Warning: There are major spoilers ahead for The Haunting of Bly Manor.
Here’s some good news: Netflix’s terrifying series The Haunting Of Bly Manor is not based on a true story. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Just as the first 2018 installment of the horror anthology, The Haunting Of Hill House, was based on the 1959 Shirley Jackson gothic horror novel of the same name, this follow-up is a reinterpretation and expansion of another classic: Henry James 1898 horror novella The Turn of the Screw.
In a roundtable interview that Refinery29 attended earlier in February 2020 (in Bly Manor’s grand foyer, no less), creator and writer Mike Flanagan called Hill House a “kind of deconstruction and reconstruction of classic horror literature.” Following the success of the show, he decided to run with that same theme there on out, and showcase different authors for each season that would follow. But while the first season stuck relatively close to the source material, Bly Manor is actually composed of not just Turn of the Screw, but a few other works from the late 19th-century author.
“What I love about Henry James is that while Turn of the Screw is absolutely out jumping off point, he had so many other cool ghost stories that haven’t been adapted,” Flanagan said. “[... ] It was like, ‘Great, we can go Turn of the Screw for a minute...That can be our spine. But the rest of this body that is going to be the season is going to be made of all these other stories. And we can find a way to fit them all together. To try to combine them into one narrative that really celebrates the themes that he was interested in.’”
Bly Manor, therefore, veers off quite a bit from the original story, and it can be a bit confusing to parse out which parts take creative license. Each episode title, in fact, is the name of another James story. So if you haven’t read Turn, or maybe read it a long time ago in some class and the details are fuzzy, don’t stress. Take it from lead actress Victoria Pedretti, who plays our protagonist Dani Clayton: "Read it for the sake of reading," but you don't need the novella to "understand or appreciate" Bly Manor.
This is the part where we break down where the show differs from Turn Of The Screw, so final warning that everything from here on is rife with spoilers.
As Flanagan said, Turn truly serves as the skeleton of Bly Manor. The premise is pretty much the exact same: it begins with a narrator telling a ghost story to guests at a party. In Bly, the narrator is telling the story during present day, so the story within the story is set earlier in the 1980s. The main premise is present in both works: Dani (unnamed and British in the novella, American in this show) is hired as an au pair for two orphans — 10-year-old Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) and 8-year-old Flora Wingrave (Amelie Bea Smith) — at their idyllic countryside home called Bly Manor. At first, she’s delighted by the manor’s beauty and the charming Wingrave children, but soon things begin to take a turn for the creepy. Dani becomes suspicious of Miles, who was expelled from boarding school for reasons he won’t reveal, and the nanny begins to see eerie and mysterious apparitions around the house.
Mrs. Grose (T’Nia Miller), the housekeeper, explains that the former governess, Miss Jessel (Tahirah Sharif), and former valet Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), had a tumultuous relationship that ended in both of their deaths. In the show, the staff think Quint is just missing, and don’t know that he’s been killed by the Lake Lady. In the novella, Ms. Grose guesses that the people that Dani has been seeing are the ghosts of the dead lovers, and Dani learns that there’s a connection between the apparitions and Miles and Flora that they’re keeping secret from her.
Here’s where things go completely off the rails — the rest of the staff, including cute chef Owen (Rahul Kohli) and Jamie the cool lesbian gardener (Amelia Eve), aren’t in the book, and neither is the fun sexual tension between them. The other plotlines woven in are inspired by James’ other works. The whole evil doppelganger ghost situation that Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas) deals with in episode six is based on James’ 1908 short story “The Jolly Corner,” for example, and the tale of sisters Perdita and Viola (aka Lake Lady), is based on his 1968 short story “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes.” The entire ending of Bly Manor — the cute queer love story between Jamie and Dani, Dani’s sad backstory, Jamie turning out to be the narrator — is all unique to the show.
The ending of Turn is a bit more morose, if you can believe it. The unnamed governess and Mrs. Grose see Flora by the lake, and the governess sees the ghost of Miss Jessel beside the youngest Wingrave. The others claim not to see her, so the governess gets hysterical. This is a main plot point of Turn — you’re not entirely sure if a lot of what happens is in the governess’ head, or if she’s seeing the truth and everyone else is just gaslighting her. Mrs. Grose says Flora is sick and they both leave Bly in order for Flora to see her uncle. Alone at the house, the governess and Miles are eating dinner when the governess spots the ghost of Peter Quint. As soon as Miles turns his head, he screams and dies in her arms. And yes, that’s literally it. Period, the end.
While we can’t say that Bly Manor ends particularly happily (Dani turning into the Lake Lady and finding out Mrs. Grose is dead Sixth Sense-style is pretty sad), at least the children are okay and go on to live with their uncle in America. In fact, Flora gets married to the love of her life at the end. That might make James roll his eyes, but if he knew what we were dealing with in 2020, he’d probably understand that we needed a twist on his Turn.