Monday, 23 January 2012

Suspense and The Innocents

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.


Deb said...

Fun fact: I was named for Deborah Kerr. So, because of my "provenance," I've tried to see all of Kerr's movies and just saw "The Innocents" again on TCM a few weeks ago. What struck me this time around (and I'm surprised I've never seen it this way before) is what to me was the very clear subtext that Peter Quint had molested Miles and possibly his sister. The last few minutes of the film are almost unbearable in their tension. A brilliant adaptation--giving full justice to the James original.

Anonymous said...

Martin - Oh, well-said. Subtlety can be truly effective and I for one far prefer to more obvious writing techniques.

harriet said...

This is a brilliant and genuinely scary film, I think, and as you say has worn extremely well. I didn't know it had an X certificate but I wonder if that was because of the scariness rather than the sexual subtext?

Martin Edwards said...

Deb - that's a terrific fun fact! I agree it's superb.
Harriet - could very well be. Though given the subtlety of the scariness, it would be quite a surprising decision by the censor. I have to say our teachers showed it to us when we were under 18...