Over the last hundred years, more than five hundred books and essays in English alone have attempted to pinpoint and identify the nature of the evil in the work. ~ Playwright Tim Luscombe.
Henry James’ 1898 novella, The Turn of the Screw, concerns a governess who sees terrifying visions. Are ghosts haunting her children? Or has loneliness driven her mad? The story has been adapted many times for stage and screen. Eloy de la Iglesia’s 1985 adaptation, Otra Vuelta de Tuerca, makes one key change. The protagonist is now a repressed young man. An ex-Jesuit priest. He borrows several images from 1961’s The Innocents and ratchets up the sexual tension. The pacing is slow but the cast is solid and the homoerotic twist fits the story well.
Learn more in my spoiler filled recap. Trigger warning: The story contains suggestions of self-harm, incest and sexual abuse of minors.
Act One: A New Home
Scene One: The Count’s Office
TUTOR: (Prays shirtless. Whips his own back.) Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Who’s a naughty boy? I am!
COUNT: You finished? I need a tutor for my niece and nephew. Ugh. Kids are the worst. (Sucks on a cigar.)
TUTOR: Well I do need a job now that I’ve quit Seminary School… but teaching sounds scary.
Scene Two: A Scary House
HOUSEKEEPER: No worries. The boy Mikel’s at school and the girl Flora is a sweetheart. You’ll be fine.
GIRL: It’s ever so delightful to meet you my Lord.
TUTOR: Well aren’t you precocious!
GIRL: Would you like me to draw you a bath and scrub your back?
TUTOR: No. Gross. Why would you say that?
GIRL: Prefer the gents, do you? You’ll meet my brother soon.
TUTOR: But he’s at school.
HOUSEKEEPER: Here’s a letter from school. He’s been expelled.
(Wolves howl. Lightning crashes. Ominous choir sings.)
TUTOR: Not much for subtlety, are we?
Scene Three: The House at Night
BOY: I’m home! Let’s take a bath sis! (Kisses his sister inappropriately.)
TUTOR: Nope. Why were you expelled?
BOY: Dunno. My uncle will hate me now! (Takes off his shirt. Cries)
TUTOR: Um… There, there. That ship sailed years ago.
(Tutor sees a Handsome Man in a photo. Then sees the Man pass by the window.)
TUTOR: Who’s the man in the photo?
HOUSEKEEPER: Our awful groundskeeper. He was screwing the governess. They taught the children naughty things before they died.
TUTOR: They’re dead? Hot… I mean… sad.
Act Two: A Mystery
Scene Four: Beach
WOMAN: Flora! Flora!
TUTOR: Who is that woman by the water?
GIRL: What woman?
(The Woman is gone)
BOY: Help! I’m drowning
TUTOR: I can’t swim!
(Naked Man rises out of the water and brings the Boy to shore. The Man vanishes.)
TUTOR: The ghosts want the children. I need to save them.
HOUSEKEEPER: If you say so. Just don’t upset the boy. He’s got a heart condition.
TUTOR: Yet another tidbit someone should have told me sooner.
Scene Five: Inappropriate Behavior
BOY: The script says I open my shirt and pull your hand to my chest. Then you run away in tears.
TUTOR: I’m not comfortable with this scene. Are we exploiting an underage actor?
BOY: The boy hits on the governess in the other films. Are you applying a double standard because we’re both men?
TUTOR: The other boys kept their shirts on. This film is objectifying you.
BOY: Fair enough. You can bet the Stranger Things kid won’t be shirtless in the 2020 remake.
TUTOR: Readers, if you suspect a child is in an abusive situation there are several organizations you can contact including RAINN or the NSVRC. Moving on.
Act Three: Ghostbusters
Scene Six: Beach
TUTOR: … So. You totally see her.
GIRL: See who?
TUTOR: YOUR DEAD GOVERNESS WHO YOU’VE BEEN TALKING TO BEHIND MY BACK YOU WITCH!
GIRL: WHY ARE YOU SCREAMING AT ME! I DON’T SEE ANYONE!
TUTOR: That’s just what a possessed child would say!
GIRL: Well that’s just what a self-loathing disaster gay would say!
TUTOR: Why you little…
HOUSEKEEPER: Get away from her! Come with me child.
(Housekeeper and Girl leave.)
TUTOR: But I… But she…
Scene Seven: That Night
TUTOR: You were expelled for talking with ghosts!
BOY: I was expelled for talking about sex.
TUTOR: You’re possessed.
BOY: You’re repressed. Go back to your convent you disaster gay! HAHAHA!
BOY and MAN: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!
TUTOR: He’s here! Confess! You see him! Right there! (Wrestles the Boy to the ground.)
BOY: HE’S NOT HERE! HE’S A METAPHOR! (Has a heart attack. The Man vanishes.)
TUTOR: Good work boy! Now he’s gone! Now he’s… wait… you’re dead?
BOY: (Is dead.)
TUTOR: Did the ghost kill him or did I?
HENRY JAMES (the author): Dunno.
There Are No Answers
It seemed more and more obvious to me that, in a profoundly coded way, The Turn of the Screw was an attack on Victorian family values… [and] an attempt to address the taboo subject of homosexuality. ~ Playwright Tim Luscombe.
How do you adapt a story that’s deliberately ambiguous? Henry James never told us whether the ghosts exist, how they “corrupted” the children in life or why the boy died. Openly gay director/writer Eloy de la Iglesia makes some decisive choices. He only allows his leading man, Pedro Mari Sánchez, to look at the ghosts and explicitly tells us of the boy’s heart condition. The governess has been played by the likes of Deborah Kerr, Lynn Redgrave and Amy Irving. Iglesia allows Sánchez the same vulnerability without making it camp. Is the character more sympathetic if the ghosts are real? One could say he “rescued” the girl, even if he failed to save the boy.
The opera and plays continue to be produced. There are at least a dozen film adaptations and Netflix has a mini-series on the way. Why this particular story? Perhaps, because the ambiguous nature of the tale allows for a great deal of artistic freedom. Wikipedia currently lists Otra Vuelta de Tuerca as a “critical and commercial failure.” A cursory search does not reveal many reviews. I myself enjoyed it, though it could afford to cut 20 minutes of atmosphere. Are you familiar with the tale? Have you a favorite adaptation? Are there other classic stories you’d like to see retold with an LGBT spin?
Up next: A collection of horror films with LGBT+ protagonists.