The Haunting of Bly Manor first published by Sight & Sound, November 2020
In Australia and New Zealand, there is a non-alcoholic beverage named Claytons, bottled and coloured to resemble a spirit, so that abstainers can have it without standing out from fellow drinkers. A popular advertising campaign for Claytons that ran in the Seventies and Eighties included the slogan, “the drink that you have when you’re not having a drink” – which has given rise to the use of ‘Claytons’ in Antipodean slang as an adjective meaning ‘ersatz’ or ‘sham’. As it happens, Mike Flanagan’s Netflix series The Haunting of Bly Manor is not only itself full of spirits both real and imagined, but also adapts Henry James’ 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw whose most famous on-screen version, The Innocents (1961), was directed by one Jack Clayton. Presumably in Clayton’s honour, here James’ originally anonymous governess has been named Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti). The series might also be regarded as a Claytons (or ersatz) Turn of the Screw, taking all manner of liberties and licence with its source material, in much the same way that Flanagan’s previous Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House (2018) was a very free adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s homonymous 1959 novel (itself influenced by The Turn of the Screw).
The very first episode evokes the original while ringing its own changes. It opens at a wedding rehearsal dinner in Northern California, 2007 (rather than at a Christmas Eve party in nineteenth-century England), not with a man reading a deceased governess’ manuscript but a mysterious woman narrating a lengthy ghost story – although it entangles itself securely into James’ work when the narrator promises that the presence of two children in her story “gives the effect a turn of the screw”, quoting directly from the novella. Twenty years earlier, in England, Dani is interviewed by London lawyer Lord Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas) for a position as ‘au pair’ (rather than ‘governess’) to his eight-year-old niece Flora (Amelie Smith) and 10-year-old nephew Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth), both recently orphaned. At her new countryside home in Bly Manor, Dani becomes part of a close-knit family that includes the distracted live-in housekeeper Hannah Grose (T’Nia Miller), the chef and occasional chauffeur Owen (Rahul Kohli) and dungareed gardener Jamie (Amelia Eve). Dani will also hear about her predecessor Rebecca Jessel (Tahirah Sharif) who drowned herself in the lake out of love sickness – and she will spot on the building’s parapet a man who she will later discover is Henry’s larcenous, long missing employee Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson-Cohen).
All this cleaves reasonably close to the template of James’ novella, save for some not insignificant changes to name and race and sex and era (and eventually sexuality), in a telling that manages simultaneously to update the original while still ever looking back to (multiple) times past, and to more than one source. Not only is the governess now a Clayton, but Jamie will soon nickname her ‘Poppins’, in reference to another miracle-working governess from literature and film. Several key cast (Pedretti, Thomas, Jackson-Cohen, Kate Siegel) have returned from (different) rôles in The Haunting of Hill House, thus forging an irrational connection between Flanagan’s two similarly titled Netflix series. Dani’s American provenance mirrors the outsider status of James and Flanagan – both American natives – in this most English of scenarios. Although her inability to brew a decent cup of tea becomes a recurring joke in the show, marking her as a migrant misfit, she will settle in soon enough. Indeed, none of the series’ directors (Flanagan, Ciarán Foy, Liam Gavin, Yolanda Ramke and Ben Howling, Axelle Carolyn, E.L. Katz) is English either, and only three of the writers are (Laurie Penny and the Clarkson Twins, out of Flanagan, his brother James, Diane Ademu-John, Angela LaManna, Rebecca Klingel, Leah Fong and Julia Bicknell). Occasionally this shows – for example, in Episode Six, the children’s father Dominic (Matthew Holness, Possum, 2018) repeatedly uses the Americanism ‘math’ for ‘maths’. For the most part, though, this clash of cultures suits the flow of an archetypically English heritage gothic whose course is forever altered by the intrusion of a modern American.
By Episode 2, Flanagan’s willingness to digress considerably from James’ novella is already clear. In the original, Miles simply returns to Bly after having been thrown out of his boarding school – but here, his behaviour at the school, and the events leading to his expulsion, are the entire focus, as a boy wilfully breaks bad for what will turn out to be good reasons. In his first class at the school, a priest leads a discussion on the miracle of the Gadarene swine, told through three variants in the New Testament. “Why do the Gospel accounts differ?”, asks the priest, his words serving as a reflexive comment on what we are watching. For in this very scene, entirely absent from James, Flanagan is drawing attention to the legion of ways in which Tbe Turn of the Screw might be told – indeed has been, across different media – even as he extrapolates his own version of the story. It is a pattern that will be repeated, episode upon episode, as each of the characters is granted an elaborate backstory that fleshes out the bare bones of James’ text. With the perspective no longer restricted to the governess, the story can ripple out in new and unexpected directions. These flashbacks, lent a fluid continuity through some very well-mounted match cuts, increase in tempo across the series as characters rapidly slip, or ‘dream-hop’, into different times and spaces, and are ‘tucked away’ in comforting (or sometimes not so comforting) memories. For these residents, living or dead, have become caught in the ‘glue trap’ or ‘gravity well’ of Bly Manor’s cursed confines, and while there, the only, partial escape can be into the past.
In one such flashback from Episode Six, when Flora tells her uncle that she has been scared by a little boy in the house who lacks all facial features, Henry suggests that she give the boy “a name” and “a story”. That, in essence, is what Flanagan is doing to the dark lacunae in James’ text: filling them out with names and stories of his own, as well as with elements borrowed from some of James’ other stories (like The Jolly Corner, 1908, and The Romance of Certain Old Clothes, 1868). Lost in this translation is the ambiguity that propelled James’ text – for here the ghosts, though in part metaphorical projections of Dani’s guilt-burdened, sexually repressed mind, are also unequivocally real, even eerily palpable apparitions. The interests of Flanagan’s version nonetheless remain psychological: for while The Haunting of Bly Manor is as concerned with the persistence of the past as any ghost story, it is equally preoccupied with the slow, inexorable fading of living memory (a theme encapsulated by the senile dementia of Owen’s mother), and the oblivion which eventually overwhelms all. Broken by loss, these characters can be fixed only by love – and so, between the narrative poles of an engagement and a wedding (with several funerals in between), Flanagan finds romance in James’ gothic and, as with Hill House and Doctor Sleep (2019), leaves his own muddy imprint in another’s haunted hallways. We are invited to drink deep in James’ gothic waters – but the sad sentimentalism of the final episode is surprisingly sobering.
© Anton Bitel