Dealing with ambiguity in adapting Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw
by Tim Luscombe
Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw has already been adapted many times, providing the source material for several films, two full-length ballets – by Will Tucket and Luigi Zaninelli –, an opera by Benjamin Britten and a play on Broadway directed by Harold Pinter. It’s inspired retellings and reimaginings and prequels and sequels, including Joyce Carol Oates’ The Accursed Inhabitants of House Bly – one of the latest examples of a writer taking James’ narrative and making it her own. Michael Winner’s The Nightcomers and Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others are acclaimed instances of the same approach in film, though Jack Clayton’s more faithful The Innocents remains the most generally celebrated.
The novella, originally published between January and April 1898 in twelve parts in Collier’s Weekly, a New York illustrated magazine, began life in fact as a story told to James by the Archbishop of Canterbury on a summer evening in 1895 in the archbishop’s palace near Croydon. The archbishop was passionately interested in ghosts and ghost phenomena, and so was James. Actually, the tale, if it can be credited with a creator, properly belongs to the woman who’d initially related it to the archbishop. The events – innocent children being haunted and corrupted by ghosts – actually happened, she claimed, to members of her own family. According to James’ journal, though, the poor woman had told the events of the visitations badly and incompletely. At any rate, it was enough to inspire the novelist two years later to want to flesh it out and create something gripping and commercial, each of the twelve episodes ending in a thrilling cliff-hanger climax and helping to increase sales of the American magazine.
The structure of the novella is similarly bracketed, with storyteller quoting storyteller, and involves an identical imbalance of gender. The instigating ‘I’ listens to a man called Douglas read aloud a story (around a fire at Christmas time) that had been related to him by a woman employed as a governess in a country house in Bly, Essex (she’s dead at the time Douglas tells her story). The governess has been tasked with looking after two orphaned children since their uncle in London is too pre-occupied with enjoying himself to look after them.
In my adaptation, I give the governess a stage on which to tell her tale uncluttered by male interpreters.
James’ introduction distances the woman’s voice, protecting it, or perhaps censoring it, in any case screening it with two others – three if you count James as well. Incidentally, James suffered from what we now know as carpal tunnel syndrome and couldn’t write the novel himself, or type it, but instead had to dictate it to his secretary, thus adding another filter to the process. In my adaptation, I omit all these parenthetical story-telling devices and give the governess a stage on which to tell her tale uncluttered by male interpreters.
Though I evaded the need to find a stage-worthy solution to James’ narrative tricks, the sense, in the original, of a story within a story within a story at least creates distance from the soul-shaking events contained therein. Its Christmas setting seems to suggest that the tale – however scary – might best be regarded as only a piece of entertainment, prompting us to wonder whether perhaps we needn’t give it too much credence. It’s just a ghost story. Not a word of it is actually true. And yet, in their day, the archbishop and the novelist were not unusual in their belief in the existence of spirits.
Practically debunked today, investigation of spirit phenomena was regarded as a science in late Victorian England. A group of Cambridge academics, led by a professor of moral philosophy, researched and documented hundreds of ghost sightings. James himself was a member of the Society for Psychical Research, which grew out of the Cambridge group, and his brother William, a Harvard psychologist, was for a time its president. Shortly before writing The Turn of the Screw, James spoke at a meeting of the Society, reading aloud a report about a woman named Mrs Piper, a spirit medium whose body and voice seemed at times to be employed by the spirit of a dead man. Indeed, the physical descriptions in the novella of the ghost-characters of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel owe a great deal to the descriptions of ghosts appearing to James’ contemporaries, whose personal experiences and reports he studied.
Yet, very few, at least since Edmund Wilson’s 1934 essay on The Ambiguity of Henry James, has believed that James’s ghost story is merely a ghost story. Over the last hundred years, more than five hundred books and essays in English alone have attempted to pinpoint and identify the nature of the evil in the work. And these critical studies have centred around the question of whether the ghosts are in fact ghosts – are, in fact, actual apparitions that present themselves to the governess – and the concomitant question, if the ghosts are not real, of whether the governess is mad. Actually, the scholarship on James’ novella seems to have taken on a life of its own, producing a vast amount of readings at least as broad ranging, controversial and contradictory as any of the work’s wilder stage, film and novelistic adaptations.
On the surface, The Turn of the Screw is simply a ghost story told by a governess recounting events that happened to her. However, once you reach the end of her tale and find her holding the body of a dead boy and you grapple with her reaction to it, it’s inevitable that you begin to wonder about her reliability as a narrator. On second reading, you look for inconsistencies, hints of her mendacity, and perhaps you start to discern that she’s driven by more than a need to protect the children, that she is, in fact, deranged by sexual urges she can’t understand or act upon. That, at any rate, is what I began to understand. And it was at this point I comprehended what I was up against when it came to adapting the work to stage.
One day, it seemed to me, the ghosts were real, the next not. One day the governess was a brave young woman brim full of integrity and love for her charges, the next a murdering psychotic.
The commissioning producer had specifically tasked me with retaining the ambiguity of the original. Well, the profusion of ambiguity didn’t present a problem. Instead, the challenge became how to find a way to balance every character and every piece of action in order to allow the audience to make up its own mind about what’s really going on. For, while a novel can be written in the first person singular, a play is always played in the third person, singular or plural. In other words, I had to tell the story in a way that, when played by actors and viewed by an audience, could offer any number of conceivable interpretations.
However hard I tried not to, though, I still felt the need to reach decisions about James’ underlying intentions. One day, it seemed to me, the ghosts were real, the next not. One day the governess was a brave young woman brim full of integrity and love for her charges, the next a murdering psychotic. How could I, I cried with mounting desperation, tell a story in which the ghosts are real and not real, in which the governess is mad and not mad? And my bafflement didn’t end there. Are the children, I needed to know, innocent? Have they been actually corrupted by the ghosts? How does Mrs Grose know, from the governess’ description, that the first apparition the governess sees is that of Peter Quint? How exactly does the boy die? Is this a story of sexual coercion and, if so, of what nature? Heterosexual, homosexual, or paedophilic? I still had no idea how to read the story in the ‘best’ way and therefore no real clue about how to adapt it into a strong, clear theatrical narrative.
Hardly helping to unclutter my vision were the many academic readings of the novella which used, among others, psychoanalysis, feminism, deconstructionism and Marxism as models of interpretation. Each seemed, to a mind eager for a ‘solution’, highly credible. For instance, in Brice Robbins’ brilliant Marxist analysis (“They don’t much count, do they?”: The Unfinished History of The Turn of the Screw), Robbins reads the novella in terms of class warfare and argues that the real ghosts in the uncle-plutocrat’s country mansion are the servants, and points to Miles’ heroism in refusing “to play along with the wilful blindness of his class that consigns the servants to willed, organized invisibility – that makes them all ghostly…” Seductively (in my opinion), Robbins goes on to state that, “thanks to their bizarre isolation, raised by servants alone, without interference from the upper classes, the children have become little democrats, unable to see the sin in transgressing those class divisions that the adult world takes for granted”.
By the same token, I found Stanley Renner’s directly opposed psychoanalytical essay “Red hair, very red, close curling”: Sexual Hysteria, Physiognomic Bogeymen, and the ‘Ghosts’ in The Turn of the Screw equally credible. With similar authority, Renner asserts that what James actually wanted to say when he wrote the story was “that the angel in the house [i.e. the governess] might really be an angel of psychic destruction, votary of an ideal moving through society from house to house doing mortal damage to human sexual development” and that the novelist “produced a ghost story that would materialize…as one of the most remarkable psychological dramas in literature… A story about the damage done to the sexual development of children by Victorian sexual fear and disgust…”
For a time I fell in with the idea that The Turn of the Screw is, in fact, for those with the stomach to face it, a story revealing James’ own psychosexual childhood traumas, and his writing of it an act of revenge against the various castrating women of his youth.
There would, after all, be many reasons for James to write subliminally a message if it dared concern itself with sex. Fred Kaplan, one of his biographers, tells us that James was merely a passive and repressed observer and terrified of sex. Something many agree on is that he shared the prudish Victorian view that physical aspects of human passion (of any kind) were out of place in serious fiction. But, even had he not been so cautious from the point of view of literary taste, we might remember that in 1895 – the year in which the archbishop furnished James with the idea for the story – Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labour for homosexual offences. As Peter G Beidler points out, equally fresh in James’ mind must have been “the storm of opprobrium that had befallen Thomas Hardy when he ventured to criticize Victorian sexual sanctities – showing, for example, through Tess that a sexual lapse did not really commit a girl to hopeless depravity, and through Jude that the spiritual-love ideal could turn marriage into a torment for people with normal sexual desires”.
It seemed more and more obvious to me that, in a profoundly coded way, The Turn of the Screw was an attack on Victorian family values, the cult of the governess and perhaps, even more controversially, an attempt to address the taboo subject of homosexuality, and that therefore, as its adaptor, I should find a way of expressing this. And yet how could I be sure I’d hit upon the ‘right’ reading? As soon as I turned back to the Marxists, it was once again perfectly obvious to me that the crime for which Miles is expelled from his school, for passing onto his friends some unpardonable and unsayable information, was not to do with a sense of his burgeoning if unconventional sexuality, but it was the truth he’d learned from Quint – the radical concept that servants are as valuable as anyone else, and that the upper classes were in terminal moral decline.
So baffled by critical scholarship, I turned back to the biographies where one fact is strikingly clear. The 1890s was a bad time for James. Only five years before he began work on The Turn of the Screw, his beloved sister Alice, who’d been preoccupied with suicide and suffered from mental ill health throughout her life, had died following a lingering illness. (Alice, in fact, might well be considered the prime source of inspiration for the governess). A year after her death, James turned fifty, suffered a severe attack of gout and wrote to a friend that he was “moody, misanthropic, melancholy, morbid [and] morose”. Another friend, to whom he was very attached, committed suicide a year after that. But not only did he have to contend with emotional pain, James’ books weren’t selling well either, and an attempt to make money from playwriting was proving to be a spectacular flop. The London audiences thought his theatrical efforts too ‘talky’ and too ‘refined’, and the most lauded only played for a month in London. His older brother William, conversely, was rising to international prominence as America’s greatest authority on the new subject of psychology. So I imagine it was with a sense of having nothing much to lose that James embarked on the adventure of writing something true to life (which was, after all, his ambition for literature) and to his particular experience of it. In January 1895 he wrote, ‘It is now indeed that I may do the work of my life, and I will!’ And one of the first things he produced shortly after was The Turn of the Screw.
It’s not hard to see the themes of his situation and of the novella reflecting each other: unreturned love, unappreciated talent, death, abandonment, innocence corrupted and evil. As Beidler summarises, “James mined the previous five years of death, sickness and failure to produce one of his most popular and successful works.”
If I ever felt close to discovering how to proceed in putting all that I now knew into an adaptation of the ghost story, it was when I learned that some scholars, equally baffled by the mire created by their colleague’s contradictory thought, had reached the conclusion that to decide what the work meant was beside the point. Structuralist and deconstructionist thinkers, such as Tzvetan Todorov, Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida, just like Boris Johnson’s designs on Brexit, argued that it was perfectly possible to achieve a ‘cake and eat it’ interpretation. Todorov’s view, for instance, is that The Turn of the Screw “does not permit us to determine finally whether the ghosts haunt the old estate, or whether we are confronted by the hallucinations of a hysterical governess victimised by the disturbing atmosphere that surrounds her”. “There is no word or incident in the story that cannot be interpreted both ways”, argued experimental novelist Christine Brooke-Rose. And, as John Carlos Rowe maintained, “We cannot know… We are forever dupes of the language that employs us”.
From these writers, I gained the confidence to go forward in the knowledge that the ‘right’ approach was one which attempted to mimic James’ awe-inspiring talent for providing action, characterization and dialogue which, in every case, allows multiple interpretations to exist simultaneously and which has yielded scholars the material to inspire their analysis to flourish in every conceivable direction. It’s not that one thing or the other is happening, it’s that both are happening at the same time. The ambiguity of James’ writing is such that it allows you to hold two opinions at once.
When I met the director of the production to discuss the script, I wasn’t surprised that his first question to me was to know what I imagined actually happens in the story. He’d been on the same journey as me and was very conscious, come the first day of rehearsal, that the actors and creative team would be asking him the same question. Naturally enough, he wished to know what I had in mind. Regretfully, I had to tell him, even after working on the script for many months, that I still don’t know for sure, but that, naturally, he’s free, if not obliged, to make up his own mind, as long, that it, as the production honestly attempts to avoid coming down too heavily on one side or the other – that, in other words, it allows the audience to decide for themselves.
So, what actually happens?
You tell me.
© Tim Luscombe, July 2017
My adaptation of ‘Turn of the Screw’ was produced by Dermot McLaughlin, the Mercury Theatre Colchester and the Grand Theatre Wolverhampton in 2018. Opening in Colchester in February, it toured the UK through the spring. This year, it will be revived, opening at the Northcott Theatre, Exeter, and touring the UK for 12 further weeks. For tickets to the Northcott, see https://exeternorthcott.co.uk/