the start it strips away that layer of narrative subtlety in the novel. The film otherwise offers an effective and literal rendition of James’ novel, with Deborah Kerr portraying the governess in what may be one of her finest performances.
The film retains much of the uncertainty and nuance so important in the novel—the strange tales of the recent deaths of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, their love affair, the boy’s expulsion from school, the distant and indifferent uncle who is responsible for the children, but who doesn’t want to be bothered by them or by the governess in any way.
When the uncle implores the governess to take the position, he does so almost as a kind of marriage proposal, and she is clearly marked by the moment. The uncle is often in her mind. The film is more explicit than the novel in suggesting the sexual undertones and overtones of the story—the governess’ dissatisfaction with her own life, her sexual inexperience and repression, her attraction to the uncle, the strangely adult way the boy interacts with her (including a lascivious kiss he plants on her), his self-conscious innocence that, with a different inflection or facial expression, becomes, at least in her mind, proof of his corruption.
While the novel is all subtlety and restraint, the film adds a strong note of hysteria to its portrayal of the governess. The fear the film inspires is not about supernatural occurrences but about what the governess thinks she is seeing, her deepening psychological disturbance, the dangers she poses to the children. The film is not so much an adaptation as it is a reading, and in that role it performs in an intelligent and interesting way that does no violence to the novel.