'The Haunting of Bly Manor' Twists the Terrifying Ambiguity of 'The Turn of the Screw'

Gabrielle Bruney
·4 mins read
Photo credit: Elaine Chung
Photo credit: Elaine Chung

From Esquire

The following contains spoilers for all episodes of Netflix's The Haunting of Bly Manor.

With 2018's The Haunting of Hill House, writer-director Mike Flanagan adapted Shirley Jackson's classic novella of the same name, transforming the original story, which tells of a group of strangers who visit a haunted house as part of an investigation of the paranormal, into a decades-spanning family epic.

For Flanagan's follow-up series, The Haunting of Bly Manor, a lot of the ingredients are the same. Though there are plenty of fresh faces, Hill House actors like Victoria Pedretti, Henry Thomas, and Oliver Jackson-Cohen all return. And just like last time, this season adapts a classic ghost story—in this case, it's Henry James' The Turn of the Screw. But the series takes a very different approach to its source material than did Hill House. Here's what you should know.

The show is much more loyal to the source material this time around.

The Haunting of Hill House was based on Shirley Jackson's story only in the loosest sense. Book characters Eleanore Vance, Theodora, and Luke are strangers brought together for an experiment with the paranormal; in the show, they're Luke, Nell, and Theo Crain, the youngest of the five Crain siblings whose parents made the unfortunate decision to buy Hill House.

Photo credit: Eike Schroter/Netflix
Photo credit: Eike Schroter/Netflix

Bly Manor hews much more closely to its source material. The Turn of the Screw is a story within a story, the tale of an unnamed governess who takes a job caring for two orphaned children at a charming English country estate called Bly. There, she becomes convinced that her charges are in the thrall of the ghosts of their former governess, Miss Jessel, and their uncle's valet, Peter Quint, who were involved in a socially forbidden romance before their deaths.

The show's broader plot points are pretty similar. The Haunting of Bly Manor takes place in the 1980s rather than the nineteenth century, but it tells the story of teacher Dani Clayton, who takes a job as the private instructor to orphans Flora and Miles Wingrave. She soon finds that the house is haunted by the ghosts of Jessel and Quint, and that they may be asserting a malevolent influence over the children.

Some of the biggest changes are additions that stretch the story into a nine-episode TV season.

James' work clocks in at under 100 pages, so to take the story to TV series length, many characters and backstories were added. There's no personal subplot for Mrs. Grose in the novella—and she's alive throughout. Bly cook Owen isn't in the story, nor is groundskeeper Jamie, which obviously means that neither of them fall in love with their Bly colleagues. Flora and Miles' uncle is a far smaller presence, and the paternity plot is another Flanagan creation.

Photo credit: EIKE SCHROTER/NETFLIX
Photo credit: EIKE SCHROTER/NETFLIX

Like the novella, Bly Manor is a story within a story. Onscreen, the narrator relays the tale to a wedding party, and is revealed in the finale to be Jamie, telling the story at grown-up Flora's wedding. But in the book, the person revealing the Bly story is a man named Douglas—and while he was at one point in love with the governess, the novella ends without ever returning to him.

Perhaps the most major difference between the novella and the series is that Miles dies in the governess' arms after a supposed confrontation with Quint's ghost in the book, while in Bly Manor the boy survives, and it's Dani who dies, years after her original time in the house.

The series also weaves in aspects of James' other works.

Some of the additions to the tale may not have appeared in The Turn of the Screw, but are taken from James' other stories. The Lady in the Lake doesn't appear in the novella, but her origin as the ghost of an 18th century woman is taken from James' short story "The Romance of Certain Old Clothes." Owen and the Wingraves likely take their names from James' story "Owen Wingrave," while the menacing double who haunts Henry Wingrave in the series is drawn from the story "The Jolly Corner."

Photo credit: EIKE SCHROTER/NETFLIX
Photo credit: EIKE SCHROTER/NETFLIX

But some of the biggest changes are more subtle.

While the show is pretty loyal to the source material, the spirit of the show and the novella are very different. The Turn of the Screw has been closely analyzed for years because of its deeply ambiguous text. The book leaves readers uncertain as to the circumstances surrounding Quint and Jessel's deaths, Miles' expulsion from school, and whether or not their ghosts are real or figments of the governess' imagination.

But the show is pretty unambiguous—not only are the ghosts real, but we're told the full backstory of how they came to occupy Bly, how and why they're possessing the kids, and the details of their relationship in life. Not only is it a departure from James' story, it's very different from Flanagan's Hill House adaptation. There, the ghosts remained relatively unexplained. Back in 2016, he wrote on his Facebook page that, when it comes to horror, "the explanations are never as satisfying as the question." This time around, the show decided against leaving most questions unanswered.

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