Masterpiece Theatre's "Turn of the Screw" was adapted from the Henry James novella of the same name. The tale tells of a governess caring for two small children haunted by ghosts. Like the original Henry James story, the Masterpiece Theatre adaptation leaves much of the haunting, and the reasons behind it, to our imaginations. On the surface, the story is a lurid ghost tale, but the subtle undercurrent speaks of the danger of sexual repression in Victorian era England.
Flora, Miles and Miss
A charming bachelor, the "Master," hires the lovely and innocent "Miss," a governess and the main character, to care for his angelic niece and nephew, Flora and Miles. Miss's position in the idyllic, sprawling Victorian mansion seems grand to the impressionable young governess. However, the Master has hired her to replace the previous governess, Miss Jessel, who recently died under suspicious circumstances along with the mansion's former valet, Peter Quint.
The Ghosts of the Lovers
The specters of Jessel and Quint are quick to make their ghostly presences known in a series of phantom visitations to Miss. The school expels Miles because of vaguely described circumstances involving the corruption of other children. Miss learns that while Jessel and Quint were alive, they spent a considerable amount of time with Miles and Flora. As Jessel and Quint were lovers, to Miss this alludes to immoral conduct regarding the children.
The psychological unraveling of Miss is about as terrifying as the haunting of the children. Though only she can see the ghosts, Miss becomes obsessed with protecting Flora and Miles's innocence and purity from the seedy spirits. This obsession grows as the children are not only haunted, but possibly suffer from possession by the spirits. Because Jessel and Quint were also lovers, the impending spiritual possession of the children has very sinister implications.
Immorality, Repression and Miss's Madness
Miles especially grows more manipulative and mature sounding, essentially hitting on Miss at one point. The governess is uncertain whether the ghosts and possessions are real, or if she is losing her mind. Miss faces the dilemma of how to protect the children from Jessel and Quint and from themselves when possessed by the immoral spirits. The Masterpiece Theatre adaptation diverges from the Henry James tale through more vivid exploration of Miss's sexual repression and possible projection onto the children as the potential culprit instead of actual spiritual possession.
Miss Confronts Quint
Miss sends Flora away from the mansion after she denies Miss's accusation of consorting with Jessel. That evening, while sitting with Miles, Miss sees the specter of Quint. Miss attacks the ghost of Quint, and then turns to Miles to find him dying. The child dies in Miss's arms, and possibly at her hand. The true cause of Miles's death is as speculative as the true nature of the governess' obsession.
- The Turn of the Screw; Henry James; 1907
- PBS: The Turn of the Screw
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