Ambiguous Framing

14 September 2014

When Henry James’s novella, The Turn of the Screw was adapted into Jack Clayton’s 1961 film, The Innocents, the frame story was conspicuously missing. Francesco Casetti’s “Adaptation and Mis-adaptations” says the reappearance of a story creates an area of discourse between the two stories (Casetti 82-83.) Both The Turn of the Screw and The Innocents are successful and entertaining stories only The Innocents has a much lower level of ambiguity. Much of the loss of ambiguity comes from the difficulty in translating Henry James’s famously complex syntax to the screen. However, if the film was framed by the story of Douglas’s narration, it could have maintained some of the ambiguity that was lost. Douglas’s story creates another level of depth to the already ambiguous Story in The Turn of the Screw by adding the possibility that the story of the governess was a complete fabrication created by Douglas.

The way Douglas strings along his audience for four days before beginning his tale can be seen both as a way of building suspense and/or as a way of stalling for time long enough to allow him to write the story that he has promised to tell. Douglas’s story takes place within the context of a gathering of storytellers and he is noticeably inspired by the lack luster ghost story that started off the novella. The narrator of the frame story says, “[N]ot immediately, but later in the evening…. Someone else told a story not particularly effective, which I saw [Douglas] was not following. This I took for a sign that he had himself something to produce…” (James 1.) Douglas did not announce right away that he had a similar story to tell. He waited and deliberated until after the next story was finished before he pitched his story. Although the narrator never says that how much time elapsed between the finish of the ghost story and the beginning of the next story, the gathering did not seem to be guided by a strict schedule. Therefore, there could have been a considerable lag between the time that Griffin’s ghost story ended and the next story began. But Douglas did not pitch his story then, nor did he pitch his story directly after the next story was finished. He waited until the gathering was about to break up for the night (James 1.) Douglas could have been spent that whole time trying to remember where he had kept the manuscript that the governess had given him, or he could have spent that time tying together different fictional elements together to think of a way to top Griffin’s story. After he pitches his story and the group begs for him to begin his tale he finds reason to postpone his telling for four days (James 4.) This delay in the telling of the story adds a touch of ambiguity to the question of whether or not the governess even existed to relate the story that Douglas promises to tell.

The parallels between the frame story and the governess’s story add to the question of whether or not Douglas is the author of the story. Both the climax of the governess’s story and the fame story revolve around the sending of a letter. The governess’s letter to the master mysteriously disappears before it can be mailed out (James 76,) and later in the confrontation with Miles, the fact comes out that the letter never had anything in it to begin with (James 84.) And just to reinforce the fact that there was nothing in the letter, the governess and Miles repeat the word ‘nothing’ two more times each (James 84.) Going back to Casetti’s argument that a reappearance creates a discursive field, the letter that Douglas plans to send becomes suspect. Yet, unlike the governess’s letter the novella never discloses whether or not Douglas’s letter is sent, or whether or not he actually receives the manuscript book in the mail. All the novella says is that Douglas produces the manuscript book on the third day and it is not even opened and read from until the fourth day (James 4, 6.) If Douglas did receive the manuscript in the mail, his postponement from the day of the third, when he claimed to receive the manuscript, and the night of the fourth gave him plenty of time to transcribe the story into the manuscript book, and even more time if he had the manuscript book in his possession all along. But up until this point, all of the ambiguity is delivered through the narrative plot.

The best case for an intentional ambiguity of whether or not Douglas is the author of the governess’s tale is delivered in carefully crafted syntax. The narrator of the frame story says, “But Douglas… had begun to read with a fine clearness that was like a rendering to the ear of the beauty of his author’s hand (James 6.) This quote makes very clear that Douglas is a skilled orator if not an author outright. The phrases ‘fine clearness’ and ‘rendering to the ear of beauty’ as well as his earlier ability to draw out the suspense of the promised story for four days show that excels in at least two of the skills that would be required of a writer: the ability to sell a work and a knack for grabbing the audience through the skilled reading of a story. But the three most important words in the quote for drumming up ambiguity are contained in the phrase, ‘his author’s hand.’ Because the phrase does not say the governess’s hand or even more simply the author’s hand, this phrase could either mean that Douglas is the author of the manuscript or that the governess is the author of the manuscript depending on one’s reading of this line of the frame story. Since the last mention of the governess as the pronoun, ‘she’ was two full paragraphs before the word, ‘author’ and the mention of Douglas using the possessive pronoun, ‘his’ is right next to it, most of the evidence points to Douglas being the author. However strong the evidence is that Douglas is the author, the ambiguity remains. Another peculiarity of the frame story in The Turn of the Screw is that the story ends without returning to the frame. Therefore, the placement of the quote as the last line of the frame story leaves the very ambiguous line about the author’s hand at a position that could completely change the reading of the governess’s story without ever resolving the question of who authored the story.

The ambiguity of The Turn of the Screw creates a story that not only holds up to rereading, but also holds new surprises with every read. Of course, the film, The Innocents does not offer as much reward for multiple viewings as the novella, but the reading of the novella in conjunction with the viewing of the movie gives plenty of chances to compare and contrast the different interpretations between the two.

Work Cited

Casetti, Francesco. “Adaptations and Mis-adaptations: Film, Literature, and Social Discourses.” A Companion to Literature and Film. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2004. Print.

James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw. New York: Dover Publications, 1991. Print.

The Innocents. Clayton, J. 20th Century Fox. 1961. Film.

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