When it comes to horror films, showrunner Mike Flanagan rarely ever relies on jump scares. He focuses on his characters’ inner demons and the emotionality of human relationships to terrify his viewers. In Netflix’s latest anthology horror series The Haunting of Bly Manor, he faithfully adapts Henry James’ 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw while adding his own elements to create a new world. There are a few deviations from the book, but Flanagan has ensured that the spirit of the book is retained.
The basic premise is the same in both the mediums. Two orphaned siblings Miles and Flora (played by Benjamin Evan Ainsworth and Amelie Bea Smith respectively) need a tutor after the mysterious demise of their previous au pair. Their uncle (Henry Thomas) decides to hire a young governess and strictly warns her that he does not want any updates about the children. Soon, the governess begins to see ghostly apparitions and realises that there is something malevolent lurking in the house.
Although the book is set in the 19th century, the series takes place in the late 1980s allowing newer and more contemporary plot lines to be explored. The narrator in the show is an old woman (Carla Gugino) attending a wedding instead of a young man, Douglas who narrates the story to a small party in Old England.
The new governess Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti) is an American schoolteacher who is on the lookout for employment opportunities.
In a stark contrast from the book, this governess is not in love with her employer. She instead goes on to build a compelling and heart-rendering relationship with Bly’s gardener Jamie (Amelia Eve). The introduction of the same-sex love story is not forced and becomes one of the turning points in the story.
The show gives Dani a solid backstory by focusing on her dead fiancé who continues to haunt her even after she leaves USA. A terrifying spectre with glowing eyes, it is uncertain whether the ghost really exists or it is a manifestation of Dani’s overwhelming guilt. In the book, however, we do not know much about the governess’s backstory.
Ambiguity and an unreliable narration are some of the driving forces in the book. The readers are left wondering whether the children are actually possessed or it was just their governess’ projection of her own fantasies and fear. However, the TV adaptation makes it very clear that the ghosts do exist and the children have a strong connection to them.
It is the introduction of new characters and ghosts in the mini-series that sets it apart from the book. The scary addition of the Lady in the Lake (Kate Siegel) is utilised to string the various plotlines together. Her origin story draws heavily from the story The Romance of Certain Old Clothes while adding new elements to make it more terrifying.
The two main ghosts from the novel, Ms Jessel (Tahirah Sharif) and Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) make their way to this story as well. Though Henry James deliberately leaves it to the audience to gauge whether the two ghosts actually existed and attempted to corrupt the young siblings, the screen adaptation takes a different route. The way the two ghosts manipulate and possess the children’s minds to achieve their plan of leaving Bly is well explored.
Unlike the novel, Bly Manor by itself is a sinister entity whose history ensnares all the souls who die on its premises.
New supporting characters such as Owen Sharma (Rahul Kohli) and Perdita Willoughby (Catherine Parker) enable the creators to delve into the beauty and emotionality of human relationships. Dani, despite her reservations about the children at various points in the show, truly loves and cares for them. She even sacrifices herself for the children. This is a major departure from Henry James’ version where Flora begs to get away from her erratic governess.
The psychological horror elements of The Turn of the Screw have also been retained, albeit in a more complex way involving time loops, dreams, and memories. The presence of vicious alter-egos is a call-back to James’ The Jolly Corner.
The Haunting of Bly Manor is an amalgamation of the late novelist’s works rather than a straightforward adaptation of The Turn of the Screw. By selling itself as an encompassed rendition of love, loss, and fear, this mini-series captures the essence of James’ gothic narrative.
The Haunting of Bly Manor is streaming on Netflix.