The Innocents is a 1961 film directed by Jack Clayton that presents the story of Miss Giddens’ time as governess at Bly, a country estate in England, watching over two small children, Miles and Flora. A basic plot summary follows. Her first impression of the estate and of Flora is that they represent some approximation of Eden—a kind of pure state of existence, but soon, she begins to feel as though something impure is operating just beneath the surface. Eventually, Miles returns from school, having been expelled for corrupting his classmates, and Giddens sees some suspicious individuals about the estate. The housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, would identify these individuals as the former governess and manager of Bly. What is noteworthy about the two, Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, is that during their time at Bly, they openly engaged in adulterous, sexual affairs consequently perverting the children—and that they are presently dead. Miss Giddens fears that their continued presence potentially indicates a persistent possession of Miles and Flora in order to continue those illicit affairs. Giddens is compelled to take action against the ghosts and believes that if she can get the children to admit that they are being possessed, then the malicious spirits will leave them. As a result of her efforts, Grose and Flora are driven away, and Miles dies under mysterious circumstances.
The film is an indirect cinematic adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (1961), by way of William Archibald’s play The Innocents (1950). 20th Century Fox owned the rights to James’ original work, and the play was the studio’s way of continuing to keep those rights. Jack Clayton enjoyed the idea of the play but felt it sacrificed the ambiguity of James’ original work, so he sought to create an adaptation more faithful to the style and effect of The Turn of the Screw. Using Archibald’s play as a starting point, Clayton brought in Truman Capote to balance the play’s presentation of James’ novella as a ghost story with sexualized symbolism to bring particular personal struggles of Miss Giddens to the foreground and John Mortimer to ensure that the dialogue was sufficiently authentic. It has been said that the majority of what made it to screen can be credited to Capote.
The major plot points described above can be found in James’ The Turn of the Screw, except for the Governess’ name of which she did not have one in the novella. It is in the more minor aspects of characterization and plot development that the source text differs, these differences likely having much to do with conforming to storytelling conventions specific to the two media. Besides a compelling narrative told in such a way as to keep open the possibility of multiple valid interpretations, most notably as a paranormal thriller or a thriller lacking such supernatural elements, the text is a fertile specimen for adaptation for a few reasons. Because it was published in serial format in Collier’s Weekly magazine, pictures were published with it to allow for an endorsed aesthetic to accompany the story. As well, the meta-narrative grounds the narrative in a verbal image that sounds a good deal like a pitch:
[A]n appearance, of a dreadful kind, to a little boy sleeping in the room with his mother and waking her up in the terror of it; waking her not to dissipate his dread and soothe him to sleep again, but to encounter also, herself, before she had succeeded in doing so, the same sight that had shaken him. (James 1)
This meta-narrative that James uses to frame the story of the Governess’ ordeal at Bly allows for it to be understood as an adaptation of itself.
James also creates layers between his readers and the hypothetical original source of the narrative. The source of the narrative is the Governess’ written account sent to Douglas, the account’s intended audience. The Governess has died by the time Douglas performs the story to the group, and by the time the meta-narrator relays the story to us, Douglas has died as well. It would seem then that because both the source and original audience for the story, the Governess and Douglas respectively, in its hypothetical original state are gone and because there is a change in medium from written to oral back to written, The Turn of the Screw, would qualify as an adaptation within itself of another story existing outside the narrative but within the meta-narrative. James uses this meta-narrative to frame the story according to the expectations of the world into which it was published, a world which seriously investigated ghost sightings and the like.
Clayton would need to be equally mindful of the world into which he was producing his work. If the audience were to experience The Innocents with the proper expectations in place, it could not be understood to exist in the same tradition of the comedic horror films that had been poking fun at the horror genre for decades, like the Abbott and Costello Meet… films or Invasion of the Saucer Men or The Little Shop of Horrors, nor could it be associated with the Hammer Film Productions films, which featured a pairing of colored realism and a gore that many considered vulgar. The successes of films similar to what Clayton had in mind, such as Psycho, House on Haunted Hill, and House of Usher, moved 20th Century Fox to provide generous financing for The Innocents, so the studio would understand the film as an extension of those films in so much as it served their commercial interests. The audiences, however, might have made different associations for the film given its actors’ work, or lack of it, prior to it—for example, the eeriness Martin Stephens brings from The Village of the Damned conferring a sense of depth on him such that there is almost an adult quality about him or Pamela Franklin’s inexperience allowing her to play the character of a young girls as a young girl.
While it is impossible to establish the extent to which Clayton intentionally located his film amid the social and historical currents of the late fifties and early sixties, it would seem irresponsible not to treat the film as an “instructive barometer for the age” and connect Miss Giddens’ personal struggles to those of women at large (Dudley 71). At a time when women enjoyed a particularly gender-specific experience as British citizens, Clayton releases The Innocents—sevens years after Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex was translated into English and one year prior to the Family Planning Association’s approving the use of oral contraception and allowing women to step away from a definition of self necessarily dependent on relationships with men, as potential or actual lovers or mothers. The cast of characters in the film can readily be understood relative to Giddens, as representative of options the world puts upon her as she struggles to create an identity for herself during her first role as an adult dependent on or independent of such relationships.
James makes the Governess’ internal conflict in Turn of the Screw clear with literary devices such as romantic metaphors for occurrences involving her and Miles, specific diction used as she expresses a desire to possess Miles or not get off with him, or the appearances of Quint and Jessel coinciding with her needs throughout the story, such that the ghosts—of a physiognomically typical sexual deviant and a future version of herself in her present role—seem to operate as extensions of her. Clayton uses cinematic devices, instead, to foreground and convey that same struggle within Miss Giddens. Her personal tensions can be seen in the setting of the film: the dilapidation of Bly, the paintings and tapestry that reveal themes of incongruity and inconsistency, white roses as a visual motif, and the evolution of Giddens’ wardrobe. And these tensions are placed center stage by prioritizing Giddens’ reaction to the ghosts’ appearances over the appearances themselves; putting visual obstructions such as fog, frosted glass, and degraded film between the ghosts and the audience; and placing the ghosts in the periphery among the blackened edges while she remains well lighted, center screen, an effect amplified in a dark theater—creating a shared subjective experience for the audience with Miss Giddens through cinematographic instead of literary techniques.
Clayton’s ability to create “filmic equivalents for the linguistics” of the source text, utilizing the “distinctive advantages” of cinema, justifies a designation of The Innocents as film art (Corrigan 17; Carroll 45). These imagistic strategies of showcasing perspective revive the ambiguity James layered in the source text and allow the viewers to experience the events with and as Miss Giddens. Clayton also uses images at the beginning and end of the film to loop the chronology of the film in such a way as to further facilitate the audience’s seeing the events through her mind’s eye, as one might expect her to obsess about her performance the consequences of it, replaying the events endlessly, thereby, freeing the film from “the bondage of the material world” and its physical laws and rooting it more fully in the “freedom of the mind” (Münsterberg 141). One could argue that the isolated setting that becomes more abstract as the film progresses serves to lift the narrative from space as well as time; the characters themselves exist and are developed only to the point that they serve the needs of Miss Giddens, so it is difficult to locate the narrative even in a social space.
Clayton has achieved an aesthetic harmony within his film while lifting it from the laws of the external world and in so doing has realized an appreciable degree of fidelity with respect to both the letter and the spirit of The Turn of the Screw. The critical question would be then “Has Clayton subordinated himself to James or his novella in his use of them, or is The Innocents merely a product of the ‘force of his own preoccupations’?” (Wollen 195). Perhaps the direct source of the film, Archibald’s play, acted as a “catalyst,” inspiring Clayton to utilize cinema as a “means of writing just as flexible and subtle as [James’] written language” (Wollen 194; Astruc 182). To determine if he “speaks in the first person,” as he allows Giddens to do so, and consistently “tells the same story” might require an examination of his corpus, which are predominantly adaptations, but if it could be demonstrated that Clayton offers something substantial and stylistic to the adaptation, relevant to his own social and historical context, that would be enough to grant him singular authorship of the film (Bazin 25).
I believe Clayton utilizes the means specific and advantageous to cinematic expression to get beyond “what is visual” and the “immediate concrete demands of the narrative” to produce a theorem relevant to the film’s social and historical context, specifically by allowing the audience to experience a universal aspect of the human condition through the perspective of a marginalized character in such a way as to celebrate cinema as a robust means of communication (Astruc 182). As well, the consideration of The Innocents allows for the inclusion of more logistical matters in adaptation studies: 20th Century Fox adapted a text as a means of extending its ownership of and control over that text and regards the adaptation as existing in a network of other films that stand as indications of its earning potential. This consideration also emphasizes the significance of works within an adaptation chain that the adaptation resists or forsakes.
Astruc, Alexandre. “The Birth of a New Avant-Garde.” Film and Literature An Introduction and Reader. 2nd ed, Routledge, 2012.
Bazin, André. “De la Politique des Auteurs.” Auteurs and Authorship: A Film Reader. Blackwell Pub., 2008, pp. 19-28.
Carroll, Noël. The Philosophy of Motion Pictures. Blackwell Pub., 2008.
Corrigan, Timothy. Film and Literature An Introduction and Reader. 2nd ed, Routledge, 2012.
James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw. Dover Publications, 1991.
Münsterberg, Hugo. “The Means of Photoplay.” Film and Literature An Introduction and Reader. 2nd ed, Routledge, 2012.
Wollen, Peter. “The Auteur Theory.” Film and Literature An Introduction and Reader. 2nd ed, Routledge, 2012.