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Film / The Innocents

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"Enter, my lord. Come from your prison. Come from your grave, for the moon is arisen. Welcome, my lord."

The Innocents is a 1961 British horror film adapted from Henry James' novella The Turn of the Screw, directed by Jack Clayton and starring Deborah Kerr.

Miss Giddens (Kerr), a young governess in her first position, is sent to look after two children at a country manor called Bly. At first Miss Giddens loves the house and gets along wonderfully with the two children, but she soon starts to see other people in the house. When she sees a man up close, she describes him to the housekeeper and is informed that the man in question died over a year ago. The man was Peter Quint, the master's valet. Upon learning that Quint was in a torrid relationship with the previous governess Miss Jessel (also deceased), she starts to see her ghost too. Miss Giddens becomes convinced that the two servants are trying to possess the children.


The film is notable for leaving the existence of the ghosts up to debate; like in Henry James's original book, it's never confirmed whether the ghosts are real or a product of Miss Giddens' imagination. It has also been the basis for other horror films such as The Others (2001) with Nicole Kidman, and its soundtrack was sampled for the cursed tape in The Ring. Deborah Kerr considered this to be her best performance, calling the film "criminally underrated".

For the 2021 Norwegian thriller, see The Innocents (2021).


The Innocents provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Dye-Job: Peter Quint was red-haired in the book but is dark-haired in the film (it's in black and white but Miss Giddens says he has dark hair).
  • Adaptation Expansion:
    • The backstories of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel are expanded. In the novella, they were merely in love. In the film, it's expanded into being a toxic relationship that was either abusive or involving some BDSM.
    • Miss Giddens's own sexuality is incorporated into the story; suggesting she may be attracted to Quint's ghost in some way, and giving her some questionable subtext with Miles.
  • Adaptational Attractiveness: The estate of Bly, a non-human example. In the book Bly is described as being fairly ugly. In the film it's a gorgeous house full of quirky architectural details and with grounds overflowing with flowers and life.
  • Adaptational Heroism: The Turn of the Screw left it open whether Mrs Grose was good or not. She's an ambiguous figure, with it sometimes hinted she was secretly trying to drive the governess out of Bly. She also turned a blind eye to the ghostly happenings or the children's very real problems. This film's version of her clearly cares for the children very much, and tries to help and support Miss Giddens; with any objection to her theory being fear of a scandal or the children's safety.
  • Adaptational Villainy:
    • In the original novella, there was no mention of Peter Quint striking Miss Jessel.
    • The ghosts themselves were neutral entities in the novella; whether they were real or not, if they were, there was good reason to interpret them as simply keeping the children company. It's the governess who assumes they were evil. Here, Quint's ghost appears very malevolently. Ironically their Ghostly Goals are softened from the novella; there, the governess thought they wanted to murder the children. Here, Miss Giddens think they want to possess them so they can continue their relationship.
  • Adapted Out: The novella had a Framing Device involving an acquaintance of the now-deceased governess reading her account of the events.
  • Advertised Extra: Peter Wyngarde only appears in brief shots as Quint's ghost. It adds up to only a minute or so of screen time.
  • Age Lift: The governess in the novella was stated to be twenty. Deborah Kerr was forty when she played Miss Giddens and, while she certainly didn't look that age, the governess appears to be a few years older.
  • Ambiguous Situation: Mrs Grose describes Quint and Miss Jessel's relationship to us and it's not entirely clear whether it was straight up abuse, mutually toxic or even some form of BDSM (she mentions seeing Quint hit her and Miss Jessel enjoying it, which has several interpretations).
  • Big Damn Kiss: Miles asks Miss Giddens to kiss him goodnight — and plants one of these on her, startling the hell out of her. When he dies, she kisses him on the lips as well.
  • Big Fancy House: Bly is full of lavish rooms and long corridors decorated with all sorts of finery.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Flora is a curious example. She's the only character always shown wearing white and, while she may or may not be evil, she is definitely mischievous and she does have a rather dark sense of humour.
  • Boarding School of Horrors: Inverted. The boy who got sent away to school was expelled because he was the one scaring all the students.
  • Body Motifs: Hands. The film opens up with a pair of old, wrinkly hands brought together in prayer. When Miss Giddens discovers the statue of a cherub beneath a large rose bush, viewers can notice that he's holding a pair of disembodied, smaller hands in his own.
  • Brutal Honesty: The uncle bluntly says he has no room in his life for children, nor is he willing to make any.
  • The Casanova: The uncle is said to be this. Miles has elements of it as well.
    Mrs Grose: Even as a boy, he could twist you round his finger, and the children are the same way.
  • Cerebus Call-Back: Flora's pet tortoise Rupert is the subject of some lighthearted moments early on in the film. He appears again near the end where Miles throws him through the greenhouse wall in a fit of rage.
  • Chekhov's Hobby: Miss Giddens tells the Uncle that she does have a very big imagination. This proves essential to the plot, where she may or may not be imagining the children being possessed by ghosts.
  • Children Are Innocent: Flora talks about a time where she felt bad that so many of the rooms in the house were unused and describes Mrs Grose as being "quite startled" when she wished it was possible to sleep in several rooms at once. Oh, Flora...
  • The City vs. the Country: The uncle defies this, refusing to move to his country home to look after the children and instead hiring other people to look after them.
  • Crapsaccharine World: Bly is a beautiful country house with gardens that overflow with flowers and sculptures. But of course there are dark shadows everywhere, and the house may be haunted. There are frequent shots of insects emerging from statues or decaying flowers — which was a touch by Truman Capote to show "the skull beneath the skin".
  • Creepy Child: Both of them. Flora has her humming of the song "O Willow Waly" to herself and responding to questions she doesn't like with "I don't think I remember". Miles with giving Miss Giddens a long, lingering kiss and being played by Martin Stephens (from Village of the Damned).
  • Creepy Doll: Flora's wax doll, which only appears once it's clear she's not 100% innocent.
  • Dark Reprise: The song "O Willow Waly" is a little creepy at the start but gets even worse as it's discovered Miss Jessel used to sing it to Flora.
  • Death of a Child: Miles dies at the end.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: The film's Victorian setting gives us a few.
    • Mrs Grose seems very offended when Miss Giddens mentions the children lying to her, and is appalled when she says that Miles took a letter she was planning to send. Lying in particular was seen as one of the worst things a child could do in the Victorian era, and usually the marker of someone being Obviously Evil.
    • The idea that Quint and Miss Jessell had a sexual relationship outside of marriage is also shown as another sign of their depravity - although in this case, it's treated more as a bad thing because the children may possibly have seen them. Even then, it's never said that the children did; just that they weren't very discreet about being together.
    • Miles is expelled from school because he is considered a bad influence to the other children. No one saw anything wrong with a boy who literally found his only father figure dead - and later lost an authority figure in quick succession - being forced to go to a boarding school in the middle of the grieving process.
    • Mrs Grose is perfectly willing to let abusive relationships and Troubling Unchildlike Behaviour go on behind closed doors in favour of solving the problem or looking for help out of fear of a scandal.
  • Destructive Romance: Peter Quint and Miss Jessel had a disturbing courtship that went on for the whole household to know about; Mrs Grose alluding to them not even caring if the children walked in on them using rooms "as though they were dark woods". After Quint died, Miss Jessel ended up drowning herself in mourning.
  • Dies Wide Open:
    • Miles in the final scene.
    • Peter Quint also reportedly died this way. For added creepy factor, Miles was the one that found him.
  • Domestic Abuse: It's left open if Quint and Miss Jessel's relationship was this - Mrs Grose saying she once saw him knock her to the floor.
  • Dream Melody: Miss Giddens, as a result of hearing Flora humming "O Willow Waly" at night.
  • Driven to Suicide: Miss Jessel drowned herself in the lake after Quint died.
  • The Film of the Book
  • Flower Motif: White roses with falling petals appear in several key scenes throughout the film to symbolize the corruption of purity. It's also crossed with Animal Motif, as Miss Giddens moves away the branches of a rose bush to discover the statue of a little cherub. At first, she is charmed, but recoils in disgust when a large, ugly insect falls from its mouth...
  • Foreshadowing:
    • The first night at Bly, Flora wonders if God sometimes leaves people to wander around on earth.
    • The first night as well, while Miss Giddens sleeps, Flora looks out her window to the courtyard. This is where the final confrontation will take place.
    • "Sometimes waking a child from a bad dream is worse than the nightmare. It's the shock..." Miles dies of shock after apparently expelling Quint's ghost.
  • Freud Was Right: The filmmakers inserted a few phallic symbols to highlight Miss Giddens's repressed sexuality. Notably the pointed corners on the tower where she first sees Quint, and the candlesticks she's often carrying.
  • Freudian Excuse: Whether or not the children are possessed, it's understandable they aren't the best behaved little people. First of all, they're orphans and can't be any older than eight years old. Secondly their only living relative couldn't care less about them and doesn't bother to take care of them. Third of all, they had to live in a house with an open abusive relationship going on in front of them (where they both looked up to both people). Fourth of all, Miles found Quint dead on the steps and Miss Jessel then killed herself. Fifth of all, Miles gets sent away to school and Flora is pretty much alone in the house with only the servants until Miss Giddens gets there. And if she wasn't messed up before she arrived...
  • Genre Savvy: Miss Giddens, though it is suggested she is merely making the story up on her own.
  • Ghostly Goals: Miss Giddens believes that the two ghosts are trying to possess the children so they can continue their relationship.
  • Gorgeous Period Dress: Miss Giddens has some splendid crinoline dresses and bustle skirts, with High-Class Gloves — possibly a bit too splendid for a modest parson's daughter.
  • Gothic Horror: Taking place in a big country mansion, with several night time scenes involving thunder and wind — as well as using shadows to great effect in the corridors.
  • Harmful to Minors: Miss Jessel and Quint — on multiple levels.
  • I See Dead People: Present but it's never stated whether Miss Giddens is seeing ghosts or just imagining. Flora and Miles possibly too. Mrs Grose denies seeing them, but that doesn't mean she's telling the truth.
  • Informed Attractiveness: Mrs Grose and Miles do make a big fuss of how pretty Miss Giddens is, though in Miles's case he's probably trying to be flattering to distract her.
  • Innocent Innuendo: Flora mentions startling Mrs Grose with the thought that it should be possible to sleep in several rooms at once to avoid making the house feel too empty. Given that it's later revealed Quint and Miss Jessell used plenty of rooms "as though they were dark woods", it's not hard to guess what her first thought was.
  • Ironic Nursery Rhyme: The film opens with Flora singing "O Willow Waly" to creepy effect. It's later found out to be a song Miss Jessel sang to her, and Miss Giddens has a dream of the two dancing to it.
  • Letting Her Hair Down: Miss Giddens's hair is down for the part of the film where Miles plants a big kiss on her.
  • Light Is Not Good: Flora and Miles appear to be two of the most angelic children around, Flora emphasizing this by wearing white all the time. Whether or not they are being possessed they are extremely manipulative and seem to enjoy terrorising Miss Giddens.
  • The Lost Lenore: Quint was this for Miss Jessel after he died. She eventually couldn't take it and jumped in the lake to join him.
  • Mad Love: Miss Jessel for Quint.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: It's deliberately ambiguous about the ghosts.
    • The camp that suggests they're imagined cites that Miss Giddens is established to have an imagination, she jumps to conclusions about the ghosts off circumstantial evidence, ignores the fact that the children could easily be acting out due to all the trauma they've suffered, and never sees a ghost up close until after she's seen Quint's picture in the attic.
    • The camp that suggests they're real says that Miss Giddens sees and hears things in the house long before she knows information that would lead her to suspect ghosts. Whenever she sees people, she first assumes they're servants she hasn't met yet, and actually says she wants to believe she only dreamed or imagined seeing Quint's ghost. Other characters deny seeing the ghosts, but there's enough evidence to suggest they're lying or in denial. Miles also dies rather suddenly by shock, which is rather coincidental for an otherwise healthy young child.
  • Meaningful Name: The children's ties into the symbolism.
    • Flora is the Latin for "flower", and Flower Motifs abound in the house. Miss Giddens is often tending to flowers that fall apart or decay, just like how Flora appears angelic but is deeply troubled.
    • Miles is Latin for "soldier", like Miles Gloriosus. Miles is bold and daring - but it just serves to go with his Troubling Unchildlike Behaviour.
  • Named by the Adaptation: The governess is unnamed in the book but called Miss Giddens in this. Miss Jessel is also given "Mary" as a first name.
  • Ominous Music Box Tune: It's revealed that the music box Flora has was given to her by Miss Jessel, making it a Tragic Keepsake. She plays it and hums the tune at night.
  • The Ophelia:
    • Miss Jessel is portrayed this way, and is said to have completely despaired after Quint was found dead. Like Ophelia, she drowned herself.
    • And if there are no ghosts, then it would appear Miss Giddens has become this by the end. She even gets a scene wandering around in a nightgown with her hair loose — convinced she's hearing voices.
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: Miss Giddens is convinced that getting the children to admit the ghosts are there will get rid of them.
  • Parental Abandonment: The children are orphans and their uncle refuses to be saddled with them.
  • Please Wake Up: Miles did this on discovering the dead Quint.
  • Preacher's Kid: Miss Giddens's father was a parson, so of course she's the one possibly having sex fantasies or seeing ghosts everywhere.
  • Psychotic Smirk: Both of the children flash these at points.
  • Red Herring: Anna the maid is sometimes assumed to be who Miss Giddens sees or hears before she starts to believe it's Miss Jessel.
  • Riddle for the Ages: The film is as ambiguous as possible about whether there are ghosts haunting Bly. Miss Giddens sees and hears other people, but she never sees a ghost up close until she's seen a picture. The children act creepy but that could just be from all the trauma they've suffered. When Miss Giddens tries to get Flora to admit that Miss Jessel's ghost is across the lake, Flora's only response is to scream that she can't see anything. Either she's telling the truth, or she's in denial.
  • Sanity Slippage: The film leaves it open as to whether this is what's happening to Miss Giddens. Flora suffers this after the governess tries to get her to confront Miss Jessel's ghost.
  • Scenery Porn: Several long and lovely shots of the English countryside, as well as the grounds and gardens of the house itself. Miss Giddens loves it so much she gets out of the carriage at the gates and walks the rest of the way to the house.
  • Ship Tease: Some rather odd subtext going on between Miles and Miss Giddens. He asks her to kiss him goodnight and then gives her a rather passionate kiss on the lips. She also kisses him on the lips after he dies.
  • Significant Wardrobe Shift:
    • Miss Giddens wears lots of white and brighter clothes when she first arrives at Bly. As the film goes on, she's shown in black more often. In the final sequence, her dress resembles Miss Jessel's.
    • Miles too subtly changes his wardrobe over the film, in the final scene wearing clothes like those of Quint.
  • Skewed Priorities: Mrs Grose wants to avoid people talking or causing a scandal rather than possibly getting help for the children. Miss Giddens is astounded.
    Miss Giddens: Haven't we worse to fear than a scandal?
  • Small Role, Big Impact: The Uncle, played by Michael Redgrave. He appears for five minutes max but is continually discussed by Miss Giddens and Mrs Grose, reflecting the former's infatuation with him. It doesn't help that Miles is said to greatly resemble his Uncle. Also, the Uncle is largely to blame for what happens at the end, because had Miss Giddens been able to consult him, she might not have taken the drastic steps that lead to Flora's breakdown and Miles' death.
  • Spiders Are Scary: One of the earliest signs that Flora is a Creepy Child is when Miss Giddens finds her excitedly watching a spider eat a butterfly.
  • Stepford Smiler: Miles is a bit of a type C.
  • Title Drop: Miss Giddens refers to the children as "the innocents".
  • Troubled, but Cute: Miles is a very young example. He's The Charmer who can flatter any woman. But he was expelled from school for "corrupting" other children, and has a very twisted sense of humour.
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behaviour: Miles again. At one point, he kisses Miss Giddens in a very adult manner. This shocks her. Earlier, he also starts strangling her and thinks it's funny when Miss Giddens says he's hurting her.
  • Would Hit a Girl: Mrs Grose says she saw Quint strike Miss Jessel and knock her to the floor several times.