How The Haunting of Bly Manor Adapts The Turn of the Screw and Other Henry James Works
The Haunting of Bly Manor borrows liberally from three different Henry James texts to create one big, Gothic Romance narrative.
The following contains spoilers for every episode of The Haunting of Bly Manor.
Henry James (probably known as Hank Jim to his friends) is one of the most prominent and prolific writers of his era. Originally appreciated for his novels like The Portrait of a Lady and The Ambassadors, James is now best-known for his 1898 work The Turn of the Screw, an eerie, ambiguous ghost story novella that would become one of the most enduring Gothic horror texts ever.
The Turn of the Screw has been adapted dozens of times into films, operas, ballets, and more. And James’s classic story forms the basis for Netflix’s Haunting of Hill House follow up The Haunting of Bly Manor. Just as Hill House uses Shirley Jackson’s horror story as a jumping off point, so too does Bly Manor liberally borrow from The Turn of the Screw. But that’s not where the Henry James party ends for this series. The Haunting of Bly Manor puts several other Henry James stories to good use as well.
The Turn of the Screw, and short stories “The Jolly Corner”, and “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes” all play crucial roles in building the spooky tale that showrunner Mike Flanagan is out to tell this time around. And here is a helpful breakdown of what each James story brings to the proceedings.
The Turn of the Screw
Given that this is the Hill House/Bly Manor franchise, perhaps it’s helpful to use housing terminology to discuss The Turn of the Screw’s contributions to the series. The Turn of the Screw makes up the foundation of The Haunting of Bly Manor. Hell, it might just make up the walls and roof as well for as the show takes just about every base level detail from James’s seminal work.
The Turn of the Screw opens up as a frame story. A group of Victorian-era aristocrats has gathered together to share ghost stories with one another Mary Shelley-style. One guest has a story that is sure to blow everyone else away and begins to tell it to the enraptured audience. Bly Manor borrows this frame story technique but replaces the unnamed aristocrat with Carla Gugino’s character (who is later revealed to be Jamie) sharing a story at a wedding.
Once both the novella and the show’s narrators launch into their stories, we can see that there are plenty of similarities. The Turn of the Screw deals with an unnamed Governess (a fancy British word for a live-in schoolteacher at a mansion) who gets a job teaching two children at an English countryside manor following the deaths of their parents. Though the Governess (a.k.a. Victoria Pedretti’s Dani) doesn’t get a name in the novella, all the other names are the same. The children are Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) and Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) and their caretaker is Mrs. Grose (T’Nia Miller). And then when the spooky stuff hits the fan it’s revealed that the kids’ previous governess was named Miss Jessel (Rebecca Jessel in the show, played by Tahirah Sharif) and she had a close relationship with another one of the estate’s employees, Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). In terms of characters, the only major additions for the show are Amelia Eve as the gardener Jamie and Rahul Kohli as chef Owen.
As the story progresses, it’s clear that The Haunting of Bly Manor intends to stick closer to The Turn of the Screw than The Haunting of Hill House did with its namesake. There is something clearly off with Miles and Flora and it likely has to do with the dead Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. The Governess repeatedly sees the shade of Peter Quint on the grounds of the manor just like Dani does in the show. Miles acts out at his boarding school and is sent home early. Flora one night even gets out of bed and wanders out to the lake on the property where the Governess is convinced she is communing with the ghost of Miss Jessel.
Beginning around episode 6, The Haunting of Bly Manor begins to deviate from The Turn of the Screw’s plot and eventually concludes with a wildly different ending. That’s partly because The Turn of the Screw doesn’t have much of an ending (what is it with Gothic writers and their penchant for having people randomly drop dead) but also because the show is drawing from two other Henry James sources.
The Jolly Corner
Episode 6 of The Haunting of Bly Manor is called “The Jolly Corner” for a reason. This is the hour in which we catch up fully with Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas), the current owner and executor of Bly Manor, who is wracked with guilt over an affair he had with his brother’s wife before their deaths.
That guilt eventually takes on a metaphysical component as Henry is quite literally haunted by the worst version of himself. The evil version of Henry continually taunts the “normal” one each night, reminding him of all his mistakes and misdeeds. Whether this is a hallucination or some kind of evil shade is left deliberately vague. But the arrival of the second Henry is preceded by the last words Henry’s brother ever spoke to him: “I pity you because you have to live with him. You have to live with yourself.”
“The Jolly Corner” borrows its name from a Henry James short story, which features a similar doppelganger phenomenon but in a vastly different context. The story follows Spencer Brydon, a man who returns to his childhood New York home on the “jolly corner” after decades spent abroad.
Spencer gets to work renovating his childhood home and comes to find that he has a real knack for it. He’s so good at it in fact that he begins to wonder what his life would have been like if he had stayed in the U.S. and dedicated his career to the construction business. This thought quickly turns into delusion as he imagines that he is being haunted by the version of himself who truly did stay behind in the U.S. and put his talents to good use. Spencer finally confronts the ghost of himself and in the true Henry James-style promptly dies…or does he?
The Romance of Certain Old Clothes
While “The Jolly Corner” makes up an exceedingly small portion of The Haunting of Bly Manor, the final Henry James contribution, “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes” is of enormous significance to the show’s plot. Going back to our housing metaphor, if The Turn of the Screw is the foundation of Bly Manor, then “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes” is nothing less than the people inside the home. The plot of this short story is crucial to understanding the context of what’s really happening at Bly Manor.
First, an abbreviated summary of the short story. “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes” is set in 18th century Massachusetts. It follows two daughters in the aristocratic Wingrave family: Viola and Perdita. Both Viola and Perdita fall in love with rich suitor Mr. Arthur Lloyd and Arthur eventually chooses to marry Perdita. Despite promises not to get jealous…Viola gets pretty jealous. The sisters’ relationship becomes strained and only worsens when Perdita falls ill.
As Perdita slowly dies, she makes Arthur promise to hide away her beloved gown in a chest so that her daughter can have it once she comes of age. Arthur does so and Perdita dies. The Lloyd and Wingrave estate then begins to crumble due to Arthur’s mismanagement. Viola urges Arthur to open the chest either for herself or to sell off its contents. When Arthur refuses, Viola takes matters into her own hands and heads up to open the chest herself. Arthur later heads up to find Viola on her knees and dead, with wounds visible from ghostly hands.
If all of this sounds familiar, that’s because it is almost the exact plot of The Haunting of Bly Manor episode 8. The only major change at the outset is the switching of the roles of Viola and Perdita. In the show it is Perdita who is killed by a ghostly Viola. Then Mike Flanagan and the series take the story a step further and imagines what would happen after Perdita’s death.
Viola “lives” on as a ghost inside the chest. It’s not until Arthur disposes of the chest in the lake on the grounds that Viola is eventually freed. But even then hers is a sad afterlife. She resides under the water by day before coming out at night and prowling the grounds in search of…well, she’s never quite sure what. Over time, whatever was left of Viola’s appearance and personality begins to fade. She becomes the faceless Lady in the Lake and her stubbornness creates a “gravity” at Bly Manor so all who die there stay on as ghosts.
It’s the Lady in the Lake who kills Peter Quint, seemingly only for the crime of him being out and about at night in her house. And just like that The Haunting of Bly Manor ties one of Henry James’s more obscure ghost stories into his most famous one in The Turn of the Screw.
Many properties have tried their hand at The Turn of the Screw, but none of them until now have thought to tie in the ghost from “Certain Old Clothes” as the gravity of it all. Not a bad day’s work for The Haunting franchise.
The Haunting of Bly Manor is streaming now on Netflix.