How Does 'The Haunting Of Hill House' Play In 2018?
The latest adaptation of Shirley Jackson's novel says a lot more about us than it does about what Jackson originally wrote.
In 1959 author Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House was published. A dark and twisted tale open to multiple interpretations, the groundbreaking horror novel has seen three adaptations ⏤ the first in 1963, the next in 1999, and the most recent one coming out this week thanks to Netflix. The streaming service's latest take on the material reveals, as time changes, so does the perception of what Jackson's initial source material means, and that can lead to something far scarier.
With a few changes here and there, The Haunting of Hill House ⏤ in all its forms ⏤ follows a group of people living around the titular, legendary house. This location has been the common denominator in all manners of traumatic deaths, from both suicide to murder. Netflix's incarnation follows the Crain family as they grapple with their past, growing up in Hill House as children.
Almost immediately the new take on Hill House is at odds with both Jackson's original source material and the previous two film adaptations. The previous films follow a group of strangers who come to the house for various reasons and are then terrorized by the ghostly inhabitants living inside. Or are they? A key facet of both Jackson's novel and the films is the mental stability of the protagonist, Eleanor Vance. A recluse who has spent her life caring for her mother, Eleanor is the unreliable narrator whose encounters with the paranormal are either a sign of her sensitivity or her increasing mental instability.
But for Netflix's Hill House, directed and created by Mike Flanagan, the female characters are in service to the new hero, Steven Crain (Michiel Huisman). It is his voice that opens the first episode (out of ten), introducing himself as the writer of a book called The Haunting of Hill House. Though the other characters ⏤ all of whom are taken from Jackson's novel but reconstituted as the Crain children ⏤ receive their own individual episodes and conflicts, the series bookends with Steve. In fact, as the author who has written the definitive tome on the house, he is presented as the architect of the series, the skeptic who must be convinced of the authenticity of the horror in the house.
This is where The Haunting of Hill House loses what makes the source material so special. Author Shirley Jackson was a complicated woman, and The Haunting of Hill House is a novel that can be read about female isolation, the belief in feminine hysteria (at the time), and ultimately about the complex web of emotions that women feel. By transitioning it to a male point of view, the series loses what makes the novel such a groundbreaking feminist text.
Outside of that, The Haunting of Hill House, as Netflix envisions it, is also a far cry from the two film adaptations. The 1963 film, directed by Robert Wise, is a compelling horror movie where tension builds as Eleanor and the rest of the crew become enmeshed in the house's dark history. This isn't to say Flanagan's take is not compelling, but the horror is far more in line with 2018's depictions of what's frightening than what was envisioned in the 1963 version. As opposed to overarching tension, there are loud jump scares, punctuated by music. These are effective, but more in line with modern horror sensibilities than creating a specific, haunting atmosphere. Since the 10 episodes jump between time periods, there's also little building of horror as the series navigates telling the audience about what each Crain child has been doing since their time there.
What The Haunting of Hill House becomes for 2018 audiences is a sympathetic family drama in the vein of This is Us, which is at odds with Jackson's original dark and cerebral tale. Though horror is presented throughout, it is in service towards the Crain children purging their own demons and questioning whether they are affected by the mental illness that killed their mother. In this universe, Eleanor Vance ⏤ the heroine of Jackson's novel ⏤ isn't merely a flawed woman, but extends towards an entire family tree that's possibly corrupted by Hill House.
All of this could yield something new for Jackson's tome, modernizing and extrapolating it, but it remains a strictly male-dominated world. The show's finale returns to Steven's point of view, with him being the one left to hold the keys, metaphorically speaking, to Hill House. The secrets he uncovers are told to remain with him and must never be told to his siblings (including his two sisters). Jackson's feminist novel becomes hijacked by a male secret-keeper, in a world where women, regardless of their relation, can't be trusted with the true mysteries found within Hill House.
This doesn't make Netflix's The Haunting of Hill House bad, per se, but it isn't Jackson's novel and it's a far cry from the 1963 classic. By switching to a male narrator it's hard not to see the series as another female-dominated narrative reconstructed to be led by a man. The emphasis on jump scares also eliminates Jackson's slow-build horror, and focuses on a more hyper-kinetic, overt sense of terror. Again, none of this prevents the show from being entertaining (it is), but it shows how far we've come from Jackson's novel, and what we've lost in the process.