Emma Thompson analyzes Henry James' 'The Turn of the Screw'
It turns out that the Oscar-winning actress, who recently taped the classic ghost story The Turn of the Screw for Audible, is something of a Henry James addict — and she’s also got a thing for ghost stories. Emma Thompson shares her analysis of James’ work with us in the interview below, and listen to her chilling narration in an exclusive clip, here.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Had you read the novel before?
EMMA THOMPSON: Oh, yes! I did my first dissertation at university on Henry James.
It was all about Henry James and the workings of evil, actually, in works like What Maisie Knew. There are connections [between that novel and this one] in many ways. It’s all about what children see, what they know, and what they don’t know.
I was going to ask you what drew you to the project — recording a spooky Victorian novel about a governess and her two charges — but it seems like a natural fit.
I consider Henry James the most extraordinary writer (well, I almost prefer Edith Wharton, but don’t tell anyone I said that). I know his work very well, and I love it. The Turn of the Screw is extraordinary—the idea of these children knowing, in a ghastly way, stuff they shouldn’t know is so terribly good. The parallel I draw with it is the dreadful experiences I’ve had when I’ve gone into rural communities in Africa where kids are being shown pornography. It’s not actual molestation, but it’s an invasion of the childish mind that is both inappropriate and destructive. So I totally understand James’ horror.
There are so many different critical interpretations of The Turn of the Screw. Some people believe the nanny is insane; others think the ghosts are meant to represent child molesters. What do you think?
Child molesters? No. I don’t think the Victorians would have thought that for a minute. I think they would have thought of the ghosts as something far worse, probably the interference with their own invention of the so-called innocent child. The Victorians had this monomaniacal view of childhood as this period of complete innocence, which they then would utterly traumatize by telling terrible stories about death, doom, and disaster, Dickens being one of the great proponents of that. Child psychology hadn’t been invented; it was not understood how complex children were. But James wrote very well about the insight that children have—probably because of his own difficult childhood.
You’ve talked about your love of ghost stories before.
I love the frisson you get reading them, you know, after dark. It’s always been a traditional part of our winter joys, ghost stories read by the fire, out loud if you’re lucky. My favorite is M.R. James — I don’t know whether you know his work.
He was a Cambridge scholar, a cleric, and an expert in Nordic religious texts and things like that. And just as a sort of playtime thing, to amuse his friends, he would write these remarkable ghost stories. Henry James was writing around the same time as M.R. James and [Arthur] Conan Doyle and Wilkie Collins and all of those people. They were really interested in the beyond, and Victoriana is full of it.
When you’re going to record an audiobook, do you read the story multiple times?
Oh, yes. I read it, and I mark it, and I think about voices—if there will need to be a lot of different voices. Sometimes you can get into a situation where you’re doing people who’ve got different accents. You never know.
What do you mean by “marking”?
I’m marking the phases of the story—where I think I should ratchet up the suspense, the phases of a character’s story arc—in the same ways I might mark up a script.
How do you use your voice to evoke a book’s atmosphere?
I think the writing does that for you. It gives you so many clues as to how it should be read.
Well, it does when you’re talking about a brilliant author.
Absolutely. I don’t know what you do if you’re reading Dan Brown aloud. I really don’t.
What’s the best part about recording audiobooks?
Just telling a story, darling! It takes years to make a film. But with an audio, you can tell a whole story in a single day. It’s what humans have done for millennia.