I. Am. LIVID. Henry James… honey… I am so sorry.
So, a quick break to set up the background: The Turn of the Screw was a groundbreaking horror novella written by Henry James in 1898 about a tutor moving in with two children in a house that may be haunted by the two caretakers before her, but maybe it’s not?? It’s not super spooky since Victorian-Era horror is way different than modern horror, but it had a very neat psychological elements and I liked it very much. The Turning is a 2020 horror B-movie that claimed to be based on The Turn of the Screw but in reality only shared the basic premise (and I mean BASIC) and the names.
I’ll get to the plot/full critiques in a second, but I’ll start out with character comparisons. Because this movie adaptation is so poorly-done, they couldn’t even get that right.
Spoilers for The Turn of the Screw ahead. Also The Turning, I guess, but honestly who cares about that.
Flora: Not much to say with her. Sweet little girl in the book, still a sweet little girl in the movie. But she was very sinister too, which was stupid and destroyed the whole theme of innocence/unreliable narrators in the original. More on that later.
Governess/Kate: Also not bad. Modernized with things like giving her a name and making her a tutor instead of a governess, but she doesn’t have a lot going on originally that even the movie writers could screw (haha) up. In both cases she’s pretty much just an audience surrogate/unreliable narrator. I do wish she didn’t breathe so damn loud the whole way through the movie, though. That shit got annoying real quick.
The Ghosts (Jessel and Quint): Why did you give them a story? Why? Their whole deal is that you don’t know anything about them. Henry James uses the fear of the unknown. The most that happened is Quint may have done stuff to Miles. Keyword may. Why did you add some dumb B-Plot to make them “scary?” There was no point.
Mrs. Grose: Where is my sweet housekeeper who can’t read and is the narrator’s best friend/possible girlfriend from the novella. In the movie she does nothing but be creepy and angry. There was no reason to include her except to pretend to be accurate to the book and grasp desperately at suspense, at which the writers failed miserably.
Miles: I. Am. ANGRY. I know I talked about him a bit in another post, but I’ll say it here again. In the book, he’s an exceptionally sweet and gentle ten-year-old boy who is expelled from school for mysterious reasons. The narrator theorizes the whole book, then Miles tells her the reason at the end. But again, James uses the fear of the unknown and doesn’t tell you as a reader what it is, but it’s largely speculated based on the wording that he was gay (especially given that Henry James was a closeted gay man during his time. He would have definitely been one to subtly criticize homophobia of the era). The worst thing this boy does is want to be more independent because he’s growing up. In the movie, he’s an angsty teen, he’s violent, he’s pretentious, and just to make sure the viewers don’t have any suspicions of him being gay (God forbid) the writers told us that he was expelled for being violent at the very beginning and made him horny for his nanny to boot. It felt like I was watching a whole different character. A badly-written one.
Others (The mom, the friend, etc.): They weren’t in the book. They serve no narrative purpose. Why are they in this movie?
Alright, that’s our cast of characters. Can you all see what a shitshow this movie was already? Alright, on to the full review/rant. I’ll be comparing it a lot to the book, just a heads up.
This movie was bad right off the bat. You can tell from the beginning that the house is spooky. There are scary dolls and spiders everywhere. The girl is weird. The housekeeper is weird. They boy is weird. You know there are ghosts, so you already don’t care! In the book, you have no idea that anything is wrong, and the ghosts creep up on you at the same time as they do the narrator. You’re not sitting there like in this movie saying “No, don’t go in that door. The ghost opened it.” You’re invested in the story, and invested in the children because they are kind and innocent! I did not give a shit about the kids in the movie. If the ghosts killed them I would not have cared. They had no personality except be creepy and, in Miles’s case, a dick. Also, the friend talking to Kate about the kids at the beginning served no purpose. It was very sloppy exposition.
The whole movie, I did not care at all what was happening. I was close to none of the characters, and I was just watching stuff happen. The writing was so poor, and none of the plot related to the book. Henry James focused on the main girl’s sneaking suspicion that the children were talking to ghosts. Just… talking. So there was hope that they would be saved. But in this, the kids are weird already. There are no stakes, Kate is just kind of… doing things and reacting to things. They lost the entire point of the novella. You can’t rely on spiders, dolls, fish murder, and ghosts in reflections to carry your movie.
Also the ending pissed me off SO much. First of all, nothing like the book, which may not seem bad at first glance. Miles dies at the end of The Turn of the Screw, but if he died at the end of the movie I would not have cared in the slightest (well, maybe a little, but more just because I love Finn Wolfhard). He was just so… damn… UNLIKABLE. Also they lost all the ambiguity of the book! They pretty much just slapped the audience in the face and said “The nanny is crazy. She inherited schizophrenia from her mother probably. Also she has a weird dream about a pool. Isn’t our movie good?” Like… no. It’s not. You gave me no payoff, no consistency to the source material you claim to have based your movie off of, and no emotional or mental interest. Your movie sucked. Also, I was confused as hell. Grose killed Quint who killed Jessel? Sorry? None of that happened in the book. And what was the deal with that time loop? Nothing was explained well.
I will say that the cinematography was actually really good. And the director was a woman! Nice! Women in film never get the recognition they deserve/are very underrepresented because of the sexism in the industry. Anyway, she did awesome, and has some decent stuff under her belt (Handmaid’s Tale, American Gods, etc.). I don’t know how she got roped in with these horrible script-writers, but she did wonderfully, especially considering what she was given to work with.
Tl;dr: The Turn of the Screw, I will admit, isn’t the scariest thing ever. The narrator sees a ghost on the stairs, they stare at each other for a bit, the ghost walks away, and she lays on her face for like an hour. That was horror in Henry James’s time, though. Aside from that, the psychological idea of “is she seeing ghosts or isn’t she?” is very well-done and leaves you guessing the whole time, even when the story’s over. The movie throws every reason why the book is good out the window. It beats you over the head with everything, and since it’s a horror movie they had to add a bunch of cheap jumpscares to upgrade it to “modern horror.” (Example: The kids prank the nanny in the book by having Miles stay up late reading until the nanny goes to bed, after which he stands outside and stares at a tower. In the movie, they pretend that Flora drowned in the pool.) In doing so, the writers lost the impact and suspense of the original piece and cobbled together some horrific bastard child that would have worked much better as a psychological thriller. Don’t try to modernize old literature. It hardly ever works. And the reasons why is topped with The Turning. Sorry, Finn Wolfhard, I still love you.