In trying to present social critique in an accessible and respectable manner, there have been several films and television shows that cloak their female empowerment messages in the guise of Victorian horror; recent examples include the miniseries A Christmas Carol (Nick Murphy, 2019) and the movie The Turning (Floria Sigismondi, 2020). Completely new texts risk alienating audiences or being labeled as too preachy or political if their social agenda is plain to see, but by attaching modern ideas to old stories and respecting the traditional film establishment, even a revolutionary moral can come across as more accessible because of the sense of familiarity. Despite similar topics and storytelling methods, these adaptations have very different messages about how to handle abusive situations. A Christmas Carol and The Turning both want to discuss the abuse exposed by the #MeToo movement; by using the respected narratives they adapt, they can get across opposing viewpoints about the effectiveness of fighting back against one’s abuser, even if critics disapprove of the methods employed.
While creating entirely new stories using modern methods to make a point about contemporary issues might seem like the best route to getting a message across, the mingling of the past and the present allows for wider accessibility, something particularly noticeable in texts about women’s rights. Laura Mulvey and Hélène Cixous, whose works were heralded during the period of second-wave feminism, advocated for the creation of brand-new texts but putting these ideas into practice has proved an almost impossible task. Mulvey, the critic who would later go on to define the pioneering notion of the male gaze, wrote in her article “Fears, Fantasies and the Male Unconscious or ‘You Don’t Know What is Happening, Do You, Mr. Jones?’” that because cinema was mostly run by men, “the time has come for us [women] to take over the show and exhibit our own fears and desires” (13). Despite the call to action for women to create a new cinematic grammar that is not dependent on the established patriarchal system, films created under such guidance would have a hard time being accepted. Cixous argues a similar point in “The Laugh of the Medusa” about books when she says “smug-faced readers, managing editors, and big bosses don’t like the true texts of women—female-sexed texts. That kind scares them” (877). She states that the readers, editors, and “big bosses” who wield power are representatives of the patriarchy, and their own biases have led to a public who is more accepting of traditionally masculine texts. According to Tim Posada in “#MeToo’s First Horror Film: Male Hysteria and the New Final Girl in 2018’s Revenge,” the “top-rated films [on websites Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB] are mostly male-led, revealing the user bias of the predominantly male participants” (190). Even though the contributors are mostly male, the reach of the resultant scores is far wider, impacting the viewership at large. Avant-garde texts such as the ones Mulvey advocates for would likely be misunderstood upon first release because of their sense of unfamiliarity.
The “female-sexed texts” that Cixous and Mulvey describe should be the goal in the long-term, but texts that slip subversive or controversial ideas into traditional stories and methods will have a more immediate effect (Cixous 877). An example of this is Suzanne Collins’s dystopian Hunger Games series, which consists of four novels published between 2008 and 2020. In her article “Engaging ‘Apolitical’ Adolescents: Analyzing the Popularity and Educational Potential of Dystopian Literature Post-9/11,” Melissa Ames “makes the case that the socio-political climate that has emerged post-9/11 has greatly contributed to the mass consumption” of dystopian fiction among young adults who are often labelled (incorrectly, according to Ames) as apolitical (6). Ames cites the popularity of Collins’s series by noting that after selling “more than 36.5 million copies…in the United States alone,” it had outsold the Harry Potter series (6). Andrea Ruthven, in her article “The Contemporary Postfeminist Dystopia: Disruptions and Hopeful Gestures in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games,” argues that through the protagonist of the first three books in the series, “Collins highlights the ways in which a feminist ethics of care, through the affirmation of affective bonds and a correlating posthuman subjectivity, can work as a powerful means of countering the pernicious effects of postfeminist discourse” (48). These two authors demonstrate how the incredible popularity of The Hunger Games has allowed for many readers who are seen as disaffected to engage with feminist ideals despite the postfeminist reaction that has occurred since Mulvey and Cixous’s writings were first published. What Posada writes about horror films being used in the #MeToo era can be applied to texts such as The Hunger Games, as he describes them as “an anthem of a movement in its early phase, not the goal” (200). Collins’s The Hunger Games may not be a fully “female-sexed text” in the way that Cixous meant, but it is a good representation of how anti-patriarchal ideas can be accepted through the usage of popular genres (Cixous 877).
Floria Sigismondi’s film The Turning, for example,uses Henry James’s 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw to discuss the #MeToo movement. The Blu-ray release of The Turning includes a featurette titled “Behind The Turning” in which Sigismondi states:
I think what makes the classic story so intriguing is that there’s a very beautiful ambiguity at the end where you don’t necessarily trust the narrator. You question everything. I think that that’s why it’s survived over one hundred years. For me it’s kind of important to inject that into the film…My take on the book is a very female one, and I wanted to explore the ideas of the #MeToo generation.
This directorial mindset implies that the ambiguity of James’s text is timeless, and, therefore, well-suited to the present day; she felt that it was important to include doubts about the main character’s point of view, which reflects the discussions over how many of the #MeToo accusations have been countered as matters of he said/she said. But while James’s novella centers on the destructive path of a repressed heroine, producer Scott Bernstein notes that “placed in a world of female empowerment and women standing up for themselves, a really powerful female character at the center of this [The Turning] is really timely” (“Behind The Turning”). This point gains further power because, beyond an empowered female lead, there is also a woman directing the film. Sigismondi may not be creating an entirely “female-sexed text” such as those thought of by Mulvey and Cixous, but she uses her modern-day feminist approach alongside a well-respected traditional text to create something both classical and forward-thinking (Cixous 877).
Despite being set in 1994, The Turning shows it has justifiable reasons to use James’s novella to comment on the #MeToo movement. From the start, the Fairchild Estate is seen as a relic of the past; when heroine Kate arrives at the home, she and the servant Mrs. Grose have the following conversation:
Mrs. Grose: Have you ever been a live-in governess?
Kate: No, not since the 1800s. [chuckles]
Mrs. Grose: Is that a joke?
Kate: No, no. Not a funny one. This is my first live-in job.
Mrs. Grose is the general caretaker of the estate and the way of life within, so her archaic usage of the term “governess” shows the overall mindset of those within the grounds of Fairchild Estate. Kate tries to bring her modern sensibilities to light by laughing at the outdated term but is quickly chastened by Mrs. Grose. However, even after she backs down from her attempt at levity, she still refuses to fully give in, as she uses the word “job” instead of “governess.” Kate’s unease with the old-fashioned environment at Fairchild Estate is a very familiar feeling in much literature about the #MeToo movement, according to Megan Garber’s The Atlantic article, “The Ongoing Horror of #MeToo.” In this article, Garber writes:
The defining mood of these books is not exultations. It’s horror. What the books share is a sense of abiding fear—fear that is…infrastructural and architectural. Fear that derives not only from the alleged villains themselves, but also from the environments that have given them their power. The memoirs tell stories not only of monsters, but also of the spaces that the monsters roam. The basements with no windows; the hallways with no doors; the rooms that emphasize the utter lack of escape or egress. These books explore how easily familiar places can be made into places of fear—and how readily familiarity itself can transform into an agent of danger.
Just like the women in the books that Garber is writing about, Kate is at odds with the Fairchild Estate and the masculine evil that roams within its grounds. The film is thus logically and pointedly able to adapt the haunted house James devised with the modern horrors of the #MeToo era.
As the film goes on, the overwhelming presence, real or not, of the late riding instructor Peter Quint, played by Niall Greig Fulton, haunts the new governess/nanny. While alive, Quint’s masculinity was toxic enough that it was able to disturb the otherwise unflappable Mrs. Grose; even after his death, the trauma he has caused the rest of the household remains like a poisonous fog. While Quint is portrayed as extremely masculine in both versions of the story, The Turning establishes this with modern signifiers, such as having the child Miles, played by Finn Wolfhard, tell Kate that Quint finds her tattoo sexy, a reference to her earlier waking up with her bedsheet pulled down enough to reveal her tattoo. This violation of her bed by Quint’s ghost references the rape he perpetrated while alive, and his attempts to do so as a ghost. The film uses the plot of the novella to tell a story of an overpowering male presence domineering over a household of women and children, a relevant topic both in James’s time and in the era of #MeToo.
Quint in James’s novella is a strong masculine force, but Sigismondi’s film enhances his toxic masculinity by rehabilitating the character of Miss Jessel. Miss Jessel was the previous governess/nanny of the children, Flora and Miles, and her death is what led to the hiring of the heroine in both film and novella. James’s text has a sense of sympathy for Miss Jessel, as a fallen woman figure, but her ghost is still seen as a force terrorizing the children and their governess:
Dishonoured and tragic, she was all before me; but even as I fixed and, for memory, secured it, the awful image passed away. Dark as midnight in her black dress, her haggard beauty and her unutterable woe, she had looked at me long enough to appear to say that her right to sit at my table was as good as mine to sit at hers. While these instants lasted indeed I had the extraordinary chill of a feeling that it was I who was the intruder. (221)
However, in The Turning, Miss Jessel, played by Denna Thomsen, is a benevolent ghost. Her spirit scares Kate initially, but Miss Jessel is trying to warn her about Quint’s malevolent spirit so that she and the children can escape from Fairchild Estate; through Miss Jessel’s ghostly warnings and her stashed-away diary, Kate uncovers the truth. Both versions of the story feature Quint as the most dangerous threat on the estate, but The Turning enhances his villainy by turning Miss Jessel’s ghost into a force for good. This change in character dynamics shifts the narrative from one about a righteous woman fending off an evil man and his mistress to one about a group of women trying to stop a man from doing any further harm.
Included in this group of women is Mrs. Grose, who disagrees with the heroine in both versions of the story, but in The Turning she and the governess/nanny have the same enemy in Quint. In James’s novella, Mrs. Grose leaves the governess with Miles, taking Flora away as she says, “I’ll save you without him” (248). Her aim, therefore, is to save the little girl from whatever is plaguing the house, be it ghosts or a deluded governess. In The Turning, both Mrs. Grose and Flora remain at the home because Mrs. Grose’s main motivation is to try and alleviate the trauma and influence brought about by Quint. The theatrically released version of the film hints at her involvement in Quint’s death, but a deleted scene called “Mrs. Grose’s Confession” features her detailing exactly how culpable she is:
I watched him die…Quint had been in some drunken brawl. There was a lot of blood. I watched him limp into the salon like the wretched animal that he was. And then he fell. And I just stood there. I did nothing for him. I watched him. And when he’d taken his last breath, I left him there. I just stepped outside to take some air, and I smoked a cigarette. And when I came back, Miles was there. He’d found him. I can’t forgive myself for that, Kate. Miles is such a fragile little boy.
This shows even if she did not physically murder him, her passive indifference led to his death. While Kate often takes a more active approach to thwarting the ghost, Mrs. Grose’s passivity is presented as another viable method of defense. Quint’s ghost seems to be aware of her role in his death, as in a possibly real, or possibly imagined, scene, his spirit murders Mrs. Grose as she tries to protect the children. Mrs. Grose and Kate have different methods of trying to stop Quint’s postmortem influence, showing that the women are not a monolithic force. Mrs. Grose joins Miss Jessel’s ghost and Kate in trying to protect the younger generation from the toxic masculinity of the past, even as their approaches are very different.
The ending of The Turning was lambasted by the film’s many critics, but its confusingly cyclical nature mimics the effects of toxic masculinity, more so than the end of the novella. Jesse Hassenger, in his review titled “The Turning drags The Turn of the Screw into the ’90s, and then to a baffling dead end” for The A.V. Club, praised the acting in the film before stating:
Really, everyone in The Turning is left high and dry by an ending so baffling that it’s nearly spoiler-proof—to spoil it would require even a rudimentary understanding of what is meant to be happening in its final moments, beyond that it seems to discard the novella’s finale. (Stranger still, the movie manages to somehow end abruptly while still trailing off; images float over the end credits, vaguely teasing additional information that never arrives.) The kind of horror-movie crowds that boo at the merest hint of an ambiguous or non-twist ending may well burn theaters showing The Turning straight to the ground.
Similarly, Christy Lemire’s review for rogerebert.com begins with “If The Turning leaves you screaming, it’ll probably be out of frustration over its abrupt, unsatisfying ending and not the actual frights that precede it.” These two reviewers both felt the somewhat incomprehensible ending to be a hindrance to the film succeeding artistically, yet some such as Jude Dry for Indiewire felt that the film “finishes with a grand flourish that twists the vintage tale into something far more sinister — and contemporary.” James’s The Turn of the Screw ends with Flora having escaped from the estate, and the governess performing an exorcism on Miles. The final sentence of the novella is “We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped” (262); while it is sad that Miles’s heart has stopped, there is still a sense of accomplishment in that he is now “dispossessed.” In these moments immediately after his death, the governess appears to feel no guilt, believing herself to have saved Miles’s soul at the expense of his life. In The Turning, the children are never separated; after Quint’s ghost kills Mrs. Grose, Kate takes the children and drives them through the entrance gate of Fairchild Estate, only to arrive back at a moment from the past. It is unclear if anything past that moment had only been a vision, if Kate is stuck in a time loop, or some other mystical or mental explanation. No matter what this ambiguous ending is meant to portray in fact, in theme it represents the cyclical nature of toxic masculinity. In the novella, the governess believes she was able to dispossess Miles of his spiritual malady, but Kate is forever unable to escape Quint and his lingering presence.
The alternate ending of The Turning hews closer to that of the original text but makes the ambiguity that Sigismondi sought to achieve less present. Kate, in this alternate ending, chases her visions of Quint and tries to kill him, realizing only afterwards that, like her governess inspiration, she is killing Miles. Unlike James’s ending, this is when Flora runs in screaming and cries that Kate has killed her brother, before a giant spider crawls out of Miles’s mouth and the teenager, now dispossessed, rushes to his sister and Kate and the three bond over the exorcism of the toxic masculinity spider demon (see Figure 1). This non-theatrical ending emphasizes the toxicity of masculinity by literally embodying it as a spider, which goes along with Mackenzie Davis, who played Kate, saying in “Behind The Turning” that “Floria’s ideas for how to take some of the Victorian themes from the novella were really interesting, especially along the lines of toxic male masculinity.” This ending sheds any subtle metaphors to make clear that the haunting was real the whole time and that Kate has overcome the patriarchal evil. Thus, the confirmation of an actual physical manifestation of the patriarchy and its poisonous effects takes away the ambiguity of not only the ghost within the film but also the message of the film. If the monster is easily identifiable and murderable, there is none of the subtlety that the original text revels in, even if the monster is presented in a more narratively faithful fashion.
While being able to squish out a toxic spider is more uplifting, the confusingly cyclical trap that Kate finds herself in in the theatrical ending is perhaps more representative of reality. The alternate ending may be more suitable to what the critics were asking for when they noted the lack of closure or faithfulness to the source text, but it rings hollow as a moral for a film about the #MeToo movement. As Ashwini Tambe writes in “Reckoning with the Silences of #MeToo,” “Our goal shouldn’t only be to unseat coaches, bosses, directors, and executives who have abused their power. We need to re-script misogynistic practices that make it difficult for women to inhabit these roles in the first place” (201-202). Tambe notes the possible interpretation of the #MeToo movement as too focused on punitive measures, which would only be exacerbated by film endings such as the alternate ending of The Turning. After conquering the spider demon, all would presumably be well at the Fairchild estate, but Tambe argues that such an easy ending would be missing the point. The Turning’s theatrical ending may not offer any solutions on how to “re-script” the cultural narrative, but it acknowledges that systemic issues are unable to be squashed as easily as a bug (Tambe 202).
While The Turning uses its comparatively modern setting to show the bleak inescapability of toxic masculinity, Nick Murphy’s 2019 BBC/FX miniseries adaptation of A Christmas Carol retains the Victorian setting of Dickens’s novella to tell a story of a woman successfully rising above her abuser, though in less victorious terms than the alternate ending of The Turning. Dickens has the ghosts come to Scrooge’s home so that he can escape the fate of wandering the earth in afterlife with heavy chains made from his sins (24). The spirits in the Victorian text saw the miserly man and decided that to save his soul they had to teach him the meaning of Christmas. However, in the miniseries, the ghosts are brought to the mortal world by the magic of Mrs. Cratchit, played by Vinette Robinson. The beginning of the series shows what an inconvenience this is for the ghosts by having Marley’s grave being urinated on and his exasperated response: “Oh, can they not read? The inscription clearly states ‘Rest in Peace.’ Why am I not allowed any peace?” In the novella, Marley states that every man’s spirit has to walk the earth after death, but his is a heavy burden due to “the chain I forged in life” (Dickens 22); in the miniseries, he is dragged forth from the grave and punished with the chains because Mary Cratchit has summoned his kind to haunt Ebenezer Scrooge, played by Guy Pearce, after he sexually harassed her. A flashback explains that Mary went to Scrooge to ask for money for Tiny Tim’s medical costs, and he refused to give her the loan until she stripped and offered herself to him sexually; Scrooge refuses any sexual contact, telling her that he just likes to experiment with how far someone like her would compromise their morals for money. Traumatized by this awful experience, Mary uses her magic to call upon ghosts to haunt Scrooge, which Scrooge finds out from the Ghost of Christmas Past, played by Andy Serkis. When Scrooge goes to see the Cratchit family after his hauntings are complete and give them money, Mrs. Cratchit tells him, “Your £500 will be welcome, but it will not buy forgiveness.” He accepts what she says and leaves her family to enjoy their Christmas. While The Turning ends on a note of bleak hopelessness, A Christmas Carol provides a more uplifting ending; while not as happy as the novella’s classic finish, the miniseries gives Mrs. Cratchit the power to teach her abuser that what he did was wrong and why he should not have done it.
Both The Turning and A Christmas Carol emphasize the cyclical nature of abuse, but while Sigismondi’s film traps the viewer in that cycle alongside the inhabitants of Fairchild Estate, Murphy’s miniseries offers an out. Through the three episodes, the crimes we see Scrooge perpetrate make him irredeemable, which Mary Cratchit voices for the viewer when she refuses to forgive him. Alongside the harassment of Mary Cratchit, we also see that Scrooge and Marley’s frugality led to several factory and mine disasters that killed many unnecessarily. Flashbacks to Scrooge’s childhood explain why he is the man in the story’s present; his father has an arrangement with the schoolmaster that allows the schoolmaster to sexually abuse the young Ebenezer. Scrooge is released from the pedophile schoolmaster by his sister arriving and threatening the older man with a gun. Despite being freed from the grasp of his abusive educator, Scrooge has been traumatized and in turn abuses his employees, laborers, and other fellow humans. He grew up being abused, and thus recreates that system in his own way, perpetuating the cycle. It is only through intense ghost therapy that Scrooge realizes the trauma he has endured and how it has manifested itself in his business and personal practices; once he understands this, he is able to become a better man. He has committed many foul deeds and caused many deaths, but while he is not excused, he is explained. Garber argues at the end of her article that most horror narratives feel no need to explain their monsters, much the same as many cultures do not feel the need to explain bad male behavior and excuse it with sayings like “boys will be boys.” By showing how Scrooge became the monster he was, this miniseries attempts to avoid such easy excuses. Quint in The Turning was a murderous rapist in his life, and he continued to be a murderous rapist as a ghost; Scrooge is a sexual harasser and an indirect murderer, but he was taught the error of his ways by Mary and her ghosts so that going forward he can do what good he can.
With Scrooge understood but not forgiven, the miniseries uses its platform to try to teach others the same lessons its ostensible protagonist was taught. At the end of the film, Mary says, “Spirits. Past, present, and future. There is still much to do,” before turning and looking directly at the camera (see Figure 2). She has the power to perform magic and see into the world of the spirits, but with this fourth-wall breaking moment, it is as if she can also see through the screen. Her magic powers take on the magic of filmmaking with this decision, inferring that stories, particularly ones of an audiovisual nature, have the ability to teach the audience a lesson and rouse them to action. Just as she used the spirits to show Scrooge the error of his ways, she (as Murphy’s vehicle) is using this miniseries to warn viewers and ask them to join the cause. Posada notes how a look can be powerful when he writes how a similar “gaze is a call to arms directed at passive film spectators, some aware that their time might soon be up and others ready to challenge the male gaze’s performative trappings” (200; italics in original). Instead of telling a story of inescapable trauma, like The Turning, A Christmas Carol harnesses its medium to say that abusers are people too, and therefore can be changed and rehabilitated to some degree. By having the ghost be a malevolently masculine rapist, the mortals of Fairchild Estate are disempowered, but A Christmas Carol has the evil man be fully human and overwhelmed by the ghostly emissaries of a witch, just as the ghostly projections on screens can do the same to a home audience.
Despite Mrs. Cratchit’s newfound importance, many reviewers, whether they liked or disliked the miniseries, minimized her role and instead brought the focus back onto Scrooge. In a negative review for Variety, Daniel d’Addario does not even mention her until the final three sentences, and then only in connection to her husband:
Elsewhere, the Cratchit family (led by Joe Alwyn and Vinette Robinson as Bob and Mary) do a serviceable job. Say this much for them: They are — and she, especially, is — written to truly despise Scrooge, and to want their time with him ended. Their performances sell it, but you’d join them and relate regardless.
He praises the acting done by Vinette Robinson but dismisses it with that last remark that her strong presence is not really needed for the audience to hate Scrooge. This sting seems to minimize the fact that while the ghosts of the dead laborers are present and haunt Marley particularly, the sexual exploitation of Mary Cratchit is the inciting reason for the entire narrative. Roslyn Sulcas’s article in The New York Times is more positive, but still downplays the role of Mary by casting doubt on her agency by referring to “the suggestion of supernatural forces at work — and a question-mark over Mary’s possible powers.” This doubt is in Sulcas’s mind despite the ghosts informing Scrooge that the story is Mary’s instead of his, and Mary’s own final address to the camera. I argue, however, that Mary is of extreme importance to not only the narrative of the miniseries, but to its message, in large part due to her race. By casting a black actress as Mary Cratchit and having her be the main female voice, the series attempts to sidestep the overwhelming whiteness of the #MeToo movement. Tambe writes that:
Black women are regularly also pressured by black men not to speak publicly about harassment. Apart from the logic of protecting a community’s image…it is worth keeping in mind that the primary instrument of redress in #MeToo is public shaming and criminalization of the perpetrator. This is already too familiar a problem for black men…The dynamics of #MeToo, in which due process has been reversed—with accusers’ words taken more seriously than those of the accused—is a familiar problem in black communities. Maybe some black women want no part of this dynamic. (199-200).
Scrooge has committed far more and far worse crimes in this miniseries than he has in most other (if not all) adaptations, but Mary uses her magical judgment to reform instead of to incarcerate. The miniseries strives to take the focus off that of an old white man and give it to a strong black female character, but the cultural text surrounding the novella emphasizes Scrooge as the main character, which is represented by the logical somersaults many critics did to move the spotlight back onto Scrooge, even though Mary Cratchit is the driving force behind both the narrative and moral.
A Christmas Carol and The Turning are part of a larger trend of horror films commenting on the rise in visibility of sexual abuse, but their Victorian pedigree lends them an extra layer of gravitas and expectations. The use of horror as a method to recall the past and comment on the future is not a new technique, as the usage of Hamlet by Henry James shows. Oliver Herford in his article “James and the Habit of Allusion,” states that, regarding James’s use of ghosts in a Shakespearean manner, “allusion becomes one of James’s stylistic habits…not least because it offers him a way of analysing the role of habit in his own life and in others” (179). This suggests a personal connection as well as a larger social context. James was interested in his own memories and what they meant to him; however, he gets this point across with a textual reference that would be widely understood. Because a mass audience would know the previously established canonical texts that James would allude to, they would be able to go along with James. This allows the audience to connect their knowledge of a previous text with a new text to build meaning; instead of forming all new ideas on a topic, the audience is making connections between a canonical source and a modern topic. In trying to comment on their own period, Dickens and James used the horrifying image of the appearance of the ghost as presented to them in texts such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet, just as Sigismondi uses James’s ghosts to comment on our current society. Images such as Hamlet’s father’s ghost appearing to his son, or of Quint’s ghost tormenting the governess stay in the audience’s minds and the lingering power of horror images allows for salient points to stick. The power of terror to influence is very integral to A Christmas Carol, as Scrooge learns his lesson because of the frights the ghosts inflict upon him. These examples show that even with the trope that “horror cinema punishes women for their sexual desires,” there is a longer history of horror as social commentary (Posada 194). Both the characters within the texts and the audiences are affected by the horrors and learn from them. Therefore, horror adds a strong emphasis to the use of well-known cultural texts in helping get a text’s message across.
In the current age of so-called “elevated horror,” modern horror films are often subject to high expectations even without revered source material. The term “elevated horror” gained popularity in the 2010s, even as critics such as Laura Bradley in her Vanity Fair article “This Was the Decade Horror Got ‘Elevated,’” argue the concept often disregards the social consciousness present in many prior decades’ horror. She posits that the true elevation of this new horror sub-genre is that studios “offer fledgling creatives a tiny budget and creative control…backing away from gimmicks and instead investing in visionary talent.” An example of this is Jennifer Kent’s 2018 film The Nightingale. Kent’s debut film was The Babadook in 2014, which established her as a masterful new horror director. The Nightingale is more realistic than The Babadook, but the terror induced by the horrific sexual abuses put on screen still place it within the horror genre. Clare Carroll, played by Aisling Franciosi, is an Irish convict in early nineteenth century Australia who is repeatedly raped throughout the first part of the film in graphic scenes by Sam Claflin’s character Hawkins; during one of these rapes, her husband and infant are murdered in front of her (and the camera). After that incident, she is left for dead and seeks revenge on Hawkins, who has kidnapped the Aboriginal woman Lowanna, played by Magnolia Maymuru, and uses her as his new sex slave. The horror from this film comes from purely human atrocities, not from spirits or magic. Because Jennifer Kent had made her directorial name with The Babadook, which found its place amongst other “elevated” films in the modern horror pantheon, The Nightingale had high critical expectations placed upon it. However, these expectations only dated back four years (the time between her two films) instead of the century that separated The Turn of the Screw and The Turning or Dickens’s Carol from the BBC miniseries. This film had expectations based on a modern horror film, but not to the level of expectation that The Turning and A Christmas Carol had to deal with.
Another recent female-directed horror film, Black Christmas (Sophia Takal 2019) was more laden with expectations than The Nightingale, but these expectations were to rise above instead of trying to be worthy of the source texts. This film was the third version of Black Christmas; the previous two versions focused on the deaths of sorority girls mostly for horror shock and titillation value, while the most recent version wanted to empower the sorority girls against the oppressive patriarchal academy and world at large. This is emphasized in a scene towards the beginning when the main characters go to a frat party and sing “Up in the Frat House,” a parody of the Christmas song “Up on the Housetop.” Some particularly stinging lyrics are:
There’s no more of protecting you.
No he said, she said, what was true?
Don’t say that this was my fault
’Cause what you did is called assault.
Ho ho ho, I didn’t know.
Ho ho ho, I didn’t know.
Yes, up in the frat house, click, click, click
You slipped me a roofie and then your dick.
In an interview with Kate Erbland for Indiewire, Sophia Takal said about making the movie that:
there was something that really didn’t feel good to me about just making a regular slasher movie, especially in early 2019. In the throes of the #MeToo era, and there was just something that felt assaultive about making a movie where the primary entertainment was watching women get killed.
While the previous versions of this story represent a well-known horror property, Takal sought to go beyond slasher clichés to create a story that resonates with the current political landscape. While Takal’s statement that “the killer in it, this faceless killer, is just misogyny and we can’t ever rest on our laurels or think that our job is done or that progress is inevitable” can apply to her film as much as to The Turning, the expectations faced by the films are different. They both used known entities to tell stories about the #MeToo generation, but one seeks to overcome a generally misogynistic genre while the other seeks to live up to a classic of Victorian literature.
While horror is a common method for updating classic texts, it is by no means the only way; Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s 2012 film What Maisie Knew adapts an 1897 Henry James novel of the same name to comment on the modern state of divorce. This film takes James’s story of a child (Maisie) being shuttled back and forth between her selfish parents and sets it in modern day America. Far from being a horror story, the novel and film demonstrate the devastating effects that divorce can have on a child through the character study of a young girl. In his prologue, James writes of Maisie after the divorce judgement:
She was divided in two and the portions tossed impartially to the disputants. They would take her, in rotation, for six months at a time; she would spend half the year with each…[though] neither parent figured in the least as a happy example to youth and innocence…the only solution finally meeting all the difficulties was, save that of sending Maisie to a Home, the partition of the tutelary office in the manner I have mentioned. (18)
While James has each parent take care of, if their parenting techniques can be described as such, Maisie for six months at a time, the novel goes back and forth between the households rapidly; this has the effect of making years go by faster than expected and having Maisie’s faith in love and happy relationships slowly deteriorate in an expedited narrative manner. The film however has a more modern settlement where the parents go back and forth in less time. Instead of filling Maisie with vitriol slowly six months at a time, they fill her with unkind words at a much faster speed. Thus, the modern setting shows the damage done to children is often done at a wilder pace. However, this faster pace leaves Maisie at a much younger age than in the novel; as a result, she ends the film happily living with her step-parents instead of being older and jaded like in the novel when she refuses to believe they will remain together and abandons them to avoid further heartbreak. McGehee and Siegel take a Victorian divorce narrative and adjust it to modern times, showing the pros and cons of modern divorce proceedings.
As with many of the other adaptations in this article, critics were not always enthusiastic about the choice to adapt a Victorian text such as What Maisie Knew in a twenty-first century landscape. At the end of his B- review for The A. V. Club, Sam Adams wrote:
James’ innovation was recounting the lives of selfish parents through the eyes of their abandoned child, but while McGehee and Siegel—working from a script by Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright—maintain that structure, it feels less like they’re inside Aprile’s head and more like they’re peering over her shoulder. The girl’s parents are self-involved beyond belief, even more than might be explained by a child’s lack of understanding. If the idea is for the audience to feel similarly yanked around, then What Maisie Knew succeeds wildly, but it fails to bring much insight to what essentially amounts to a massive parental guilt trip.
The main complaint of this paragraph, and the review as a whole, is that the film is no longer innovative, and while divorce was a taboo subject in Victorian England, it is no longer of much debate in modern times. However, the same website in 2019 gave Noah Baumbach’s film Marriage Story an A, with reviewer A. A. Dowd writing that the film is “profound and perspicacious.” Dowd praises the brilliancy of the film by connecting it to older texts several times, by saying “it evokes the art-house renaissance of the 1970s—a time when American directors were hustling to compete with the imported visions of Bergman, Fellini, etc.” as well as invoking several of Baumbach’s previous films that also revolved around divorces. This website, though through two different reviewers several years apart, says that one film is an insightful take on divorce despite it resembling the aesthetic of the 1970s and building on the themes of the director’s previous films, while another is not relevant as divorce is now a common occurrence. This difference in views is symptomatic of the expectations placed on Victorian adaptations, and the resistance to modernizing those older stories.
With the need to live up to such classic and oft-told stories as The Turn of the Screw, A Christmas Carol, or What Maisie Knew, any change needs to be fully justified to be generally accepted. Many reviews, for example, of The Turning reference a previous adaptation of the James novella called The Innocents; Christy Lemire compared the “straight-up Gothic horror” of that film (which she sees as suitable to the novella) to the new film’s “grunge makeover, radiating style and mood in the hands of director Floria Sigismondi…whose clips for Marilyn Manson’s ‘The Beautiful People’ and Justin Timberlake’s ‘Mirrors’ are just a couple of prime examples in her lengthy filmography.” These two examples do get across to Lemire’s readers what to expect from Sigismondi’s film; her 1996 music video for “The Beautiful People” demonstrates an authentic 1990s grunge-take on typical haunted house visuals, while her 2013 “Mirrors” video plays with a narrative about a volatile love affair with supernatural temporal elements. Lemire references the allure of the different stylistic type represented in those videos amongst others, but implies it is ill suited to the established view of the source material. This outlook shows the hurdle that many adaptations must go through if they seek to update a text; a text may be seen as timeless, but it is still often bound to a temporal style. There is a certain expectation that comes with an adaptation of a Victorian text, and it falls more in line with the BBC miniseries house-style than in Sigismondi’s 1990s period piece. In Figuring the Past: Period Film and the Mannerist Aesthetic, Belén Vidal describes that established style as “the balance between an overall sense of visual realism and the spectacle of period reconstruction” (11). The realistic attention to period detail aligns with the source material to make these kinds of films feel important; when they are stripped of their period trappings, adaptations of the same texts are often seen as lesser. Films of Victorian novels have garnered an expected aesthetic, and any adaptation that seeks to break this mold is under an increased scrutiny by critics and audiences.
While critics may not appreciate what these texts try to accomplish, they do often have important and culturally relevant points to make. Floria Sigismondi’s The Turning places the ghost as the abuser, while Nick Murphy’s A Christmas Carol has the ghosts haunt the abuser; this difference in who is haunted and who haunts offers different messages for the current moment; The Turning ends on a confusing note of no hope, while A Christmas Carol has a glimmer of hope through well-intentioned reparations. These messages are in complete opposition to each other, but together they demonstrate the value in using older texts to comment on modern evils. The issues brought to the cultural forefront by the #MeToo movement are complex and are open to a variety of opinions. Both A Christmas Carol and The Turning seem to agree that the #MeToo movement has done well in exposing the wrongs done to many women but disagree on what this means for the future; Murphy’s miniseries offers hope for incremental progress through social action, while Sigismondi’s film despairs in the cyclical nature of patriarchal domination, even as it celebrates the power of disparate women banding together. The important thing is not which text viewers agree with, but that no matter which side of the debate one comes down on, they will see their hopes and fears represented through a modern take on a Victorian ghost story.
Many modern films look to Victorian texts to lend credence to their messages and morals. This is particularly noticeable in the horror genre, which is often seen as less artistic though very political. By borrowing the cultural cache of Victorian ghost stories such as The Turn of the Screw and A Christmas Carol, the genre often labeled as low brow is able to raise its cultural profile. In so doing, these texts, as well as others, must face the extra critical scrutiny given to adaptations of older texts that seek to tell their stories in an updated time period. Both The Turning and the 2019 A Christmas Carol faced criticism due to their modern updates, but still use their popular platforms to push feminist messaging. Even if their ultimate morals are at odds with each other, these two recent takes on old tales demonstrate the impact messaging can have when slipped into familiar packages.
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“Alternate Ending.” Directed by Floria Sigismondi, performances by Mackenzie Davis, Finn Wolfhard, and Brooklynn Prince. The Turning. 2020.
Ames, Melissa. “Engaging ‘Apolitical’ Adolescents: Analyzing the Popularity and Educational Potential of Dystopian Literature Post-9/11.” The High School Journal, vol. 97, no. 1, Fall 2013, pp. 3-20.
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“Behind The Turning.” Interviews by Floria Sigismondi, Scott Bernstein, and Mackenzie Davis. The Turning. 2020.
Black Christmas. Directed by Sophia Takal. Universal Pictures. 2019.
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Christmas Carol, A. Directed by Nick Murphy, performances by Guy Pierce, Vinette Robinson, and Andy Serkis. BBC One. 22-24 December 2019.
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“Mrs. Grose’s Confession.” Directed by Floria Sigismondi, performance by Barbara Marten. The Turning. 2020.
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Nightingale, The. Directed by Jennifer Kent, performances by Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, and Magnolia Maymuru. Transmission Films. 2018.
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Turning, The. Directed by Floria Sigismondi, performances by Mackenzie Davis, Finn Wolfhard, Barbara Marten, Niall Greig Fulton, and Denna Thomsen. Universal Pictures. 2020.
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What Maisie Knew. Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel. Millennium Entertainment. 2013.