The Turning Review: I Am Doll Parts

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BY January 25, 2020

The Turning, the latest adaptation of Henry James’s 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, hits theaters this week. In our review of The Turning, we’ll find out if it were a good idea to make another version of the tale.

First, Background on the Source Material

The Turning review image via Universal Pictures/Amblin Entertainment

James’s story centers on a governess who is hired to look after two orphaned children, Miles and Flora. At the start of her employment, Miles is away at boarding school. Meanwhile, the unnamed governess cares for Flora at the family’s huge estate. At first, things seem to be going well. Then Miles is expelled from his fancy school, around the same time that the governess starts seeing what she believes to be ghosts.

Collier’s Weekly magazine serialized The Turn of the Screw over the first 4 months of 1898. Later that year, Macmillan in New York City and Heinemann in London published it in a book called The Two Magics. Adaptations began appearing during the second half of the 20th century and they haven’t slowed down yet. Just last year, Ruth Ware released her take on the story, The Turn of the Key. There’s talk that there may yet be another movie adaptation this year, as well. But first came this movie, once highly anticipated despite its murky history. So let’s talk about that and it.

The Road to the Big Screen

The Turning review image via Universal Pictures/Amblin Entertainment

Back in 2016, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (Intruders, 28 Weeks Later) was going to direct a film called Haunted. Rose Leslie–yes, Ygritte herself–was attached to star. Brothers Chad and Carey Hayes, known for writing films like The Conjuring (and its first sequel) wrote the script. However, just before filming began, DreamWorks shut down production after Fresnadillo and collaborator Scott Z. Burns rewrote the script. The studio felt like it was too far from what they’d signed on to create and said they’d keep working to develop the original story.

Not too long after that, they renamed it The Turning and hired Floria Sigismondi (The Runaways) to direct. Then they finished it and kept it on the shelf for a year, before quietly dropping it in January–the scariest time of the year–and embargoing critics’ reviews. All good signs.

The Turning in Review

The Turning review image via Universal Pictures/Amblin Entertainment

Beyond an update to the 90s for some reason, the basic bones of the story remain. Kate (Mackenzie Davis) leaves her job as a teacher to become a live-in tutor for little orphan Flora (Brooklynn Prince). Her older brother Miles (Finn Wolfhard) is away at boarding school, but soon comes home after the school expels him. There, he plays guitar–nice of them to remind us that Finn had a band–and generally acts like a big creep. The living situation, which was only mildly unsettling until that point, soon seems to turn sinister.

And from there, although stylish, the story is just gibberish. James’s novella is famously uncertain–did the governess really see ghosts or were her visions a manifestation of something else? (If I were a male literary critic in the early 1900s, for example, I might suggest it’s a metaphor about her wandering uterus. I’m sorry–I mean sexual repression.) As Brad Leithauser wrote in The New Yorker in 2012, it’s “a modest monument to the bold pursuit of ambiguity.” So it’s a story built on an unreliable narrator with an unreliable ending. Unfortunately, the people behind this film take that to the extreme.

The movie sees Kate stumbling through a dimly-lit manse populated by scattered doll parts, shuttered wings, and other creaky tropes of haunted house stories. For their parts, the children are menacing and haunted in turn, but seemingly stuck in the same maze as Kate. (And no, I don’t mean the actual maze on the property.) Young Flora, for instance, displays a near-hysterical reluctance to leave the property, but if you think details like that will pay off in any meaningful way, you’re sadly mistaken.

The Sum of the Review

There’s a sense of that all along. You keep getting the feeling that there’s another story–or stories here–that are leading somewhere. And it seems that, as with Black Christmas, they wanted to say something topical. But what is it they’re saying, exactly? Bitches be crazy? I heart the 90s? I’m honestly not sure. And the movie, which doesn’t so much end as it fades away–hey, another Kurt Cobain reference–doesn’t seem to know, either.

So my advice? Crank up the 90s rock and watch The Innocents, the 1961 adaptation, instead. Or just read the Ruth Ware book, if you really want a modern take.

If you’ve seen this movie, though, we’d like to know what you thought. Tell us here in the comments or haunt us on social media.

featured image via Universal Pictures/Amblin Entertainment

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Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. She now splits her time between the Appalachian wilds (of Alabama) and the considerably more refined streets of New York City. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf.

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