There's nothing that Hollywood loves more than slapping a "based on a true story" tagline on a spooky movie with questionable true story credentials. So, it's only natural to wonder if there's at least a nugget of a true story at the heart of The Turning. The new horror movie from director Floria Sigismondi stars Stranger Things favorite Finn Wolfhard and The Florida Project's Brooklynn Prince as orphaned siblings whose nanny suspects they have a secret. The film is set to hit theaters on Jan. 24, but viewers can rest easy knowing that it's based on a classic novella, rather than a real ghost story. However, that doesn't make the source material any less haunting.
Sigismondi's gothic film is based on the 1898 psychological horror novella The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. The story is told from the perspective of an unnamed governess who takes a job caring for two young orphans at a remote country home. The children are unruly, and the governess' predecessor left under mysterious circumstances, leading her to believe that there's something dark lurking in the home and influencing the children's behavior. Soon, she's seeing ghosts and engaging in what she sees as a battle for the souls of her young charges.
The Turn of the Screw is famous for its ambiguity. Throughout the story, only the nanny sees the ghosts, and the reader is left wondering if she's mad or if the house is truly haunted. Viewers can expect that same level of ambiguity in The Turning. The movie transplants the story from a 19th century English country house to a sprawling estate in '90s era Maine, but the focus is still firmly on the nanny, Kate (Mackenzie Davis), and her growing unease with her new position.
In a recent interview with Collider, Sigismondi explained why it was so important to her that the movie stay true to James' work by allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions about the ghosts that are seemingly haunting the home. "The source material has lasted over 100 years, you know, with people talking about what does it mean, and the symbology in the book," she explained. "So I gravitated toward that kind of ending because I think people can put themselves into the film a bit more, and the last act is more of a fever dream — you're kind of lost in Kate's psyche."
Since its release, the novella has inspired numerous adaptations, including stage plays, TV movies, and even an opera. Later, this year, it's set to serve as the inspiration for season 2 of Netflix's The Haunting of Hill House. But to date, the most famous adaptation by far remains the 1961 feature film The Innocents starring Deborah Kerr — a film that Sigismondi studied before making her own adaptation.
"I studied what worked in that film, and the atmosphere it created, and how the house became a character, and what we saw and didn’t see," Sigismondi told Entertainment Weekly in an October 2019 interview. "I also loved how that film made it about the nanny and not just about the things that were happening in the house. So, I really drew upon those things, and modernized it, and made it my own."
The inspiration for The Turning may not be a "real" ghost story, but it's hard to beat a timeless tale of psychological horror designed to keep you puzzling over what's real and what's imagined. And hey, if you want a sneak peek at the level of scares that you're in for at the theater, the good news is that The Turn of the Screw is a mere 122 pages long.