The Reason “The Haunting of Hill House” is an Amazing Adaptation
Adapting books to film or television is always a risky business. Sometimes the result is amazing (“The Godfather,” “High Fidelity,” and “Doctor Zhivago” come immediately to mind), but most of the time it’s a disaster (“The Great Gatsby,” “The Hobbit,” the “Percy Jackson” series, and more). When you set out to adapt one of the greatest horror novels of all time into a TV series, the chance of success is quite low, which is what makes the Netflix adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 classic “The Haunting of Hill House” such a pleasant surprise.
If you’ve never read “The Haunting of Hill House,” you really should. Stephen King reviewed the novel in his 1981 non-fiction book on the horror genre, “Danes Macabe,” calling it “one of the finest horror novels of the late 20th century.” It regularly lands on lists of the best horror ever written.
Here’s a short synopsis of the novel, from the Penguin Classics edition:
The story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a “haunting;’ Theodora, his lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers — and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.
It is a gothic, creepy, slow-burn of a story that adheres well to Alfred Hitchcock’s maxim that there is no terror in the “bang,” only in the anticipation of it. No jump-scares here, just a steady increase in that feeling of unease you got as a kid watching your closet door after hearing a bump in the night. No slasher novel or film comes close to that.
But Jackson’s novel takes us even further down the psychological rabbit hole, because right up to the end we’re never totally sure if the supernatural occurrences are real or simply in Eleanor’s mind. Shirley Jackson said she believed they were real (Henry James said the same about the ghosts in “The Turn of the Screw”), but you can’t always trust the author to give you the whole truth.
The novel was a sensation when it was published in 1959 and was a finalist for the National Book Award, a rare feat for a horror novel. It also spawned two film versions, both re-titled “The Haunting.” The 1963 version was faithful to the book and remains a fine film nearly six decades later. The 1999 remake was a travesty that should never have been made.
Which brings us to the 2018 Netflix series “The Haunting of Hill House.” It was, quite frankly, one of the best shows I have seen in years, from the acting to the directing to the writing. It has an 8.6/10 rating on IMDb.com, which doesn’t happen often. And here’s the funny part: if you’ve read the book and seen the series, you know they have very little in common, at least on the surface. So why do I consider it an excellent adaptation? I’m glad you asked, but first a quick blurb on the series for those who haven’t seen it yet:
The plot alternates between two timelines, one following five adult siblings whose paranormal experiences at Hill House continue to haunt them to the present day, and the other showing flashbacks of the events leading up to the moment in 1992 when the family fled the house in the middle of the night.
Sounds like two totally different stories, right? That’s because it is…and it isn’t. It would have been easy for writer/director Mike Flanagan to simply do a remake of the 1963 film, but any remake was likely to be seen as inferior at best. So he did something rarely attempted in risk-averse filmmaking today: he adapted the spirit of the book while telling his own story.
Flanagan took the central figure in Jackson’s novel — Hill House itself — and made it his central character as well. It is from that framework that everything flows. He kept the slow-burn, gothic, creepy feeling of unease while adding a surprisingly small number of jump-scares for a 10-episode horror series. And like the novel, we wonder throughout how much is actually real and how much is in the characters’ heads.
For those who read the novel first, Flanagan gives numerous nods to the book as well. Three of the children are named after three of the novel’s four main characters: Luke, Theo, and Eleanor (Nell). The caretakers, Mr. and Mrs. Dudley, also make the jump from the book to the series. Even Dr. Montague appears in the show, this time as Nell’s psychiatrist; he is played by Russ Tamblyn, who played Luke in the 1963 film version — how cool is that?
There are other references to the book as well. One of the siblings is named Shirley, after Shirley Jackson. In one episode, young Theo is seen reading “The Lottery,” which was also written by Shirley Jackson. And in multiple places scenes from the book are woven into events or dialogue, most notably at the start of the very first episode, where Steven, the oldest sibling, reads from his own book titled “The Haunting of Hill House,” an account of what the family experienced. The lines he reads in this voiceover are the first paragraph of the novel — word for word.
At this point let me caution that it will be easier to move from reading the novel to watching the adaptation than the other way around. I’m just glad that the “other way around” is happening. The massive success of the series sparked a renewed interest in the novel and caused people to either re-read it or read it for the first time. Even classics — maybe especially classics — can fall out of favor and need a spark to get back in front of readers. The series has provided that spark for all of Shirley Jackson’s works, which is a very good thing.
Earlier I mentioned Stephen King’s review of the novel; he also had something to say about the series, this time in the following tweet:
“The Haunting of Hill House, revised and remodeled by Mike Flanagan. I don’t usually care for this kind of revisionism, but this is great. Close to a work of genius really. I think Shirley Jackson would approve, but who knows for sure.”
As a little insight into why it’s clear that Flanagan is a true fan of the genre as well as a director, this was his reply to King’s tweet:
“Some day I’ll figure out how to react to things like this without shrieking like a little kid…but today is not that day.”
(I get it Mike; I felt the same way when both Neil Gaiman and Joe Hill liked one of my tweets).
So clearly I liked the show as much as King and millions of others. I also love the book, though Joe Hill’s “Heart-Shaped Box” remains my all-time favorite horror novel. Let me conclude by summing up why both are so great.
It’s the writing, period. With Shirley Jackson that goes without saying; far too often with excellent films and television shows it should be said but isn’t even noticed. “The Haunting of Hill House” series indeed has great sets and direction and acting from one of the best casts I’ve seen in a long time. But none of that would matter if the writing wasn’t equally as stellar.
Story matters; it always has and always will, whether told around a campfire or in a film or on stage or in a book. If you’re looking for a great story told in two different ways, read the book and binge watch the series. You’ll be glad you did, even if horror isn’t normally your thing.