Fiction, Haunted Houses, Shirley Jackson, Television, The Haunting of Hill House

The Haunting of Hill House

Author Shirley Jackson’s novel, The Haunting of Hill House, is one of the undisputed, seminal works of Gothic horror fiction. Its themes have inspired other writers, but their works have never quite attained the same visceral, emotional effect of the original. There have been several attempts at adapting the novel into the visual medium, Robert Wise’s 1963 film, The Haunting, being, perhaps, the most successful. The effects-laden 1999 adaptation by the same name from director Jan de Bont and starring Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson, and Lili Taylor was one that should not have ever been made. Even Stephen King drew, in part, elements from Jackson’s story in both his novel, Carrie, and in his made-for-television mini-series, Rose Red. So, the question must be, is another attempt at adaptation necessary? The short answer is a resounding no. But hear me out.

The rise of streaming television services such as Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu have given filmmakers a unique playground in which to create—or perhaps more accurately, reboot and/or remake earlier properties. Sometimes, it truly does feel as if Hollywood has lost the ability to imagine new, untried narratives. In some cases, this trend, particularly on network television, has been, at least, successful to a degree—I enjoyed having two more seasons of the X-Files and the time it afforded me to revisit my fondness for the characters of Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. I was skeptical about the return of both MacGyver and Magnum, P.I., as each occupies a special place in my memories of youth and watching the exploits of these two unique characters. I admired them. I wanted to be them. I didn’t want to see their legacies tainted or ruined by thoughtless knock-off imitations. And though the versions of these shows currently airing in prime time today can and will never rival the originals, I have been surprisingly satisfied with the present creators’ faithfulness to the spirit of each show. I might also say the new Magnum, P.I. might be among my favorite shows on television, right now.

The point here is that these dips back into nostalgia have not resulted in the recreation of the same exact shows that aired previously. These are brand new adventures not beholden to or displaying the need or desire to duplicate line-for-line, shot-for-shot, the original episodes. Moreover, in the cases of MacGyver and Magnum, fans are gifted with subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) nods to the predecessors. Reviving old stories can have its place when that revival is accomplished with careful thought and creativity. Adaptations can benefit from the same. Most novels are nearly impossible to recreate accurately in detail and in spirit within the standard two-hours allotted to properties translated in a visual medium. So why even try? The end product will likely never live up to the source and to fans’ appreciation and love for the original.

Which brings me back to The Haunting of Hill House. Writer/director Mike Flanagan, whose other credits include the Netflix original films, Hush and the adaptation of King’s Gerald’s Game, does not set out to recreate the novel. In fact, like SyFy’s The Magicians, this Hill House is built upon an unspoiled foundation. The creators of the adaptation of The Magicians chose to use the original novels upon which the series is based as loose blueprints and grab-bags from which to draw and shape a narrative that, though featuring familiar elements from the novels, stands entirely on its own. To read The Magicians and to watch The Magicians is to experience two unique, yet selectively over-lapping, stories.

This is what the viewer is given with Flanagan’s Hill House. This is not a recreation of the novel—we do not see three strangers arriving at Hill House by invitation of one Dr. Montague in an attempt to observe scientific evidence of the supernatural phenomena for which the house is famous. Flanagan’s approach is one of honoring the original by not attempting to recreate it. This Hill House is a beast entirely removed, yet tastefully drawing upon elements of the novel from which it takes its name.

In other words, this Hill House was not built by Hugh Crain, but tells the story of what happens when he and his wife and children—Steven, Shirley, Theodora, and twins Eleanor and Luke (you will undoubtedly recognize some of these names if you have read the novel)—having recently purchased the property, attempt to renovate Hill House in order to flip it and obtain the money needed to build their dreamt-about “Forever Home.”

The first episode encapsulates essentially many of the climactic events that occur throughout the entire series. From there, each episode typically focuses on a single character and shows portions of the arcs that character or others followed to arrive at those scenes glimpsed in the first episode. Here, Flanagan, episode by episode, builds his story as one would a home, brick-by-brick. We see the Crain family when they occupied Hill House, and we witness the collateral damage of that brief occupation years later. In the present, this is a broken family, undone by the events that took place at Hill House all those years ago. Hill House broke the once-tight familial bonds that held them together, and each of the children—now grown—harbors memories of their time at Hill House that may not be true or that may not reveal accurately the entire story of what broke them apart. Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House is an enticing puzzle that the viewer pieces together episode by episode. The supernatural is more overt and present here than in Jackson’s novel, which presented little in the way of supernatural occurrences. Sometimes Flanagan relies too much on these moments, but episode six is utterly brilliant, a piece of filmmaking contemporary horror directors should examine as a study in creating tension and fear.

For much of the episode, “Two Storms,” Flanagan draws upon the influence of Hitchcock’s direction of Rope. For the majority of its duration, each scene that unfolds in the past, at Hill House, and in the present, at a tragic wake in a funeral home, is captured in one long, fluid take. There are no cutaways or cut-tos. The camera follows the characters, never looking away except to follow another character whose path has intersected the one of the character previous, moving through their respective environments as if it were its own person. The viewer feels the tension as he or she anticipates, dreads, what might enter into the frame. This is horror filmmaking at its finest, and it is the high point of the series.

So, should you watch Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House if you have read the novel or seen one of the earlier adaptations? The simple answer is, yes. This a story that stands alone, on its own, while paying homage with allusions to the classic that came before.

Photo by Nix Boulton on Unsplash

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