True Detective, Series 2
I'm In Touchstone Again

The Turn of the Screw, Again

(Note: this is at least somewhat spoilerish. Also, it's a follow-up to this post from last month.)

I keep on being bothered by the question of whether the governess is mad and the ghosts objectively nonexistent, or the governess is quite sane and the ghosts both real and malevolent. The secondary questions--are the children malicious? did James intend any ambiguity?--don't matter much if the primary is undecided.

I grant that one can make a reasonable argument for what I will call the all-in-her-head view. Or, if you prefer, for the intentional-ambiguity. What puzzles me is the question of why anyone came up with the AIHH view in the first place. As I said when writing about it before, it never occurred to me when I read the story. If that simply marks me as being a little thick, well, that's all right; I grant that, too; subtlety has never been a strength of mine, neither the acting of it or the recognition of it.

In pursuit of the question, I read another James ghost story, which I happened to have at hand in a collection called The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories (recommended!). The story is "The Friends of the Friends," and it's a good story. As a ghost story it suffers from the same problem (if you want to call it that) as "Turn of the Screw": it's not actually very scary, in part because James is not exactly a master of suspense, much less action, though it does deliver a chill. 

And I'm wondering why it should not be subject to the same doubt as the novella ("The Friends" is of standard short-story length). This story is also narrated by a woman whose testimony is the only account of the (purported) events, and who is to say that she is not unreliable? The ghostliness of the story rests mainly on two events. The narrator's account of the first of these is directly contradicted by another person, and involves something that could be ascribed to coincidence. The second is even more easily dismissible as coincidence, and in fact seems to be regarded as such by the narrator's friends. So I don't see why, if one is going to doubt the governess in "Turn of the Screw," one should not also doubt the narrator of "The Friends of the Friends." Well, perhaps people do, I don't know.

So then, a few days later, while looking for something else in the DVD collection at the local library, I ran across a 1999 BBC/Masterpiece Theater adaptation of "The Turn of the Screw" and checked it out. (I guess it was BBC--British, anyway.) I had a curious experience with it--no, not a ghostly one, just a curious one.

By the time I was five minutes or so into it I was thinking that I wasn't going to like it. I didn't like the way the governess was portrayed--breathless and palpitating from the first moment. I thought the score was intrusive, and the whole thing rather overdone; I'm a bit tired of that high-gloss BBC period drama style. So it went on, with me thinking I don't like this, I don't like that. And it looked for a bit as if they were going to veer off from the story into something (I didn't know what) that the director thought would be an improvement on James.

But then, rather abruptly it seemed, it was over, and suddenly I was saying in surprise "Well, damn, that was actually pretty good." What happened, in part, was that it totally dashed my expectation that it was going to be unfaithful to the story. It is in fact quite faithful. I might quarrel with the way various things were done, but they were in substance true to the story. 

And another curious thing happened: suddenly I understood why one would doubt the validity of the governess's story. I can't really account for that. I just sort of saw it, the way one sees an optical illusion one way and then, as if a switch has been flipped, in another quite different way. (Well, actually, there was one very important detail that is not in the story but is in the film, and which definitely tips the balance toward "She's crazy.")

I went looking for some discussion of the film, and found a very interesting blog post: Top 8 Film Adaptations of "The Turn of the Screw". (The link is worth clicking on just to see the painting that serves as background for the site.)

"Top 8" implies that there are more, which is surprising. And also somewhat to my surprise I found the 1999 one at Number 2 on the list, second only to The Innocents, a 1961 film which seems to be pretty highly regarded, and which is now near the top of my Netflix DVD list (the only place I could find it). 

I also learned from that site that those (of whom I still count myself one) who believe the governess was seeing real ghosts have a label: we are called "apparitionists." 

Comments

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Hadn't heard of that 1999 version. The Innocents is excellent, and very creepy. It's generally considered one of the best ghost films of all time. I've got the recent Criterion Coll. version on DVD, but I've been a fan of the film for ages.

Wow! Apparitionist!

I don't agree with you that James' prose is laboured. But of course this is true:

" James is not exactly a master of suspense"

haha

Oh, did I say "laboured" in that other discussion? If so I agree with you, more or less--"laboured" is not a good description.

I need to re-read that piece about the movies that I linked to. If one side in the debate is "apparitionist," there should be a word for the other. I guess "anti-apparitionist" would do. Or "delusionist"?

The Innocents btw is not available on the Criterion subscription streaming service. As has been the case with several other Criterion titles I looked for. I really haven't used it that much and may cancel, which would be kind of sad.

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