Victorian Ghosts, 1852-1907: EN 4573 Collection

Remixing the Works of Henry James by Araceli Ferrara

           In an interview following the release of the Netflix supernatural horror series The Haunting of Hill House (2018), filmmaker Mike Flanagan commented on his process of adapting the Shirley Jackson novel of the same name, saying “for me it was more interesting to break down the book and pull out the characters and the themes and individual moments and pieces of prose, even, that had really stuck with me, and try to rearrange it” (“The Haunting Of Hill House: Mike Flanagan Interview ‘My First Response Was That You Couldn't Do It.’”). The context of his creative process is important to recognized when it comes to our analysis of how the works of Henry James were adapted in Flanagan’s The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020). As he mentioned in his interview, it’s best to view the approach he took “as a remix,” and described that he and his team “were walking headfirst into an adaptation that was way more of a riff than it was an adaptation” (“The Haunting Of Hill House: Mike Flanagan Interview ‘My First Response Was That You Couldn't Do It.’”). This idea of remixing the source material and pulling out specific characters, themes, individual moments, and pieces of prose is reflected throughout Bly Manor. It is my argument that any changes or similarities between the source material and this adaptation is due to Mike Flanagan’s personal interpretation of Henry James’s short stories. Flanagan utilizes the source material to his advantage, putting forth a new narrative that translates more as a remix rather than a true adaptation. This allows Flanagan to assert his own thesis in The Haunting of Bly Manor on how he was impacted and what he believes the audience should take away from these stories.

           Before we begin our analysis of the source material and this adaptation, we must first put our source material into context. The Haunting of Bly Manor’s nine-episode story arch is primarily based off of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898), which is considered to be “one of the most ambiguous texts of all times” (Van Peer and Van der Knaap 110). While each episode is named after one of James’s short stories, it is The Turn of the Screw and The Romance of Certain Old Clothes (1868) that serve as the main points of focus, with the latter acting as inspiration for an entire black-and-white episode of the same name, which is used to explain all the mysteries behind Bly Manor. The Turn of the Screw has produced a large amount of controversy over the years as to “whether the ghosts are “real” or are, rather, the invention of the sexually-repressed governess” (Klein 596). This interpretation of a sexually repressed governess is from Edmund Wilson, who analyzed the text with a Freudian approach, determining that it’s “a neurotic case of sex repression and the ghosts are not real ghosts at all but merely the governess’s hallucinations” (Halttunen 472). However, this reading of the text has been debated, with some arguing that if Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper of the manor, “is able to identity this ghost,” and therefore “it must be the case that the governess has not hallucinated and that at least one of the two ghosts is “real,” and if so, then it is likely that so will be the other one, the governess’s predecessor, Miss Jessel” (Klein 596). While the source material sparked a debate as to whether or not the ghosts are real, with some analyzing the psyche of the governess, this adaptation is able to confirm the existence of ghosts on the grounds of Bly Manor. Initially, the audience is not given the identities of the ghosts who haunt the house; however, as the story progresses, we receive more and more answers. The most important difference is Flanagan gives voices to his ghosts, which is one thing that is missing from the source material. In The Turn of the Screw, the ghosts are “shadowy parts of the discourse, only half “there” in the text” (Dry and Kucinkas 71). It can be argued that in moving away from the debate which surrounds the material, Flanagan is able to give his ghosts more agency. He has the freedom to develop their histories, their ambitions, hopes and desire. The audience is no longer frightened by the unknown, and instead, we are frightened by what do we know. The ghosts in The Haunting of Bly Manor are not merely passive participants. While some still lurk in the shadows of the frame, appearing in the background of various scenes, ghosts such as Peter Quint, Miss Jessel, and the Lady in the Lake are able to possess and, at times, kill the living. Flanagan loses the psychological intrigue of the controversy, however, he gains the ability to use the ghosts in unexpected ways to push his narrative forward. 

           One of the most important aspects of The Turn of the Screw is the character of the governess and her account of events. In the source material, the text is “presented as an “exact” transcription of [her] own manuscript, made by a narrator who has himself heard it read aloud by a fellow guest at a Christmas house party” (Dry and Kucinkas 72). While the circumstances surrounding the narration in The Haunting of Bly Manor is different, as it takes place after the rehearsal dinner of an upcoming wedding, both the source material and this adaptation allow the audience to follow the story of the governess. The main difference between the structures of narration is that in the show, we’re not receiving a first-person account of the governess’s experiences, therefore there’s no need to call into question whether or not she’s a reliable narrator. Instead, we’re given a third-person narration from an initially unnamed narrator at a party. Everyone is gathered around while one person shares a ghost story with other guests; it’s a familiar setup. It can be argued that this structure is an homage to the source material and other Victorian ghost stories which were published around the same time. While there’s an initial distance between the narrator and the story, as the show progresses, we are given indications and finally the revelation that the narrator is Jamie, the gardener at Bly Manor and the romantic interest of the governess. Perhaps the personal connection is why the governess is given a name in the adaptation. Jamie knows her as Dani Clayton, she has loved her as Dani Clayton, and while she still refers to her as the au pair and herself as the gardener, there is a sense of identity. In The Turn of the Screw, the governess is never given a name as “she’s merely a point of view” (Fagin 200) and details of her history is reduced to small bits of information such as she’s “the youngest of several daughters of a poor country parson”, “ twenty”, and came to London “to answer in person an advertisement that had already placed her in brief correspondence with the advertiser” (James, 1898). Dani is given further development in The Haunting of Bly Manor and the small details in the source material are expanded on to demonstrate why she is the way she is. The governess is described as “young, untried, nervous” and “a vision of serious duties and little company, of really great loneliness” (James, 1898). It can be argued that this directly translates to the character of Dani. She’s relatively young and nervous due to the trauma she experienced after witnessing the death of her fiancĂ©e, Edmund, which she blames herself for as it came right after she ended their engagement. The interpretation of sexual repression is also potentially carried over from the source material to this adaptation, as Dani is hiding her sexuality from her family and Edmund. The repression in this case is effectively released in a positive manner, as Dani forms a romantic attraction to Jamie which eventually grows into a relationship, where she is able to find comfort and confidence. Instead of being ashamed of her sexual desires, she falls in love with Jamie and conquers her repression. In Episode 9, “The Beast in the Jungle”, years pass after the events at Bly Manor and the couple move in together, with Dani proposing to Jamie in a tender scene, stating “And I know we can’t technically get married, but I also don’t really care. We can wear the rings, and we’ll know. Okay? And that’s enough for me” (Flanagan, 2020). Dani’s proposal is an affirmation of her sexuality, going against the repression we initially see when she’s around her family or Edmund in her past. 

           Other characters who are given further development are Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. In fact, each character has an episode dedicated to exploring their side of the story. For Quint and Miss Jessel, we have Episode 3, “The Two Faces: Part One”, and Episode 7, “The Two Faces: Part Two”. Similar to the source material, Miss Jessel’s role in the story is “the same as that of Quint” and it is argued that this “is probably due to James’s sense of artistic balance. Miss Jessel is to Flora what Quint is to Miles; each is a corrupting influence: and each helps to complicate and thicken the extra of a capital story–” (Fagin 201). However, in The Haunting of Bly Manor, Flanagan achieves a more rounded interpretation of the two characters. James stated his intention with his story was “to represent Peter Quint and Miss Jessel as agents of evil” (Halttunen 472). Instead of having Dani’s conflict with the ghosts play out as an intense battle between good and evil, Flanagan depicts both Quint and Miss Jessel as complex characters capable of doing both good and bad. Miss Jessel has similar characteristics to her literary counterpart, she is beautiful, but she’s also seen as kind and smart. She has ambitions to be successful and is initially attracted to the same ambition she sees in Peter Quint. He’s the corruptive figure in their relationship, acting possessive of her when he perceives her to be flirting with the cook, Owen. As Dani reflects on the story of their relationship after discussing it with Jamie in Episode 3, she says, "People do, don't they? Mix up love and possession. I don't think that should be possible. They're opposites really: love and ownership" (Flanagan, 2020). This theme of love and possession are prevalent throughout the show, often foreshadowing events involving the ghosts at Bly Manor. One of the worst things Peter Quint is seen doing, aside from possessing Miles and pushing Mrs. Grose to her death in a well, is the drowning of Miss Jessel. At first, the audience is under the impression that Miss Jessel drowned herself after Quint disappeared, seeming abandoning her. However, it is later revealed that he was responsible for her death, after he revealed himself to Miss Jessel as a ghost following his death at the hands of the Lady in the Lake. He convinced her that he knew a way for them to be together forever and while possessing her body, Quint drowns Miss Jessel and leaves her to die alone without him in the water. It is arguable that Quint killed Miss Jessel out of his love for her, however, we are given other glimpses of his potential reasoning. When characters are seen “dream-hopping” throughout Bly, Quint seems to always return to a memory of his mother, where it’s revealed he survived abuse from his father and that she was blackmailing him for money. This scene reveals Quint is more complex than the audience might’ve thought, and most of his actions are driven by a fear of forgetting and turning out as the other faceless ghosts at Bly Manor who no longer have an identity. Miss Jessel achieves her redemption in the end after she refuses to possess Flora, allowing her to escape from Quint, and going as far as offering to possess her only so she wouldn’t have to experience drowning to death. However, Quint’s acknowledgement of his actions in the end is small, as he apologizes to Miles for the all pain that he has caused him before finally disappearing. 

           Another departure from the source material is the inclusion of Henry James’s The Romance of Certain Old Clothes, which is the title of Episode 8 and serves as a prologue to the events depicted in the show. It’s arguable one of the most important episodes, offering an answer to the mystery the house has posed since its very first episode. And it’s unique because it’s inherently an adaptation within an adaptation. Episode 8 differs from the rest in the show; it’s filmed in black-and-white, highlighting the gothic elements of its source material, and allows Flanagan to play with his directing technique. He works with a different cast of characters, some of which were seen prior as Viola and Perdita are now ghosts which haunt the grounds of Bly Manor. This episode offers the origins of the Lady in the Lake, who is revealed to be Viola, who is significantly different from her literary counterpart. The roles of the two sisters are switched when it comes to this adaptation, with the character of Rosalind having her name changed to Viola. As Rosalind is named after “the Rosalind of Shakespeare’s comedy” (James 1), it is likely that once her role was changed Flanagan decided to rename her Viola after the character in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night,  another one of his comedies with the female heroine disguising herself as a man. Flanagan lists no exact reason for his decision to change the roles of the sisters in the story, having the elder sister marry Mr. Lloyd instead and having Perdita have the same appearance of Rosalind described in James’s story, “tall and white, with calm gray eyes and auburn tresses;” (James 1). However, what remains the same is that the younger sister’s love for Mr. Lloyd is true while Viola doesn’t seem to love him at first. Instead, Viola is seen growing to care for him in their arrangement with her true love being her daughter. As she says fondly to her daughter after her birth, “It is you. It is me. It is us.” (Flanagan 2020). This phrase holds significance over Viola and the other ghosts at Bly Manor, as Quint explains that it’s essentially permission for the ghosts to take full possession of the living. It’s something more permanent, almost as you’re opening yourself completely to the other when you utter the phrase. In the final episode when Dani rushes to save Flora, she shouts a similar phrase, “It’s you, it’s me, it’s us!” (Flanagan 2020). This allows Viola’s “gravity-well” over Bly Manor to be released as she is also released, but it’s apparent that her anger remains. The jealous and rage depicted in James’s story is what stood out to Flanagan and an image of a woman who was far more powerful than her time would allow her to be. Episode 8 demonstrates best at how Flanagan is able to remix the source material to assert his own thesis on the nature of love and possession. 

           It’s evident throughout The Haunting of Bly Manor that the works of Henry James are utilized to translate the source material through the lens of Mike Flanagan. He is the primary interpreter; every change and similarity are him developing a new narrative, one which fits his format of a nine-episode story arch and asserts a thesis about the Victorian ghost stories that inspire his work. In the final episode, the overall thesis of The Haunting of Bly Manor is shown once Jamie finishes telling the story. The young bride, who is revealed to be an older version of Flora with no recollection of the supernatural events at Bly Manor, tells Jamie that she set up the story wrong in the beginning. “You said it was a ghost story. It isn’t. It’s a love story,” she points out, to which Jamie replies, “Same thing, really.” (Flanagan 2020). The love story is what Mike Flanagan leaves his audience on and one can argue, it’s the romance which he takes away from Henry James’s ghost stories. 

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