The Haunting of Bly Manor and the Ghosts of Henry James

Adaptation is hard. It’s even harder to adapt source material that is beloved. It’s even harder than that to adapt beloved source material that already has a great, extant adaptation. That’s part of what makes Mike Flanagan’s second season of his Haunting anthology, The Haunting of Bly Manor, so brilliant. He understands how to adapt something that has already been perfected.

In this case, the source material is Henry James’ 1898 novella, The Turn of the Screw (alongside a host of other Henry James-penned short stories) and the already perfect adaptation is the 1961 Jack Clayton film The Innocents (2001’s The Others also does a remarkable job of telling a story that, while not strictly an adaptation of Turn of the Screw, is a brilliant parallel story). Mike Flanagan faced the same, seemingly insurmountable task in his first season with Shirley Jackson’s beloved The Haunting of Hill House (1959) and the equally beloved adaptation The Haunting (the version from 1963 and decidedly not the version from 1999). But in both cases, Flanagan succeeds wildly, even more so in the second season, because, at the core of it, he seems to understand how to pick apart a story and put it back together, changing absolutely everything and still remaining completely faithful to the spirit of the original.

In order to understand why The Haunting of Bly Manor is such a great adaptation of Turn of the Screw—one that’s as subversive as it is faithful—we should probably talk about the original. Obviously, spoilers for both the novella and the series abound from here on in…

 

Bly Manor as Subversion of The Turn of the Screw

The Haunting of Bly Manor

Screenshot: Netflix

The Turn of the Screw is famous for two reasons. First, it is very nearly the prototypical haunted house story, taking the basic elements of a couple hundred years’ worth of English ghostly tales and weaving them into a template for nearly every other haunted house story that came after. Second, it is a story written with not one but two deeply unreliable narrators and it elides so many pertinent details of the plot that fans and literary scholars were left debating “what really happened” in the story for the entirety of the following century.

These are the basics: at a Christmas Party, an unnamed narrator relates how a friend of his named Douglas tells a ghost story which was in turn written by Douglas’ friend, now long dead. That framing device leads to the main narrative, the story of a young, unnamed Governess who takes a job at Bly Manor, caring for the orphaned Miles and Flora while their uncle remains in London. The mysteries at Bly are numerous: Miles was expelled from his boarding school and there are dark implications as to why; the previous Governess, Miss Jessel, died under mysterious circumstances; the Uncle’s valet, Peter Quint, was a monstrous man who also died under mysterious circumstances but not before doing something awful to Miles or Miss Jessel or both.

Along with the help of the illiterate and rather gullible housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, the Governess tries to unravel the mysteries at Bly and discovers that the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel are planning on doing something dreadful to the children. She sends Flora, Mrs. Grose, and the other servants away to protect them and then she and Miles confront Peter Quint. The narrative ends with the apparent death of Miles, with James ending on the enigmatic line, “his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped”.

That’s where the text of Turn of the Screw stops and all the mountains of criticism, speculation, and fan theories begin. The biggest one, and the subject of 1961’s The Innocents, is the question of whether or not Governess is in her right mind. James’ prose is so cagey and purposefully vague that it is reasonable to ask whether or not the Governess is protecting the children from real ghosts, or if she is hallucinating spirits and accidentally kills Miles in her misguided attempts to protect him.

Beyond that, there are the unanswered questions of what Peter Quint did to Miles and what Miles was expelled from school for. In both cases the insinuation seems to be something about pedophilia and/or queerness. The closest we get to a concrete enumeration of Peter Quint’s crimes is the oblique statement from Mrs. Grose that Peter Quint was “too free with everyone [Miles included though not directly named]” (51). Many critics take from this that Quint sexually molested Miles. This is further complicated by the fact that Miles himself may have flirted with other boys at boarding school and that is the reason for his expulsion, though the evidence for this rests on the fact that he only admits to the Governess that he “said things” to only “a few [he] really liked” (318).

The Haunting of Bly Manor

Screenshot: Netflix

One last point of contention: all of these various half-suggested plot points lead to a popular theory that the Governess is in love with Miles. Certainly her language about him blurs the line between parental and romantic love. And, with Miles being, much as he is in the series, strangely flirtatious and perhaps no stranger to the pedophilic attentions of people who are supposed to be his caretakers, Turn of the Screw can be read as the story of a confused, pedophilic young woman, sublimating her desire for her young charge into the specter of a malevolent ghost that may have, in life, been his rapist.

It’s a lot.

So when Bly Manor was first announced, I thought it was going to be impossible for Flanagan to pull off an adaptation that wasn’t mired in the sorts of twists and turns that the novella suggests, and that the criticism that comes after it gets bogged down in. But he does pull it off. And he does so by throwing out all of the book’s major mysteries.

  • Douglas, the man who tells the story in the framing device of the novella, claims that the Governess was his friend and that they were maybe in love. This has led a lot of people to assume that Douglas is Miles. The last name of the family at Bly House is never given, so it’s possible. In the series, however, Flanagan makes this character a woman (Carla Gugino) who is far too old to be Flora (played as a child by Amelia Bea Smith—the voice of Peppa Pig) so this mystery is bypassed.
  • In adding Owen (Rahul Kohli) and Jamie (Amelia Eve) to the cast of domestics, plenty of other people see the ghosts at Bly Manor so Dani/the Governess (Victoria Pedretti) isn’t seeing things or imagining them. Another mystery resolved.
  • Flanagan gives us a flashback to why Miles (Benjamin Evan-Ainsworth) was expelled in the second episode and it has nothing to do with flirting with the other boys. So, the mystery never really existed in this version.
  • Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is derogatorily referred to as a “valet” in Flanagan’s version, but he is more of the wetworks man for the business interests of the Uncle/Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas). His being too free with everyone isn’t about an erotic interest in Miles but rather his casual contempt for the Wingrave family. Mystery bypassed again!
  • And finally, while Miles is strangely familiar and touchy with Dani—perhaps owing to his being possessed by Peter Quint (that part tracks with some theories of the novella)—she is gay, and her interest is not in Miles but in the groundskeeper, Jamie. Mystery bypassed yet again.

In looking at this list, it may seem like Flanagan has taken all of the uncertainty out of Turn of the Screw. One might read this list and think, why bother to make The Haunting of Bly Manor at all if you didn’t want to remotely tell the same ghost story as Henry James?

The Haunting of Bly Manor

Screenshot: Netflix

But take a second pass at the list, and the mysteries that Flanagan presents us with, and one sees the tackling of the same issues:

  • The storyteller isn’t secretly Miles, but it is secretly Jamie (cleverly hidden by being one of the few adults who isn’t played by the same actor during the time jump), and the core question of how one deals with the life of a woman who loved you and was haunted remains the same. Miles may not be the caretaker of the Governess’ sad confession, but Jamie is definitely the caretaker of Dani’s.
  • While the ghosts at Bly Manor are real, Dani Clayton is also not in her right mind. She sees the ghost of her fiancé, whom she broke up with moments before she witnessed his death. The terrifying, glowing-eyed specter of Edmund is the one ghost in all of the series who might actually be a hallucination of Dani’s. Once she moves on, he disappears entirely, after all.
  • Miles isn’t expelled for his sexuality. But he is expelled for his transgressions against the Anglican Church, feigning a lack of remorse and Satanic interests. One way to read Turn of the Screw is to say that James intended Miles’ expulsion to be the result of a lasting trauma after being molested by Peter Quint. In the show, there is no pedophilia plot, but his expulsion is the result of lasting trauma after the death of his parents. And if the Miles of the novella returns to Bly because he cannot escape Quint, the Miles of the series returns because he cannot abandon Flora.
  • Peter Quint in Flanagan’s version, is not a pedophile but a victim of pedophilia. And while he is not portrayed as a sexually voracious devil-figure, desiring and attempting to seduce everyone at Bly Manor while both living and dead, he is still someone who repeatedly, remorselessly violates boundaries. They aren’t the sexual and class boundaries of the novel (the only confirmed sex scandal in Turn of the Screw is that Quint, a lowly valet, seduces the gentle-born Miss Jessel); rather, they are the boundaries of free will and self-determination. His constant desire to possess first Rebecca Jessel (Tahirah Sharif) and then Miles is absolutely a metaphorical rape and even though he is given a complicated and sympathetic backstory in the series, he is still the animating animus of Bly.
  • James (who himself was likely queer), put a complicated and ultimately odious queer love story (probably) at the center of The Turn of Screw. It’s been moved from Peter and Miles—where, no matter how much you argue for the extenuating circumstances or the ambiguous agency that James grants Miles in wanting to be with Quint, you could not recreate it without playing into the ugly stereotype of the homosexual pedophile—to Dani and Jamie who, being closeted lesbians in the 1980s face a similar moral backlash against their love, albeit one that modern audiences are completely (and correctly) sympathetic to.

So really, Flanagan hasn’t changed much of anything, at the core. He is telling the same story, only modernized, re-arranged, and in a more straightforward manner than Henry James. Though here, I would argue that Flanagan manages to take even the knowledgeable expert James and his work on a similar ride as the newbie. He feints at having subverted our expectations about Peter Quint (he’s not the villain; he’s a sad, broken antihero) only to remind us that Quint, victim or no, is still a toxic, controlling man who wants to indulge his own happiness as the cost of both Jessel and Miles.

If one accepts that the Douglas of The Turn of the Screw’s frame story is an older Miles, than one accepts with it both the idea that Miles does not literally die at the end of Turn of the Screw and that what passed between him and the unnamed Governess was something unsettlingly positioned on the border of child molestation and romantic love. Obviously, that narrative is a dangerous one with implications that exonerate the Governess in ways that would be unpalatable and unacceptable today. In fact, it only is at all palatable if one believes that the Governess—who is maybe between eighteen and twenty, easily “carried away” (300), and placed suddenly in charge of not only a haunted manor but a legacy of trauma and pain—is essentially a child herself.

Read that way, the entire text of Turn of the Screw is a convoluted confession of both love and wrongdoing. Miles reads it aloud at a Christmas Party, reducing it to nothing more than a disturbing tale. Two children (not Miles and Flora but Miles and the Governess) betray one another’s trust. And, in Bly Manor, Jamie sums up the heart of the novella’s terrible truth about loneliness and trauma and the inability to heal from it, in describing her own childhood, raising her younger brother: “I try to take care of him. But I’m just a kid. Kids can’t raise kids.” 

Mike Flanagan bypasses all the possible child molestation and, in doing so, erases the unconscionable reading that homosexuality is somehow tied to pedophilia. But in making these necessary changes, he keeps the bones of the story intact: children hurt one another when they are asked to be adults, fear of intimacy is what opens us to danger, and a ghost is the wound that festers when trauma is left untreated.

 

Bly Manor as a Distillation of All James’ Ghost Stories

The Haunting of Bly Manor

Screenshot: Netflix

…And then he takes it a step farther. After all, The Haunting of Bly Manor isn’t just a brilliant retelling of The Turn of the Screw—it folds in all sorts of other Henry James ghost stories, as witnessed by the episode titles, each of which is a reference to another James tale (and often to the one being highlighted in the episode).

Full disclosure—I am in an incredibly tiny category of people who have written academic articles on “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes” (though I should fully disclose the full disclosure and mention that the “article” in question was a chapter in my undergraduate thesis). And having written on the story, I may be all too happy to see Flanagan not only reference it, but make it the secret backstory to his series as the tale of the troubled sisters, Perdita (Katie Parker) and Viola (Katie Siegel), ends up being the entire reason that there are ghosts at Bly Manor. But true to form, Flanagan doesn’t just include these outlying stories as Easter eggs for Gothic scholars. He puts all of these comparatively obscure James ghost stories to work, turning The Haunting of Bly Manor from an excellent adaptation of Turn of the Screw into a compendious thesis on the entire body of Henry James’ Gothic works.

Let’s take a quick and important example. Episode 6 is entitled “The Jolly Corner,” which is a reference to a 1908 James short story of the same name. In it, Spencer Brydon, an American real estate magnate who has been living abroad in London, returns to his New York City properties, including the titular good-natured corner which was his childhood home. As he begins to suspect that the property is haunted, he reflects on how these New York holdings are his primary source of income now that the rest of his family has died. Eventually, he realizes that the ghost in the Jolly Corner is an alternate version of himself—the self that might have been had he remained as he finds “all things coming back to the question of what he personally might have been, how he might have led his life and ‘turned out,’ if he had not so, the outset, given [the Jolly Corner] up” (220).

Of course, in Flanagan’s riff on “The Jolly Corner,” it is Henry Wingrave, a much more detailed version of Miles and Flora’s uncle, who is haunted by a terrifying, spectral version of himself. While Spencer Brydon’s shadow represents the creeping sense of dread that the protagonist might have wasted his life in staying away from New York, Henry Wingrave’s other self is a sneering, cruel manifestation of his guilt at having had an affair with his sister-in-law and secretly fathering Flora. Brydon is a man who has strayed from his essential self and finds it too late for him to become something other than what he is. Henry is a man who, at any given moment could become a better man and the specter is not so much a sad representation of the person he will never be but rather the part of himself determined to remain disconnected and broken.

At its core, Flanagan’s take on the Jolly Corner is one that heaps another helping of tragedy on top of James’ surfeit: even worse than discovering it is too late to change is discovering that it never was too late and that all the impediments were in one’s head.

It is that notion that dominates Bly Manor. Everywhere, the series is filled with the agony of things left undone. Though it is, of course, too late for Owen and T’Nia Miller’s wonderfully fleshed-out take on Mrs. Grose to run off together (as she is already dead and hasn’t yet come to realize it), for the majority of the series, the thing keeping them apart in the immediate is his terror of leaving his mother behind and her reluctance to trust another man after her husband left her. While there might be some ability for Peter Quint’s plan to succeed, Rebecca, having been so previously betrayed and abused by him, no longer has any interest in following his lead, save out of fear. Henry, as stated above, cannot imagine that his presence in the lives of his daughter and nephew would make any difference, despite it being the only thing that could.

In the final episode of Bly Manor, Flanagan writes the ending that Turn of the Screw elides. Cribbing most of its plot from the 1903 novella that shares its title with the episode, “The Beast in the Jungle” is the story of Dani Clayton’s inability to truly love. The novella centers on John Marcher, a man so consumed by the certainty that he will someday be subject to a lurking catastrophe (what he calls “the beast in the jungle”), that he misses out on the chance to be with the woman he loves…the titular beast was his own inaction. Throughout the denouement, Dani keeps herself at arm’s length from Jamie, knowing that, someday, the specter of Viola Willoughby will consume her. When it does, Jamie lives out her widowhood, waiting for some sign that Dani is still out there, finally ready to love without reservation. We see Dani’s spectral hand on Jamie’s shoulder in the final shot, but Jamie is asleep.

And, perhaps, that is Flanagan’s heartbreaking assessment of James himself. Loneliness pervaded James’ real life. He never married and was often described as celibate. And, though modern scholarship attributes much of that to his being a closeted, queer man, his letters, to both men and women are filled with longing and sadness. In one to a friend and possible romantic entanglement, Mary Caldwell, he exclaims “I yearn over you, but I yearn in vain; & your long silence really breaks my heart, mystifies, depresses, almost alarms me, to the point even of making me wonder if [i have] ‘done’ anything, in some dark somnambulism of the spirit, which has […] given you a bad moment, or a wrong impression, or a ‘colourable pretext.’”

And while his celibacy may have been a lie masking his then-criminal homosexuality, it is also true that James self-describes in that way in many personal letters, leading some scholars to wonder if he was both queer and unable to find intimacy even in the closet. He writes to his brother, William: “always your hopelessly celibate even though sexagenarian Henry.”  In short, while we cannot know for sure about the romantic life of Henry James, we do know that it is one that appears to be filled with the sorts of regret and loneliness experienced by so many of his characters and that, even though Flanagan has named Jamie after the author, it is Dani Clayton that stands in for him.

 

Every Ghost Story Is a Story About Trauma

The Haunting of Bly Manor

Screenshot: Netflix

In the first episode, at what we will later learn is Flora’s wedding, Owen says in his rehearsal dinner toast, “to truly love another person is to accept that the work of loving them is worth the pain of losing them.” He and Jamie share a mournful look at that line—and it is the key to all mythologies for this series. After all, it is the calculus that Jamie has made. It is the calculus that Dani could not make. It is the calculus that Henry Wingrave and Owen and Hannah and Peter all could not make at their worst. It is the calculus that maybe even Henry James himself could not make. And it is the real ghost story at the heart of both The Turn of the Screw and The Haunting of Bly Manor.

To my mind, there is something truly remarkable about Flanagan’s expert handling of his source material. The Turn of the Screw is a ghost story where, real or not, the ghosts are manifestations of trauma and regret. It is a ghost story about how the most terrible specter of all is the specter of loneliness and unexpressed desire that leads you either to madness or sorrow, or both, depending on how you read the novella’s painfully ambiguous ending. Flanagan’s Haunting of Bly Manor, in the end, removes all the ambiguity, but the essence remains the same.

Tyler Dean is a professor of Victorian Gothic Literature. He holds a doctorate from the University of California Irvine and teaches at a handful of Southern California colleges. He is one half of the Lincoln & Welles podcast available on Apple Podcasts or through your favorite podcatcher. More of his writing can be found at his website and his fantastical bestiary can be found on Facebook at @presumptivebestiary

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