The Library of America Goes to the Movies

From its very earliest years, the cinema has offered a uniquely powerful tool for artists seeking to give new life to great works of literature. The creations of literary icons have served as the inspiration for some of film’s most memorable achievements—from the pulp pleasures of Dashiell Hammett (in 1941, John Huston made his book The Maltese Falcon a noir standard) to the brilliant wit and romance of Edith Wharton (whose novel The Age of Innocence was gloriously adapted in 1993 by Martin Scorsese).

Recently, the Library of America, the nonprofit publisher of classic American letters, introduced a new biweekly online column, the Moviegoer, to highlight notable connections between these two art forms. The column, curated by film critic Michael Sragow, features appreciations of memorable literature-inspired movies, written by some of the most eminent voices in contemporary film criticism. This week, the great Terrence Rafferty takes on Jack Clayton’s 1961 gothic wonder The Innocents. Adapted from Henry James’s classic nineteenth-century ghost story The Turn of the Screw, the film’s screenplay was first drafted by William Archibald (whose stage-play reimagining of the novella informed the film) and later revised by Truman Capote.

These various incarnations of the story, Rafferty writes, gave new contours to James’s tale of the haunting of a country governess and her two charges by frightening spirits. “The Turn of the Screw transformed these shadows of shadows into fully imagined presences on the page, the stage play gave them flesh, and the movie takes them home,” Rafferty writes, “to the permanent in-between that is the natural state of ghosts, of images on film, and of Henry James’s sense of story.” Rafferty praises the film—both for Clayton’s faithful rendering of James’s work and for the pure terror it evokes from the story’s core. “To a remarkable degree,” he writes, “The Innocents manages to recreate on the screen that delicate Jamesian play of perception: it makes us doubt what we see, and enlarge what we imagine.” You can read the piece in full here—plus, take a look at previous Moviegoer pieces, by Sragow and Carrie Rickey, over at the Library of America’s site.

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