A comparison of The Haunting of Bly Manor and the book its based on
Written by Atlanta Kroehn
“You have to promise me that you stay in your room, don’t leave your room tonight!”, that is little Flora's advice to avoid meeting the ghosts of Bly Manor. But are there actually real ghosts spooking in the hallway or was the haunt originally meant as a metaphor for something else. Let’s have a look at both – the TV series and the novel.
The Story of a young nanny
In October 2020, the gothic romance series is published as the second part of the Haunting anthology by Mike Flanagan. Young American au pair Dani takes a new job as nanny to two orphans, Miles and Flora, who live alone with their servants at Bly Manor. The job comes from the uncle of the two, who does not even dare or want to visit Bly.
As Dani struggles with her own past, it gets even more tense when she has to deal with the spooky history of the Manor. The previous nanny, Miss Jessel, and one of the family's assistants, Peter Quint, have disappeared without a trace.
The Series - The Haunting of Bly Manor
The mix of gothic and new romance is scary and fun to watch, at least in most episodes. Each character is given a detailed backstory, the majority of which are very thrilling and plausible. However, there are a few loose ends, such as Dani's trauma is simply being replaced by another suffering instead of being dealt with. On the other hand, there are also overloaded subplots, such as the unfulfilled love of the housekeeper Mrs. Grose.
The very atmospheric Bly Manor set makes it clear that not only the characters but also the place has a long past into which the viewers are drawn into. The acting of ten-year-old Amelie Bea Smith as little Flora is impressively charming. The nanny played by Victoria Pedretti (known from the series You) also offers great identification potential. The tension of the series is created mainly by the non-linear narrative, in which reality and memory become blurred. Unfortunately, however, it does not succeed in reflecting the ambivalence of the book.
The Book - The Turn of The Screw
Henry James’ ghost story The Turn Of The Screw (1898) is not only one of the most famous gothic novels but one of the most interpreted books of all time. The beautiful writing style is a hash contrast to its spooky elements and the incredible cliff hangers make it a real page turner.
Series versus Book
The book’s ambivalence stems from many unanswered questions, to which the Netflix series shows answers with additional backstories. The major one is probably if the ghosts are real and appear to everybody in the story or just to one particular person…
1) Who presents the story?
In the book, the story does not begin with the actual plot, but with a convivial group gathered in front of a fireplace to enjoy the cosy shiver of a scary story. The source of this story are letters from a distant friend. The idea that a person that is actually part of the story could be among those present only flashes up very briefly and is then never taken up again.
In the series, a group also sits in front of the fireplace and listens attentively to a woman who tells the story and conceals the fact that she herself is part of it. Only at the very end do we learn another eye-opening twist about this social gathering. The fact that the series also emphasises the romantic side of the ghost story is a wonderful idea.
2) What's the catch with the new job?
In the book, it is implied that the job pays very well, but no previous applicant wanted to take it.
In the series, these underlying fears are clearly discussed in a conversation at the bar where it becomes obvious that nothing is as it seems and that both Bly and the nanny herself have a dark past.
3) Can we trust the nanny?
In the book, one of the key questions is whether or not we can trust the narrative perspective of the main character – the nanny. She seems to be the only one seeing the ghosts. There are many possible interpretations:
Within the story ghosts are real. We witness parapsychological studies and the reason why the nanny is the only one seeing the ghosts can be explained by her being a medium who is particularly sensitive to paranormal happenings.
Her being the only one could also mean she is not a reliable narrator and she is overwhelmed with the responsibilities in this difficult environment.
She could be mentally ill independent of what happened at Bly. Interestingly, the author not only was inspired by his brother William James (famous psychologist) but by journal entries of his sister who was “diagnosed with hysterics”.
She is just lying to create a reason to contact the uncle, since the first ghost appears just after she had wished to get attention by her boss
In the series, the question is answered with a clear yes, as the ghostly apparitions are not even doubted by others. However, apparitions also appear outside of Bly.
4) Why does the uncle not show up at Bly?
The uncle is the character that differs the most in both versions.
In the book, the only condition for the nanny to take the job is that she never contacts the uncle again. This is not only strange, but also tragic for the nanny, as you can read between the lines how much she is attracted to the wealthy bachelor. As a reason for this condition, it is only hinted that something is not quite right on Bly and the uncle wants nothing to do with this responsibility.
In the series, the uncle is portrayed as scarred by the death of his brother. He is involved in the story in a very different way than originally thought, which prevents him from returning to the traumatic place. There is no crush between him and the nanny.
5) What has happened to the parents?
In the book, the parents have died while staying in India (this was still the time of colonialism) is clear from the beginning. But that is the great weakness of the novel, that nothing else is learned about them and the nanny completely ignores the fact that the children are grieving and are traumatised.
In the series, the parents are shown and the children's grief over the painful loss plays a big role. Furthermore, the motif of grief is also a central aspect for all other essential plotlines.
6) Why did Miss Jessel and Peter Quint disappear?
In the book, the story of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint remains vague. All we learn is that they have died. Their bad influence in the form of alcoholism and possibly even abuse continues to affect the children despite their absence.
In the series, the focus is on the relationship between Peter and Miss Jessel. They are shown as friendly characters, even though their influence on the children does not seem to be impeccable. Miles, for example, has learned to smoke from Peter, and there is no shortage of nasty pranks.
7) Why did Miles have to leave school?
In the book, Miles is only present in Bly, having been expelled from school. The reason for this is unknown and the nanny can't or won't ask for the reason, which is why badness or even paranormal abilities of the little boy are subliminally assumed.
In the series, a variety of harmless misdeeds have been done by Miles, for which the motivation was the desire to return to his sister. This is a cute interpretation, but in no way does it correspond to the book.
8) What happens at the end?
In the book, the nanny's time in Bly ends in a shocking way that once again calls her sanity into question. There is absolutely no happy ending.
In the series, the company around the fireplace concludes the story and also gives a glimpse of what has become of the individual characters many years later. Cleverly, the events on Bly seem to have meant something different to each character.
So are the ghosts real?
In the book, there is so much ambivalence that the ghosts could be actual apparitions, imaginary or lies, but also metaphors for the suffering within a patriarchal, hierarchical, capitalist society. The nanny suffers enormously from financial pressure, a sense of duty and expectations from her boss. She is supposed to bring up a little boy who is the head of the household and can therefore dispose of her through his better status.
In the series, this level of discussion is completely absent. However, 120 years after the book, the psyche of the children can be understood much better. Dani has a much more empathetic parenting style than her literary double. While the ghosts seem to be much more real here, they are also functioning as a reflection of past experiences.
Finally, it remains to be said that there is much to be gained from both the book and the series. It is worth getting to the bottom of the haunting. And if you are interested in more ghost stories you might also want to have a look at books such as A Saturday Night Ghost Club by Craig Davidson or Richard Middletons Ghost Ship and at films like A Ghost Story (2017), Sleepy Hollow (1999) as well as obviously The Shining (1980).