Some of the writers from Screen Queens sat down – virtually – to talk about Netflix’s latest horror series The Haunting of Bly Manor, the chilling follow-up to Mike Flanagan’s terrifying first horror instalment, Hill House. Spoilers below, obviously, and enjoy what our writers had to say!
Have you come across The Turn of the Screw before? (Original novella or adaptations, would you recommend them?)
Fatima Sheriff: I read the book when I studied the Gothic and was underwhelmed. James uses a lot of words to drum up suspense around a very basic storyline. I was eager for the themes and characters to be expanded.
Hannah Ryan: I’ve read parts of the book but I’ve never sat down to read the whole novel. Other than that, I’ve caught various adaptations of it on TV and I’ve never had a strong opinion!
Nathasha Orlando Kappler: I had a very vague memory of it from school and I hadn’t really seen any adaptations. In fact only after finishing the show, I finally watched The Innocents which I felt really did an excellent job in capturing the gothic atmosphere of its source material and The Governess’ destructive paranoia.
FS: I watched a BBC adaptation with Michelle Dockery and Dan Stevens. She was the protagonist and he played a psychiatric doctor asking her about Bly. The events were almost verbatim to the book and not very memorable but it was interesting to see it play into the interpretation that the The Governess is maddened by the house and seeing what isn’t there.
Carmen Paddock: Like most of my classic/old timey literature exposure, I came to the book through opera. Benjamin Britten wrote a cracking adaptation in 1954, which is for six singers and a small orchestra and comes in under two hours – a real achievement for that art form! It adheres pretty closely to James’ original story, only making the ghosts 100% definitely real and lending no credence to the theory that the Governess is going mad. When I first read James, I had Britten’s adaptation in my head which may have closed me off to any ambiguity in the ghost story – though there’s plenty of ambiguity elsewhere! I liked the book but I think knowing where it was going and what I was looking for helped (supporting my argument that spoilers are not necessarily bad, but that’s for another roundtable).
Was the inclusion of the previous cast members justified? Did they pull off the accents?
CP: This might be from a fondness for repertory theatre, but I love it when the same actors work together to play different characters in an indirect sequel or side-by-side production. For Mike Flanagan’s horror anthologies, this re-use of people adds continuity and connection without making them in the same universe. I’m American so I think all of their accents were better than what I could do, but hearing a couple of the British cast members say ‘math’ instead of ‘maths’ was maddening.
Megan Wilson: I personally only just found out that Amelia Eve (Jamie) isn’t actually northern, so I’ll be taking some time to process this betrayal.
NOK: I didn’t know Amelia Eve wasn’t northern either! Of all of the cast members I thought she pulled off her accent brilliantly, and I was equally fooled by Henry Thomas’ very plummy accent. As with another big horror anthology show, American Horror Story, I think reuniting the original cast to take on brand new roles is in general a really neat idea, and while perhaps a few of the cast members may have been miscast in terms of their poor execution of British accents – Carla Gugino and Kate Siegal in particular – I think there is a merit to placing these actors in a familiar setting where they’re playing variations of their previous roles, or reenacting similar fears and anxieties, as altogether it creates a sense of cyclical, eternal time where the individuals trapped in the house are condemned to die and be reborn again and again, always reliving tragedy and loss, which feels very true to the spirit of ghost stories.
HR: I love the inclusion of previous cast members, I think it actually really helps to create a sense of familial connection that I think Flanagan finds so important in his work. As for the accents, they left quite a bit to be desired (especially Oliver Jackson-Cohen’s ‘Scottish’ accent) but the rest were, mostly, fine! I’m a sucker for Victoria Pedretti’s (Dani) all-American, though, so I wasn’t judging the others too hard on their accents.
FS: There was some criticism that these characters shouldn’t speak so much in RP but I thought it fit so well with the setting of a country house being slowly abandoned. It heightened the contrast with the “outsiders” who bring the world in with them. Carla Gugino (the narrator/older Jamie) was a weak link for me personally, it felt like her accent changed midway to hint at her character reveal, and her accent felt too fluid and exaggerated that her narration took me out of the story, not further into it.
Whose performance stood out to you the most?
CP: Pedretti and T’Nia Miller (Hannah) anchored the show for me. Sometimes it seems like the main character is the least interesting person, or just the vehicle by which the story is told, and Pedretti kept Dani so alive and authentic. But the standout episode of the show, in my opinion, was Hannah’s story in episode five. Obviously a lot of craft went into that story around Miller’s performance, but the subtle way she played Hannah’s discovery of her death and (after)life, mirroring the audience’s realisations, was really special.
MW: I totally agree! Pedretti is utterly believable, her performance is heartbreakingly sincere and her on-screen relationship with the children really sustains the narrative. The way her performance changes after Dani takes in Viola and starts to lose control over the years is devastating. Miller is a rock – Hannah’s subtle descent culminating in Episode 5 is deeply unnerving, and she manages to command our attention despite essentially watching the same couple of scenes play out over and over again. Rahul Kohli as Owen also has a special place in my heart; he brought a much-needed soft and silly fatherly presence in an otherwise emotionally fraught household.
NOK: I have remained firmly on the Victoria Pedretti hype train since watching her on You, where she toes the line between aloof Manic Pixie Dream Girl turned unhinged Bunny Boiler while somehow being even more charming and endearing than the show’s main character. She has an incredibly expressive face and has a real talent for giving nuanced portrayals of anxiety, grief, and heartbreak – she can convey so many conflicting emotions just through her eyes which I believe is a marker of a great actor. I’m really excited to see what other projects she’ll take on.
HR: Pedretti is an absolute standout in this role – she makes Dani warm, endearing, uncertain, resolute, and vulnerable all at the same time. I thought she really perfectly captured the role of a woman coming to realise that her queerness can no longer be kept at bay, after years of repressing it, and she was a character full of empathy – you really got the sense that Dani was just trying to do her best. Also, T’Nia Miller is just fantastic as Hannah and I was amazed at what a grounded and tragic figure she cut – her and Rahul Kohli as Owen broke my heart and also offered plenty of lovely moments of respite despite the despair at Bly Manor.
FS: I am so glad Owen was written into this story, the levity of the puns was much needed relief and as an Indian Brit, it was vindicating to see Rahul Kohli have such a deep role to work with after he carried iZombie.
Oliver Jackson-Cohen was meant to play the gardener but refused the role. With Amelia Eve taking up the mantle of love interest, do you think the lesbian romance was a successful addition to the story?
MW: Absolutely. I won’t lie, it’s what convinced me to watch the show in the first place. That said, I might not have stuck it out if the romance didn’t work so well within the narrative as a whole. Amelia Eve is so charming as the gardener, and her interactions with Pedretti offer lovely moments of tenderness and humour that alleviate some of the overwhelming trauma. I thought Dani and Jamie had a wonderfully authentic relationship, and the writing throughout the series was really nuanced and respectful. Though their ending ripped my heart out and left me sobbing, it was so much more meaningful than I ever could have imagined for a lesbian couple in a horror series.
CP: Yes! First, very happy Jackson-Cohen declined the role on the grounds that it would have been weird to see him and Pedretti play twins in Hill House and then love interests – I know they’re actors, that’s their job, and there would have been nothing wrong with him taking the role but it wouldn’t have been right! Especially not after seeing Amelia’s fantastic, natural performance and the depth Jamie’s and Dani’s relationship gained as the show developed.
NOK: I think the addition of a lesbian love story worked pretty well in terms of revisioning the plot within a more modern setting while still keeping true to one of the novella’s key themes of sexual repression, which was the root of The Governess’ spiralling into hysteria. Pedretti’s Governess is spared from this cruel downfall and is given a chance to experience true romantic love without living in shame. I definitely appreciated seeing a queer romance being revealed to be the real narrative of this show, as it really evokes what Gothic storytelling is all about! I did at one point wonder if perhaps Dani’s possession after settling down with Jamie was intended to be a metaphor for AIDS (though perhaps this interpretation is too reductive.) It made me nervous that they’d both be damned to suffer miserably because of it, so it was refreshing to see a lesbian couple overcome this predicament together and embrace their love for each other with the years they had left, and were afforded a hopeful ending even in death, albeit bitter-sweet, rather than be ultimately punished for their queerness.
HR: The lesbian romance is easily one of the most appealing aspects of Bly Manor. I loved that it was so unexpected, that it presented itself as a tender and understated relationship that eventually became the heart and soul of the show. Despite some, let’s say, hot takes online, I think it’s a gorgeous depiction of lesbian love and it has enough nuance to show that, just because two characters don’t necessarily stay together for the rest of their lives, it doesn’t mean that they didn’t get something of a happy ending. Pedretti and Amelia Eve’s chemistry is off the charts and their relationship is a joy to watch unfold – especially when horror is so often littered with disappointing and reductive depictions of lesbianism.
There has been some debate as to whether the show is scary enough to be considered horror, what do you think?
CP: Yes. The atmosphere was quite tense and there was a lot of suspense, especially in the first half. It felt like old-fashioned gothic horror rather than the nonstop scares of Hill House – but I think that still counts!
NOK: As I went into this series with some preconceived ideas of Hill House being marketed and reviewed as a very scary show, I did feel a little let down by how safe and family friendly Bly Manor was overall – I think I found Peter Quint’s death to be the only genuinely terrifying scene throughout the whole series! Having said that, I don’t think the show’s horror suffers from its lack of jump scares, but it could have improved with its depiction of ghosts, who interact so vividly with the living characters as if there was very little that set them apart, and the introduction of their ghostly superpowers felt completely unnecessary as it diminished the mysticism around them. Again, what made Henry James’ story so unnerving as a reader is not being able to determine whether or not the ghosts were ever real.
MW: It was scary enough for me! The scares were infrequent enough not to be cheapened, but still gave me an underlying sense of anxiety as I watched. I much prefer horror that also gives us enough breathing room to get to know the characters, which increases our emotional investment in the story.
HR: I don’t see how it could be considered anything but horror – whether that’s the horror of internalised homophobia or the ghosts that lurk in the corner of frames. It’s a Gothic horror, for sure, and I think it works all the better for that!
FS: I think it had the inevitability of Gothic horror and a lot of the sadness stemmed from the inescapable fate. I think the commonality with Hill House was strong in the first half with the hidden ghosts and traumatic scenes like Dani being locked in the closet but I’d say with the over-explaining by the end a lot of that initial suspense was deflated. I’m absolutely with you Megan, when I’m not attached to characters in a horror, it loses its power, so the emotional investment is key, and something I think Flanagan is careful to emphasise.
Child actors are notoriously polarising, how did we feel about Flora and Miles? Perfectly splendid or…?
CP: I liked them both! They made the innately creepy posh horror children quite endearing. That said, I feel like neither of them got too much emotional heavy lifting to do, which wasn’t what I was expecting from a Turn of the Screw adaptation!
MW: I thought they did a wonderful job! At first the children felt a bit gimmicky with all the “perfectly splendid” dialogue, but they developed quite profoundly throughout the series. Amelie Bea Smith (Flora) particularly shone in her “tucked away” scenes in which she remembered her mother, it was really emotional stuff.
HR: They both did a great job! What is more terrifying than rich, possibly future Tory adjacent kids? Nothing, as far I’m concerned, and they nailed that feeling.
NOK: Truth be told I think I lost my patience with the Wingrave children pretty quickly after hearing Flora repeat “perfectly splendid” for the third time – her favourite catchphrase! I find that the upper class English accent always sounds that little bit more stereotypical when it’s in contrast to other softer accents, and the introduction of the children as these overly proper thoroughbreds who speak the Queen’s English came across as cartoonish rather than sinister. Though Amelie Bea Smith did grow on me after a few episodes, as Flora revealed more anguish and confusion about her manipulation by Miss Jessel and Peter Quint.
FS: In the last few episodes they became quite phased out which was a disappointment, partly because I expected (spoilers from the book) Miles’ tragic death, which I was sure they were building up to. His happy ending was a bit nothing compared to what they could have done with his irreversible moral corruption and the trauma of enabling a murderer and I think Benjamin Evan Ainsworth had the capacity to make that really impactful.
If you’ve seen it, how do you think this series compares to Hill House?
CP: I almost want to say apples and oranges! Both succeed at what they want to be – both have ghostly elements, but Hill House is more straight up terror whereas Bly Manor is a gothic love story. Hill House might be slightly more cohesive as a whole piece, though – Flanagan’s cherry picking approach to James’ works left some supernatural explanations in Bly Manor feeling shoehorned.
FS: Despite the familiar faces, very different vibes, “Gothic love story” sums it up and I’m with you there about the cohesion. As I explained in our other roundtable, there was a careful progression between siblings in Hill House whereas this was more chaotic in its jumping between such different characters.
How did you feel about the more stylised, focused episodes, Hannah’s memory maze of episode 5 or episode 8’s black and white flashbacks?
CP: I enjoyed both immensely as a viewer, but I feel that 5 was the only one of the two to add value to the existing universe. Viola’s episode felt a bit like a last minute explanation for events rather than something that was built in from the beginning!
MW: Episode 8 was completely wasted for me. A full hour’s worth of exposition felt like lazy writing and not enough faith in the audience to have figured most of this out by now. A twenty minute summary of Viola’s story probably would have sufficed… All I wanted to know was whether the characters in the present story were okay or not!
NOK: Episode 8 did very much feel like a filler episode and I would have been happier not knowing the Lady of the Lake’s backstory. I found the narrator’s re-emphasis of the line “she would wake, she would walk, she would sleep” to be especially tiring, and though I’m sure it alludes to the banality of Viola’s life and afterlife of performing the same actions on a continuous loop, the repetition of this line felt a little too on the nose. Whereas in episode 5, we see Hannah following a similar cycle of repetition in her actions and conversations, without the aid of an explicit explanation by the narrator, which creates this sense of total disorientation as we’re forced to figure out which parts of her memory are rehearsed, and which parts deviate from the events in her life, which I thought was really interesting. Also it’s just a joy to see T’Nia Miller and Rahul Kohli play off each other on screen.
HR: I LOVED Hannah’s memory maze – I thought it was a real strong point of the show, even though it seemed a little jarring at first. It gave T’Nia Miller a real chance to shine in her role and I thoroughly enjoyed the way the episode flitted back between Hannah’s mind and reality. Episode 8 was a bit underwhelmed and it definitely could have worked as just a brief part of the episode – although it was great to see the return of Kate Siegel to Flanagan’s universe.
FS: I went in expecting to love episode 8 but I think when we learnt about all of the ghosts, suddenly they weren’t nearly as frightening. Hill House is never fully explained and the fear of the unknown is powerful.
Are there any aspects that didn’t work for you?
MW: As I just mentioned, I felt that some of the flashbacks and memory sequences were over-egged. Some of the repetitive motifs work to generate the uncanny atmosphere, but at other times I just wanted the story to progress and for us to spend more time with the characters in the present.
CP: I think I covered this earlier but I felt like there was almost too much going on and not enough built into the initial characters and events. Too much came too late!
NOK: I second that, overall I felt this series was incredibly convoluted with too many over-arching subplots, some of which felt completely unnecessary – such as Henry Wingrave’s own Jekyll and Hyde type alter ego, Viola’s transformation into the Lady of the Lake, and to some extent Quint’s troubled past – which did redeem him (a little) from his acts of greed and envy, but was introduced far too late in the series. Although Hannah and Owen’s budding romance was a sweet addition to the story, I really wish the show would have remained focused on the key characters like Dani and the children, and leaned more into its source material.
FS: I mentioned Gugino earlier and I think that a weak point of the story was actually the framing through Jamie. In the future, it felt like she knew too much, and while the others got more layered histories e.g. Quint’s yelling at his mother, most of what we learned about her was purely monologue. Eve’s moonflower speech was excellent, but we don’t see her affected in the same way as the others despite the haunting aspects of her past that she mentions. If her narrative had been more unreliable perhaps, or leant into her naivety somehow, she would have felt more real.
If he continues the series, what book would you like Flanagan to tackle next?
FS: I think people often neglect Agatha Christie’s supernatural stories in favour of her detectives so I’d love to see a take on some of her ghost stories. There’s so much haunted house material in Daphne Du Maurier’s work too, especially considering how the latest Rebecca isn’t Gothic enough, I’d love to see one that addresses those spookier layers to the story.
CP: I’d love to see him take on some Poe-inspired horror, maybe moving him to a modern setting like he does with Jackson and James. Maybe not The Masque of the Red Death though – that seems too topical!
NOK: So far I can’t say I’m quite yet sold on Flanagan’s unique brand of horror but I am still waiting in vain for a decent on-screen adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla! I think it would be interesting to see Flanagan take on a different kind of supernatural lore.
HR: So, it’s not strictly horror but there are plenty of horrifying aspects to Wuthering Heights and I would love to see Flanagan’s Gothic take on the classic. Actually, come to think of it, there are plenty of ghosts in Wuthering Heights!
FS: Hannah, you’re onto something! I hated WH in school, but maybe with some of his more level, humanising characterisation, I could finally find an affinity for it. Yes to all of these – Mike Flanagan, take note!
The Haunting of Bly Manor is currently streaming on Netflix worldwide.