On the Most Adapted Ghost Story of All Time

From The Literary Hub:

Ghost stories are about seeing. If their earnest intention in simplistic terms is to scare, then that fear first and foremost arises from witnessing. Seeing becomes séance in tales of the supernatural. In the history of the literary ghost story, several writers have taken the form to its zenith through terrifying temporal lapses of perception. Those glimpsed stories of M.R. James’s or those witnessed horrors of Charles Dickens; all stories in which the act of seeing becomes the spine of the narrative.

With this in mind, it’s clear to see why several of the strongest ghost stories of the last two hundred years or so have found their way onto screens in various forms. With the act of seeing so pivotal to their narrative arcs, there is an obvious visual quality within them that renders their potential for screen adaptation irresistible. It could almost be argued that the most adapted of writers and their stories are those that convey this visual terror most effectively.

M.R. James is likely the most adapted of ghost story writers (perhaps with some competition from Algernon Blackwood), in terms of the sheer number of different stories that have made it onto the screen. An upcoming adaptation of his story The Mezzotint is due to be screened at Christmas this year on the BBC. In terms of singular stories, one of the most adapted is arguably Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, partly (like James) due to its firm position within Christmas tradition.

One story above all is returned to again and again by filmmakers across countries and eras, suggesting that it may be the most visually alarming of all English language eerie tales. That story is Henry James’s 1898 novella, The Turn of the Screw.

The novella follows the haunted and disturbing events at a manor in Bly, Essex. A group of men are being read a manuscript authored by a governess who was charged with the care of the children of the manor, Miles and Flora. Miles has been mysteriously expelled from school and returns home. The governess becomes increasingly unnerved by their behavior and the presence of a man and a woman seen variously around the property. They are said to be the spirits of the previous governess Miss Jessel and her lover Peter Quint. Soon, the governess suspects liaisons between the ghosts and children, her investigations resulting in horror and tragedy.

James’s heady novella is arguably the most successful ghost story ever written, at least in terms of creative responses to it. A cursory glance over IMDb entries reveals over two dozen screen adaptations, and that’s before including filmed versions of the chamber opera of the story by composer Benjamin Britten.

In particular, the last two decades have seen a slew of television adaptations, 2020 itself boasting no less than six screen versions of various kinds. Even this year, there have already been two adaptations, and filmmakers seem to sleepwalk into recreating it in the same somnambulist fashion as the children of the narrative; possessed of spirits older and darker than themselves.

Out of the many adaptations, Jack Clayton’s 1961 version is considered the benchmark. The film celebrated its 60th anniversary this year, having premiered in London on the 24th of November, 1961. Considering the sheer number of competitors to Clayton’s version, it is telling of the film’s qualities that it still stands far and above its many peers. In fact, it is difficult to see James’s story without those stark black-and-white images of the film coming to mind, as well as its stunning central performance by Deborah Kerr. Suffice to say, 60 years on, Jamess’ screen ghosts still haunt.

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The Turn of the Screw has the sort of ambiguous ghostly heritage expected of such a celebrated tale. James was acquainted with another noted exponent of the English ghost story, E.F. Benson. Benson’s father Edward White Benson was the Archbishop of Canterbury and, on a visit to his house in 1895, the archbishop purportedly told James a story. The story was one vaguely similar to the narrative he was soon to produce, in which two children were left in the care of ill-suited servants, both of whom died and haunted the children, corrupting them even from the grave.

Roger Clarke, the author of The Natural History of Ghosts, has researched the story’s history thoroughly and highlighted the murky contradictions within its possible inspirations. “The general scholarly view is that The Turn of the Screw is not based on any known story but,” he writes, “in fact, the story recounted one January evening at the archbishop’s house in Addington…” Clarke sees some connection to the famous haunting of Hinton Ampner and its occupant Mary Ricketts, perhaps passed down through the upper echelons of society to the archbishop. He does stress, however, that E.F. Benson, along with the archbishop’s wife, could never recall the man recounting such a ghost story.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub