How The Turning Updates a 100-Year-Old Horror Story

Director Floria Sigismondi and star Mackenzie Davis on why The Turning’s century-old source material is still relevant.

Mackenzie Davis in The Turning
Universal Pictures

In 1898, British-American author Henry James published The Turn of the Screw, a novella about a governess who begins to believe that the two young children she has been hired to care for have come under the influence of malignant spirits. The book is considered one of the great ghost stories, as well as a literary landmark, thanks to its subtle yet escalating sense of inescapable dread and the ambiguous, unreliable nature of its narrative, which calls everything in the story into question.

Naturally, the book has been adapted many times and in several mediums, including stage plays, an opera, a ballet, TV productions (including one coming this fall, The Haunting of Bly Manor, from The Haunting of Hill House director Mike Flanagan) and films. The most famous is arguably The Innocents, a 1961 movie starring Deborah Kerr as the governess that remains one of the most chilling horror films ever made. And now comes The Turning, a new take on the material directed by Floria Sigismondi (The Runaways) and starring Mackenzie Davis (Terminator: Dark Fate) as the governess.

“I read the novella when I was 16 and what was so captivating to me was all the interpretations,” Sigismondi tells us over the phone. “I mean, you could read the novella as a ghost story from beginning to end and then you read it again and it reads about a woman’s descent into madness. It’s so fantastic and rich, and full of symbolism. So for me it was something that I’d love to do, but in a great visual framework and also own it even though it’s been adapted so many times.”

Sigismondi says she wanted to retain the ambiguous nature of the original tale even while updating the story to ’90s. “I wanted to create a film and not spoonfeed the audience,” she explains. “Not take a lane and go, ‘This is it.’ I wanted to make it feel more like a fever dream, and also like what it feels to be in her mindset. That was very important to me, and that’s one of the big reasons why I took it on, because of that ambiguity and that the way that you can, as a viewer, project yourself into it as well.”

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Like Sigismondi, Mackenzie Davis read the book years ago and was struck by its elastic, unreliable nature. “I think in adapting it, and changing what we changed, my concern was always wanting it to echo the spirit of the novella,” the actress says. “I want that sense of following a woman that you think you can trust, and that you can trust, but that who you discover is kind of an unreliable narrator towards the end of the book, through a total journey into this house, and into her mind. And I just wanted that thing, whatever that thing is, that spirit, to stay palpable in our adaptation.”

In the film, Davis’ Kate Mandell (the governess is never named in the book) applies for the job as nanny despite having considerable baggage of her own to still deal with, including the institutionalization of her mother. The book, being a product of its era, carried the suggestion that the governess was sexually repressed, a notion that was more pronounced in The Innocents.

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“I think that’s the cool thing of the story, it adapts to its generation,” says Davis. “That idea in The Innocents was really present in the ’60s. It’s a Victorian idea, sure, but that movie was right before the sexual revolution in the ’60s. There was this sense of what was once repressed starting to bloom, and the desire to keep repressing it was a palpable and seedy part of the culture at that time.”

For a film made today and set relatively recently, those notions didn’t seem to make sense. “For us, that doesn’t feel like the moment we’re living in,” continues Davis. “But the story is so adaptable that it will become what the audience at the time needs. I think for us, or at least my interpretation of it, it’s a sense of being haunted by traumas that you haven’t unpacked. It’s about inheriting mental illness, but also being badly mothered and abandoned, and trying to enact your own trauma out on other people.”

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For Sigismondi, that meant taking the original script from The Conjuring writers Chad and Carey W. Hayes and bringing it deeper into the mind of Kate–which perhaps hews a bit closer to the novella itself. “I wanted to make it more female centric,” explains the director. “I really wanted to get into her POV. The original script that I read was a little bit removed from Kate’s inner world. I wanted to really get into her world and make it more from that perspective… the house and the kids and what’s happened there is more like the key to the Pandora’s box within Kate and opening up a world of her own darkness.”

Kate is welcomed–if that is the right word–to massive Bly Manor in rural Maine (a shift from the story’s original English setting) by the frosty housekeeper Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten) and the younger of the two children, Flora (Brooklynn Prince). As in the book, Flora and her brother Miles (Finn Wolfhard) are orphans left in the care of an unseen uncle. Miles is at boarding school, but when he’s expelled for assaulting another student, he’s sent home and unexpectedly placed under Kate’s care as well.

The children’s previous nanny, Miss Jessel (Denna Thomsen) has mysteriously disappeared, as has the house’s valet (Niall Greig Fulton). As Kate tries to get to know the children–whose responses range from guarded affection to a darker resentment–she also begins to discover the truth about what happened to Miss Jessel and Quint. She ultimately believes that Quint is still exerting a malign influence on the house and the children, possibly from beyond the grave.

“Quint still has his claws in Miles,” says Sigismondi. “If you get rid of all the ghosts in the story, Miles is still being influenced by this man who’s turned into his father figure. This toxic man is teaching him how to navigate through the world and he’s at that age between boyhood and manhood where this is generational abuse is passed down. What is Miles going to choose? What kind of a man is he going to be? Does he choose the dark side? In a way that’s one of the catalysts that drives Kate mad.”

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“It’s like science fiction movies about global warming,” says Davis about the story’s cautionary look at toxic masculinity–a thread retained in this tale for over a century. “We just keep telling the story, and don’t change our behavior at all. There are certain things that are really unmovable, toxic parts of our culture, and they don’t just go away because it’s a new era. It makes sense that we’ve been talking about the same thing for 100 years.

“Boys learn from their fathers, and from the environment that they’re in,” continues Davis. “If the fathers aren’t choosing to break free from those chains, it’s the same problem that Kate has. You’re not doing the work to unpack and divorce yourself from the things that socialized you. If they’re toxic, you’re going to just keep affecting the people around you, and forcing them to inherit your own damage.”

Even though The Turn of the Screw was written in another century, the story’s rich layers of subtext and metaphor fit quite comfortably into the current state of horror cinema, where The Turning joins films like The Babadook, Hereditary, The Witch, and others as exercises in more than just jump scares, grisly visual effects, and exploitation-heavy plotlines. Davis says she welcomes the “elevated” (as it’s been called) approach to horror just as she’s making her genre debut with The Turning.

“I don’t have historical data for this, but just anecdotally, my experience, it does feel like we’re living in this really interesting time for horror, where the dark spaces and chasms of female experience are being plumbed and treated as high drama in themselves, whether it’s childbirth, or just being alone, or having to deal with your infertility or trauma,” she reflects. “That experience feels more present and interesting than at least I remember it being growing up. I don’t know if I wasn’t watching closely enough, but yeah, I feel like horror is such an interesting space to work in right now, and female filmmakers, especially, are really allowed to go deep into a psyche that was treated as less compelling in the past.”

The Turning is out in theaters today, Jan. 24.

Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye