On October 9th, Netflix released The Haunting of Bly Manor, a followup to last year’s The Haunting of Hill House. Whereas Hill House was inspired by one of my favorite books by Shirley Jackson (I’ve written about my love of her here), Bly Manor is loosely based on another one of my all-time faves—The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. In the story, a governess takes a job at a remote manor house and is gradually driven mad as she tries to unravel the mystery of the governess who held the job before her (Miss Jessel), the wicked gardener (Peter Quint) who was her lover, and if the ghosts of these two people are having a corrupting influence on the children under her care, Flora and Miles. (Mild spoilers ahead for The Haunting of Bly Manor and The Turn of the Screw in general, but I have tried not to ruin the ending of any of them. As a result, my analysis is rather surface level, I suppose).
James’s 1898 novella takes place in an interesting context for the history of childhood, which lends itself to the ambiguity at the heart of the story: has the governess gone mad, are the ghosts real, are the children messing with her, or is it some combination of the above?
A Very Brief Overview of The Innocent Ideal of the Child
In James’s time, views of childhood had shifted significantly and childhood became increasingly commodified. For centuries, children were viewed as miniature adults who were not entitled to additional protection from the state. In contrast to today’s view of children as innocents, some Evangelicals during the 19th century viewed children as inherently immoral, in need of strict discipline to save their souls. The very notion of children as a protected category of person emerged during the 19th Century as Victorian ideals about domesticity took hold. In the latter half of the century, social reforms began protecting children’s rights to education, safety, and leisure. Child labor laws, juvenile justice reforms, and other such legislation went into effect, codifying the growing cultural view that childhood was separate from adulthood and was a time meant to be spent in innocent play. With the rise of this view of childhood, children also became increasingly targeted by capitalism. In tandem with the growth of the mass-production of consumer products, more and more items hit the market aimed at children. And, children were also increasingly consumed by adults as the subjects of entertainment. (This is a very brief overview, for more depth, see the works in the suggested reading below).
And yet, there was a dark side to the codification of childhood innocence. In Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture, James Kincaid argues that by emphasizing childhood and the innocence of children so much, Victorian culture drew attention to the child in a way that was pedophilic. That argument seems pretty extreme, but consider one of the most famous Victorian children—Alice of Alice in Wonderland. Alice is based on a real little girl who author Lewis Carroll had what seems like a very inappropriate interest in. The argument follows that as we continue to idealize childhood, we open children up to exploitation because we have made them perversely desirable. Conversely, it can be argued that in solidifying this idea that children are innocent (as in unknowing, pure, and good) we oversimplify what real children can be, forgetting that children can also be mean, manipulative, and other not-so-sweet aspects of human people. If you’ve ever had a child treat you in a less than angelic fashion, you know that children can be naughty in a way that does not line up with this notion that they are an innocent ideal.
Childhood Innocence in The Turn of the Screw
In The Turn of the Screw, Henry James plays with this tension between the knowingness of children and their innocence. The governess struggles to understand if Miles is malicious in his treatment of her or if he is just being a young boy (or, perhaps, these two are not mutually exclusive). Similarly, at first, she views Flora as a beautiful angel, who is innocent of any bad behavior and is in need of protection from the dangers at Bly. As her mental state deteriorates, the governess starts to view the children’s good behavior as a manipulative charade, with Flora under the influence of her brother or the ghosts. As she starts to see Flora’s role in the mystery, she asserts that when she behaves badly, Flora is not even a child:
“She’s not alone, and at such times she’s not a child; she’s an old, old woman.”
In doing so, the governess separates Flora’s childhood—her innocence—from the bad behavior. She compartmentalizes them irrationally.
In Miles’s case, the governess’s waffling perspective on innocence is especially pronounced. When Miles is sent home from school, she finds him as beautiful and charming as she does Flora, and concludes, essentially, that he was too pure for school, anyway:
“My conclusion bloomed there with the real rose-flush of his innocence: he was only too fine and fair for the little horrid unclean school-world, and he had paid a price for it.”
As Miles continues to alternately flirt with and frighten the governess, she starts to suspect that he is not the angel she believed him to be. But, she blames his badness on the influence of Peter Quint. Miles even tells the governess he can be bad—he warns her to imagine what he could really do if he wanted—but she has a hard time imagining that he could be bad because he is a beautiful child. In the end, she turns the situation into a zero-sum premise in which either the ghosts are real and corrupting the children or the children are innocent and she is mad:
“It was for the instant confounding and bottomless, for if he were innocent what then on earth was I?”
The ambiguity of James’s story insinuates that drawing these stark boundaries around the children’s behavior does not make much sense.
Film Adaptations of The Turn of the Screw
Because of the juicy ambiguity of James’s novella, its Gothic setting, and the relative simplicity of its cast and plot, The Turn of the Screw is ripe for cinematic adaptation. Many different films and miniseries have been made based on the original story and I’d like to look at a few versions and if/how they preserve James’s take on the children.
The Innocents (1961)
The Innocents is by far the most beautiful adaptation of The Turn of the Screw and stars Deborah Kerr as the governess. This film has haunting imagery and gorgeous cinematography. I highly, highly recommend it. As an adaptation, it stays very true to the source material and preserves the ambiguity of James’s story. The audience sees the governess jumping to conclusions about the children, their behaviors, and the ghosts. As in the novella, the perspective of the film stays close to the governess, so we see how she views the children at first as innocents and then, increasingly, as manipulated and therefore manipulative. That the film is called The Innocents puts the emphasis on the children and the question of their innocence.
Although The Innocents is the most artful, its adaptation of the book is pretty much in line with most older adaptations, especially those by Masterpiece Theater and the BBC. More recent adaptations have started playing more with both the interpretation of childhood—especially Miles’s—and with the governess’s mental health.
The Turning (2020)
Released at the beginning of the year, The Turning sets the story in 1994 and has fun with updating the governess’s personality and style to fit a more modern nanny. Although the story maintains much of Flora’s adorableness, and, similarly, her innocence, it updates Miles’s flavor of badness so that it falls more into what we today would consider toxic masculinity. He has a terrible temper and lashes out at the governess, Kate, in ways that are verbally assaultive and sexually harassing. Kate struggles with his behavior, but also tries to be understanding because an adolescent boy lashing out is understandable to her given the trauma of his parents’ death.
This adaptation builds out more on the mental health of the governess as well. In The Turning, before reporting for her nanny job, Kate visits her mother at a mental institution. The implication is that Kate has experienced a lot of trauma in her own life and that she has a possible genetic predisposition to mental illness. Whereas Henry James was playing with cultural biases against women (i.e. they were a bit irrational and hysterical to begin with) and the sorts of women who became governesses (lower class and therefore even more likely to become irrational and hysterical), The Turning uses more modern ideas about mental health to present Kate as someone who might be a bit unstable, or at least worried about her mental health, but also someone who would be sensitive to the children’s trauma. In this adaptation, her desire to protect the children is not fixated on their innocence. Rather, it is focused on their feelings.
The Turning takes a more modern approach to the relationship between the governess and the children. Because our culture still views children as innocents, the core of Henry James’s story remains intact. In addition, Kate is driven by a desire to protect them from further trauma. In this way, the film works with a view of childhood that is more contemporary. With the rise of child psychology and the struggles of the modern family, much more emphasis is put on the emotional life of children than there was in the Victorian Era. This more modern take on children also views them as people who are capable of having these types of responses to trauma, much like adults. Miles warns Kate to leave, but she doesn’t because she has promised Flora that she will not abandon her like Miss Jessel did. It might seem tempting for Kate to just take the children away from the haunted manor in her car, but Flora has been traumatized by events that make her terrified to leave the grounds. Tricky, tricky. These dynamics, as well as the toxic masculinity of Miles and Kate’s own mental health history, give The Turning a lot of interesting new material to work with while also staying pretty true to the original.
The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020)
Whereas The Turning still leaves the ending of the story and the relationship between the children, the governess, and the ghosts ambiguous, the most recent adaptation of the story, The Haunting of Bly Manor diverges from this dynamic entirely. It also presents the children unambiguously.
The Haunting of Bly Manor also gives the governess, Dani, a background that influences her approach to the house and the children. Unlike Kate’s family history of mental illness, Dani has a recent trauma that has led to her own sort of haunting, grief, and guilt. Unlike previous iterations of The Turn of the Screw, The Haunting of Bly Manor has made it unambiguous: the ghosts are real.
That the ghosts are real actually changes the entire dynamic with the children. No longer is it unclear if the children are messing with the governess or not—they are under the influence of the ghosts. In this adaptation, the relationship with the children is also not really the point of the haunting, nor is the governess’s mental state. In fact, Dani is a pretty strong character and she, like her predecessors, is determined to protect the children. Like in The Turning, her desire to protect them is not fixated on protecting their innocence. In this version, the children are innocent victims of the house’s haunting. I find it interesting that in moving fully away from the ambiguity of the ghosts, this miniseries has also moved away from the ambiguity around the children. Miles does sometimes behave really badly in this version, but his behavior is always justified by a) trying to protect Flora because of the ghosts b) he is stressed by his own trauma from losing his parents or c) at his worst, he is being directly controlled by Peter Quint. In other words, even when Miles is acting badly, the show gives him a good excuse. Flora, in contrast, does not ever really misbehave. Her angelic sweetness is never a front; she is unambiguously good.
Trends in Childhood Viewed Through Adaptations of The Turn of the Screw
I think that in tracking the changes in the dynamic with the children over the course of these adaptations, you can see a shift in perspectives on children themselves. In many respects, our culture still has preoccupations that date back to the Victorians, especially when it comes to sex, family, and children. We still view children as innocents who should be protected (see the controversy over Cuties, for example). But, our culture has a different view on trauma, psychology, and mental health than the Victorians did and much of our view of protecting children has moved toward more psychologically grounded takes on child-rearing (such as attachment parenting, debates about sleep training, and so on). As this shift has taken place, the adaptations have focused more on the trauma the children have experienced, leaving them under the care of a (perhaps unstable) nanny, hired by an emotionally distant uncle. The emotional toll of that trauma has become a bigger part of the story, as have the emotional lives of the children. In The Turning, the children’s emotional lives are seen through the eyes of Kate, an adult. In The Haunting of Bly Manor, Flora’s complex emotional life is seen through her own eyes and memories. I think that this reflects not only the more expansive take that nine episodes allowed the series to have, but also our contemporary view of children as innocents, but also people with complicated (if developing) emotional lives.
I still think The Innocents is the best adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, but I really appreciate how the ambiguity of the story allows different storytellers to imbue the narrative with cultural values, questions, and uncertainties in different time periods over the last 120 years.
Suggested Further Reading:
Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children’s Literature
Men in Wonderland: The Lost Girlhood of the Victorian Gentleman
The Hidden Adult: Defining Children’s Literature
Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood
Top 8 Film Adaptations of The Turn of the Screw