Extract from a contextual review for Wordsworth Editions, originally entitled ‘Based on the Writings of Henry James’: The Turn of the Screw, The Innocents and The Haunting of Bly Manor‘.
The Turn of the Screw has been adapted many times (it was even turned into an opera by Benjamin Britten in 1954), but it is Jack Clayton’s film The Innocents (1961) that remains the benchmark. Its stylistic influence can be seen in Robert Wise’s 1963 film The Haunting, adapted from Shirley Jackson’s gothic novel The Haunting of Hill House (1959); Michael Winner directed a prequel called The Nightcomers in 1971 starring Marlon Brando as Peter Quint, and Dan Curtis – the creator of Dark Shadows, the first gothic soap opera – directed a version for American TV in 1974, following his adaptations of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Picture of Dorian Gray. There have also been film versions made in Spain, France, Italy, Germany, Brazil, Mexico, and Canada. Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others (2001), though not a remake, also has striking thematic similarities to James’ novel. More recently, there has been In A Dark Place (2006) directed by Donato Rotunno, an updated version implying that the governess is the abuser; a BBC miniseries (2009) set in the 1920s which is framed by the governess telling her story from an asylum; and The Turning (2020), directed by Floria Sigismondi, better known for her ‘goth’ music videos, including work with Marilyn Manson, The Cure, and David Bowie. Sigismondi’s under-rated version is a stylised re-telling set in the early 90s, pursuing the ‘delusional’ reading of the governess’s character.
Like Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Henry James’ little novella is just one of those literary ghost stories that film-makers and viewers never seem to tire of, even though to its author it was quite a minor work in comparison to his major novels The Portrait of a Lady, The Ambassadors, The Tragic Muse and The Wings of the Dove. This month, therefore, just in time for Halloween, Netflix has dropped the most ambitious re-imagining of James’ gothic masterpiece to date: The Haunting of Bly Manor.
The Haunting of Bly Manor is a nine-part series created by Mike Flanagan, who has a successful background in horror cinema. It is the second entry in The Haunting anthology series, following The Haunting of Hill House (2018) – a sophisticated and updated re-working of Jackson’s novel – also created, written and directed by Flanagan. In the show’s opening credits, it states that Bly Manor is ‘Inspired by the Writings of Henry James’. And so it is, most obviously The Turn of the Screw, but also several other of his short stories, the premises of which Flanagan cannily adapts to serve and extend the primary narrative. Miles and Flora, Quint and Jessel, and Mrs Grose are all present, as is the governess – now a gay American au pair called Dani Clayton fleeing her own traumatic past – and the indifferent uncle. The other household staff only cursorily mentioned by James, the cook and the gardener, are developed into significant secondary characters, and the children’s parents are also shown in flashback. Bly Manor also leans on The Innocents, retaining ‘O Willow Waly’.
Essentially following the novel’s frame, the story is presented as being told by an initially unidentified elderly guest after a wedding rehearsal dinner in California in 2007; the main body of the story is set in England in 1987, allowing the costume designers to enjoy themselves with the worst excesses of eighties fashion: curly perms, shoulder pads, dungarees, bushy moustaches and baggy jeans. Despite a non-linear plot, multiple point of view characters, and a lot of misdirection, there’s never really any doubt that the ghosts are real. As with the previous Hill House series, in which the coming together of an estranged family after a tragedy forces each to re-examine how the experience of living in a haunted house as children has affected them as adults, the drama is more character driven than shocking. This makes The Haunting project very different in tone to its HBO contemporary, American Horror Story, though there’s more than enough in it to still make you jump. Like James’ novel and, indeed, Jackson’s, the point of the story is the effect of supernatural experience on the individual, as much if not more than the experience itself. The intricate plot manages to pay its respects to James’ original while changing it enough to make the story fresh for a twenty-first century audience. Events are therefore both familiar and surprising, with a climax and denouement that are imaginative, poignant and original, making something new yet conceptually appropriate from the source material. Ultimately, as one listener at the wedding party observes, ‘It isn’t a ghost story. It’s a love story.’ The show’s leads are Victoria Pedretti as Dani, T’Nia Miller as Mrs Grose, Oliver Jackson-Cohen as Quint, Tahirah Sharif as Miss Jessel, Amelia Eve as Jamie (the gardener), Rahul Kohli as Owen Sharma (the cook), Henry Thomas as the uncle, and Carla Gugino as the storyteller. The children are ably played by Amelie Bea Smith and Benjamin Evan Ainsworth. Reviews are thus far more than favourable, with the show trending for several hours this week on social media, the consensus being that T’Nia Miller owned it and that the ending made everyone cry.
What is perhaps most interesting about Bly Manor, however, are the other Jamesian intertexts, several of which have never been adapted for the screen before. Each episode is named after a short story by James. These are: ‘The Great Good Place’, ‘The Pupil’, ‘The Two Faces’ (Parts One and Two), ‘The Way It Came’, ‘The Altar of the Dead’, ‘The Jolly Corner’, ‘The Romance of Certain Old Clothes’, and ‘The Beast in the Jungle’. Some, but not all of these are supernatural stories, but each has a deeply psychological component, as did all of James’ writing. Flanagan’s applications are also far from literal. What he takes from these stories are their essence…
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