Regular readers will know that I love the work of Shirley Jackson. In 2015 I read and loved her novel The Haunting of Hill House, so I was very intrigued when I heard that there would be a Netflix series based on it. It’s been adapted into a film before, in 1963 and 1999, so I thought perhaps a series would actually be a good way to get deeper into the story and the characters. I really must watch the films (though I know the 1999 version is supposed to be terrible, but it’s got Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta-Jones so I’m sure it’s entertaining).
But as I read a bit more about the new series I quickly realised that rather than an adaptation it was more of a… re-imagining. The showrunner is Mike Flanagan, who has made some really great films like Hush and Oculus, both of which I really enjoyed (especially Hush, it’s really clever and brilliant), so I had quite high expectations, as did my husband who is a big horror fan. Though he hasn’t read The Haunting of Hill House. Anyway. I was still on board, even though Flanagan changed the group of strangers brought to Hill House by a researcher into an actual family, the Crains, who lived in the house. Interesting, but could still work…
But of course as anyone who has seen the show knows, it just becomes its own thing from there really. There are callbacks to the book, and there are several characters based on or named after characters from the book, but really the links are pretty tenuous. I did like that Eleanor was named after the central character of the novel, and both of them have the deepest connection to the house (except perhaps the mother in the series?), and I think that worked ok. There is also Theodora (Theo) who is a bit mysterious in both, and I liked that the series actually made her gay where the novel just implied she was (although that is kind of a can of worms as discussed in this brilliant article). Then there is Luke, who in the novel is part of the family that own the house, though I have to say I don’t remember him being super connected to it, but feel free to correct me. In the series he and Eleanor are twins, and so I think he gets drawn into the house with/through her. I think they also randomly named Eleanor’s therapist in the series Dr Montague, which is the name of the researcher in the novel that brings them all to the house, but that just seemed so weird I’m not going to try and analyse it. One of the sisters is also called Shirley but that is a WHOLE OTHER THING, grouped in with the character of Steven.
One of the big changes that I read a lot about is the fact that the writing side of the story is given to a male character, Steven. The famous opening paragraph of the novel is a masterclass in Jackson’s spare and beautiful prose, and it gets hold of you straight away. In the series, this paragraph is used in a voice-over at the opening of the first episode, read by Steven, and it’s revealed that in the series this is from his book on Hill House, called The Haunting of Hill House, that he wrote about his family’s experience living there. I mean. There are several things here. I’m not sure why they felt the need for his book to have the same title, though I get that his writing about their life is a big plot device used throughout. But the main issue is that he is the writer. Why should Jackson’s brilliant words be given to a man? Especially when there is a character named Shirley? Who is a woman? It just makes no sense to me. It also doesn’t help that Steven is a terrible character who is awful to everyone and should just go away.
There are a lot of good things about the series. The plotting and storytelling is excellent, as is the use of the two timelines and how they are edited together. The actual house and the sets are all excellent and brilliantly used, with just the right amount of creepiness and atmosphere. Mrs and Mrs Dudley, the house’s caretakers, are also well used, apart from the weird story line with their children but that’s another issue… I loved the character of Eleanor and her story really resonated with me. My husband and I were bawling our eyes out by the end of the episode focused on her (episode 5, The Bent-Neck Lady), and the actress who played her, Victoria Pedretti, was wonderful and very well cast. I was also really impressed with episode 6, Two Storms, which brilliantly explored the family’s issues and relationships while also looking incredible with a couple of really long tracking shots that were just amazing.
Regardless of the connections and differences to the novel, The Haunting of Hill House is a brilliantly made but flawed show. It is unrelentingly grim and utterly sad, and watching more than two episodes in a row would be overwhelming. It is a bit overblown. Also I wish they had explored the story of the Hill family a bit more, whose ghosts appear to the Crains in the house and who would clearly be interesting if further investigated. I also had very mixed feelings about most of the Crain family as characters. While they all had good moments (apart from Steven, just blanket awfulness) I think I only actually liked Eleanor and Luke. I think I found them the most interesting, along with the father, Hugh. He has different memories, and actual knowledge, about the house from his children, so their dynamic was very interesting, and I think his character was well constructed and well used.
So, a very mixed bag. My main thought on the show now is that while I appreciate that Jackson’s novel is obviously great source material, I just don’t get why Flanagan didn’t just make a series with an original story about a family and a haunted house. I couldn’t help but thin that maybe he missed something about the novel when I read that he didn’t think a straight adaptation was possible. That doesn’t seem to make sense to me.
It’s been a week or so since my husband and I finished watching the series and I’m glad I left a bit of time to digest it before I wrote this post – right afterwards I had so many thoughts about it that if I had written about it then I would have rambled on even longer than I have here. So I thank you if you have stayed with me this far! I’m experimenting with writing about things other than book reviews, so I’ll see how this post lands and go from there. Thank you for reading. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this adaptation.
The Haunting of Hill House is on Netflix worldwide now. The novel is available from Foyles, Blackwell’s, Wordery, and I’m sure plenty of other retailers.