During the first term of my A Level English Literature course at school, my two English teachers decided to try out a very enlightened experiment. Rather than teaching to the syllabus for the examination, they would introduce the class to a wide range of other books, almost all of them written in the 20th century. To this day, I am grateful that this caused me to read some books that otherwise I might have missed. It really benefited my appreciation of literature.
Amongst many other things, we read Henry James’ novella, The Turn of the Screw. This was the earliest of the books on our list, first published in 1898. I was greatly impressed, as I was with the film version – which was also screened for us in the classroom . This was The Innocents, a film made in 1961 and starring Deborah Kerr as the governess. The script had input from Truman Capote and John Mortimer, and music by Georges Auric – no wonder it’s widely regarded as a classic.
On New Year’s Eve, we watched The Innocents – the first time I’ve seen it since I was 16. Half a century after it was made, it remains a very striking piece of work, genuinely memorable. What impresses me most is the way the suspense is created. It’s a marvellous example of how tension can be built with subtlety. The film captures the ambiguity of James’ text brilliantly, even though he isn’t the easiest writer to adapt for film or TV by a long chalk.
Seeing the film again has prompted me to think about ambiguity in fiction, and how it can be used to enhance a story, rather than irritating the reader, if carefully handled. The film also suggests a number of techniques (such as foreshadowing) for developing suspense without resort to crude effects (lots of dead bodies, in a nutshell!) There is, for instance, a sexual sub-text to the story, but James handles it sensitively, and indirectly, and although I gather the film originally attracted an ‘X’ certificate, it is all the more powerful because the sexual elements are under-stated.
Of course, we live in an age when many readers and moviegoers demand action. And I’m one of the first to complain if a supposed thriller is “too slow”. But The Innocents is a powerful reminder of the fact that it is possible to make a lasting impact through nuanced film-making, and of course the same principle can be applied to writing fiction. Even in an unashamedly commercial genre such as crime, it isn’t always necessary to resort to lots of gore and explicit violence.