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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Book vs. Netflix Series: The Haunting of Hill House Review

How the show relates to, differs from the book

“The Haunting of Hill House” is a new Netflix original series loosely based on Shirley Jackson’s novel of the same name. The novel, published in 1959, follows a woman named Eleanor “Nell” Vance, who lives unhappily with her sister and brother-in-law after the death of her mother, whom she took care of for many miserable years. Eleanor is excited for a new start when she is invited to live in Hill House along with the future heir Luke Sanderson and the psychic Theodora. The three are lead by researcher Dr. Montague to observe the house and make note of any supernatural occurrences.

The 10-hour Netflix series follows a different plot. Set in the present day, the series features the Crain family as it deals with painful memories of the brief summer they lived at Hill House. Told through flashbacks, the story of the family begins when they move into the house with the goal of renovating and reselling it. Hugh Crain and his wife Olivia raise five young children: Steven, Shirley, Theo, Luke and Nell.

As in Shirley Jackson’s novel, Hill House is undeniably evil, a fact that becomes apparent to some of the Crains faster than others. Though as adults they live far away from one another and Hill House, the house’s malice continues to haunt the Crain family with both literal manifestations and dealings of grief, mental illness and addiction.

While the story of the series diverges greatly from that of the novel, there are several similarities that pay homage to Jackson’s novel. Mike Flanagan, the director of the series, based several of the Crain children on characters from the novel. Like Jackson’s Nell, Nell Crain is the family member mostaffected by Hill House’s ghosts and madness, and both struggle with intense feelings of isolation from the rest of their respective worlds. The Luke in Jackson’s novel is a liar and thief, reflected in the tendency of Flanagan’s Luke to steal money for drugs as an adult.

In her novel, Jackson depicts Theo as selfish, telepathic and possibly lesbian. Flanagan’s Theo wears gloves at all times to thwart her ability to feel the trauma of others through touch and is openly lesbian, though she has issues allowing others to get close.

Dr. Montague also makes an appearance in the series, and the character Shirley Crain is a nod to Shirley Jackson herself.

Some aspects of the adaptation remain more faithful. The form and general appearance of Hill House is left largely unchanged by Flanagan’s series. The house retains its gothic darkness and chaotic design.

“Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more,” begins Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House.” “Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

The same lines are narrated in the Netflix adaptation. Other direct quotes are scattered throughout the series, though sometimes repurposed into new contexts. For example, on her way to Hill House, Jackson’s Crain observes a young girl’s tantrum at a restaurant, silently willing the girl to withstand her parents’ commands.

“Insist on your cup of stars; once they have trapped you into being like everyone else you will never see your cup of stars again; don’t do it,” Eleanor said in “The Haunting of Hill House.”

The same quote is reassigned to Mrs. Dudley in Flanagan’s adaptation, when young Nell discovers the cup and tea set among the old things of Hill House and asks Mrs. Dudley if she can have it.

The Dudleys remain mostly unchanged across the novel and adaptation. In both, the Dudleys clean Hill House, cook for guests and maintain the property, refusing to stay in the house past dark for fear of its pernicious spirits. Interestingly, the Netflix series expands the characters, providing them with their own backstories.

Like Jackson’s novel, Flanagan’s Hill House is haunted in similar ways. There are cold spots scattered throughout the house, violent knocking afflicts the walls and doors and ghostly dogs besiege the property. Though the series utilizes Jackson’s acclaimed psychological terror, ultimately the series relies on jump-scares and graphic depictions of the ghosts themselves.

The ghosts of Flanagan’s Hill House have names, faces and traceable backstories. Jackson’s Hill House is so terrifying because whatever terrorizes its inhabitants is never seen. Jackson’s poetic, intelligent prose sets the haunted house story apart from the rest. Her descriptions and characters offer frightening insight into the darkness of the human condition and evil itself.

The sources of horror in her writing often derive from the internal conflicts and personalities of Jackson’s characters.

In “The Haunting of Hill House,” Eleanor is indecisive, unfulfilled and haunted by the years she spent caring for her mother. She also is subject to anxiety — she constantly worries about being liked by Theodora, Luke and Dr. Montague, and the novel is full of hateful self-deprecation and internal judgement. The increasingly ambiguous distinction between Hill House’s hauntedness and Eleanor’s neuroses contribute to the deeply unsettling quality of Jackson’s novel.

Jackson herself suffered from anxiety and agoraphobia. She had a poor relationship with her mother, who considered her daughter a disappointment and constantly criticized her appearance, weight and writing. Because of her life experiences, it’s no surprise that Jackson’s writing often features women struggling with loneliness, alienation and anxiety that seek to escape from oppressive family situations.

“The Haunting of Hill House” is considered one of the best horror novels ever written and was a finalist for the 1960 National Book Awards. Though it cannot compete with the terror of Shirley Jackson’s novel, the Netflix adaptation is still a riveting series about ghosts and the bonds of family. While Flanagan’s take offers a message of hope and healing, Shirley’s novel provides no such thing, rightfully reveling in its tragedy and despair. Both are worth exploring.

Written by: Cheyenne Wiseman — arts@theaggie.org


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