Sarah Waters’ 2009 novel The Little Stranger is one of the great literary ghost stories because Waters understands something essential about the form: The creepiest ghost is the one who may or may not be there at all. A real ghost can be fled or exorcized: Leave the haunted house, ditch the cursed talisman, confess that terrible thing you did last summer. But a ghost who might be a figment of your own crumbling sanity isn’t so easily shaken. We say “It’s all in your head,” as if that minimizes the affliction in question, but don’t we have to take our heads with us wherever we go? We can’t escape what’s in there.
Waters’ novel is narrated by a doctor, a skeptical man of science named Faraday, practicing in the Warwickshire countryside in the late 1940s. Its readers can only experience the story through his eyes, which at first seem perfectly reliable. Gradually, the suspicion that our view of what’s happening may be badly skewed by Faraday’s own desires seeps into and then floods every word.
The novel version of The Little Stranger exploits the eerie power of its ambiguity to the hilt, but can Lenny Abrahamson’s film adaptation, out Friday, hope to emulate the book’s unsettling effect? Movies are too often at a loss when it comes to this breed of psychological ghost story. There are notable exceptions—Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others; Jack Clayton’s 1961 adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, The Innocents; 1963’s The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise. But the typical on-screen ghost story, even when well-executed and popular—in recent years Insidious, The Conjuring, and Paranormal Activity—is ultimately literal-minded. Even if the characters start out disbelieving in the ghost, by the end the obligatory orgy of special effects will leave them and the audience convinced.
A film can never fully submerge its viewers in a single character’s subjectivity in the same way a novel can. What we see on screen is what we see, and one of the things we see is the main character. In the film of The Little Stranger, Faraday is played by Domhnall Gleeson, who brings a pinched, gingery dourness to an atmosphere already saturated in gloom. We can only surmise what he thinks of himself, but we’re shown how he appears to other people; the evidence is right before our eyes. In the novel, the opposite is the case, because the doctor’s insecurities prevent him from realizing how he comes across.
Faraday encounters and then befriends the ragged remnants of the Ayres family who live in Hundreds Hall, a once grand but now semi-derelict stately home. “Befriends” may be too strong a word. He treats the only remaining male Ayres, Roddy (Will Poulter), for hideous injuries sustained in the war, and Roddy’s mother (Charlotte Rampling) for what seem to be psychosomatic ills.
As Faraday sees it, he’s trying to rescue both the Ayreses and Hundreds Hall. He courts Roddy’s sister, Caroline (Ruth Wilson), and begins to poke his nose into the business affairs of the estate. Only a generation or two earlier, landed gentry like the Ayres family might have socialized with their family doctor if he were likable enough, but would not have regarded him as their class equal. The novel, like the film, is full of exquisitely awkward scenes in which Faraday, a child of the working class, tries to mix with the Ayres’ upper-class friends and yet can never quite shake off the sense that he is their inferior. This is partly their fault and partly his own, but like most people in such situations, he perceives only their careless slights, real and imagined, not his own stiff, off-putting manner—exactly the demeanor that will keep him from ever fully easing into their company. Meanwhile, strange occurrences at Hundreds Hall—servant bells rung from unoccupied rooms, marks carved into the woodwork, footsteps and banging in the night—have both Roddy and Mrs. Ayres convinced the place is haunted. Mrs. Ayres believes the specter to be her first daughter, the child she loved best, who died at age 8. She welcomes its sometimes violent attentions. Faraday, meanwhile, insists that they’re all talking a lot of nonsense.
Faraday the narrator is so convinced of his common sense and good intentions that it’s easy for readers to believe him to the very last. Once, when I wrote in praise of the novel’s ending, which—spoiler alert—to my eye clearly implicates Faraday as the unconscious source of the haunting, I got emails from readers who had missed this entirely. Unless, like Humbert Humbert, a narrator behaves so outrageously that he practically begs to be mistrusted, most readers will identify so strongly with a novel’s narrator that they’ll accept his take on things without much question. After all, the story only exists because the narrator tells it.
On screen, Faraday’s morbid aspect is impossible to ignore. We can see what he can’t: that he places the welfare of Hundreds Hall over the welfare of the Ayreses; that Caroline only agrees to become engaged to him because she’s desperately lonely and has nothing else to do with her life. It’s not that Gleeson’s performance isn’t true to the character. What it’s not true to is Faraday’s imperfect understanding of himself, and it’s the contrast between the two that makes Waters’ novel hum with tension where the film just glumly proceeds.
Similarly, the Hundreds Hall visible on-screen—peeling wallpaper, rainwater dripping through the ceiling into pails, sofa arms rubbed down to their stuffing—is a shabby, depressing pile. Faraday, whose mother worked in the house as a maid, fell in love with Hundreds Hall when he was a little boy and the place was still in its prime. For him, it has not lost its magic, what he describes as “its cool fragrant spaces, the light it held like wine in a glass.” His connection to that house is the most important relationship in the novel, but on-screen we can never really see it as he does, through the idealizing scrim of memory and longing. The camera can only show us what’s actually there. And with certain stories, the kind that dance on a knife’s edge between the imagined and the real, it’s sometimes so much better to tell than to show.
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