Sorry, Ms. Jackson: How Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House Falls Short of Its Source Material
(Disclaimer: Complete, major spoilers follow for both Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House and the television adaptation by Mike Flanagan currently running on Netflix. Go away NOW if this bothers you.)
My two favourite writers are Flannery O’ Connor and Shirley Jackson, which is probably a little like saying my two favourite ice cream flavours are chocolate chip and mint chocolate chip. The two have a lot in common. They were contemporaries. Both were masters of the short story form, both probed the darker and more uncomfortable aspects of human nature in their work, and both died early: O’Connor in August 1964 from lupus at the age of 39, Jackson in August 1965 from heart failure at the age of 48. Both received little recognition while alive but have been heavily anthologised in American high school and undergraduate literature courses. If you’re American, it’s unlikely you made it through your education without encountering either O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find or Jackson’s The Lottery.
Both women were also outsiders. O’Connor was a devout Roman Catholic in Protestant Georgia, and her specialty was grotesque characters. Jackson, a California native who settled in small-town Vermont, worked more with grotesque situations. Both used deceptively simple language to lure readers in to complex webs of disaster, and both were utterly without sentimentiality. Jackson was definitely funnier, which gives her the edge in my book.
Jackson is also the one who’s having a moment: if you pay attention to prestige television at all (and if you like storytelling, you should, as there’s so much good stuff out there), you will have noticed that there is a new 10-episode adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix right now. Hill House, Jackson’s 1959 novel, is both an absorbing, chilling psychological thriller and a damn good haunted-house story. It was nominated for the 1960 National Book Award, the only one of Jackson’s works to even brush against this kind of acclaim. Stephen King directly cites it as a major influence on his writing, including The Shining and, more directly, the television miniseries Rose Red.
Hill House has been adapted as a feature film in 1963 and again in 1999 prior to this new imagining. And I do mean a new imagining: aside from the setting and some character names, there is almost nothing about this adaptation which is original to Jackson’s novel. And I’m fine with that—in theory.
Digression: Adaptations as Evolutions
Mere differences, or even a complete overhaul of the story’s time period or characters, aren’t by themselves a problem for me. As someone who writes both screen/teleplays and fiction, I have somewhat of a grasp on the different needs of printed and visual media. As with an organism in evolutionary biology, a story needs to suit to its environment to survive. But it should also maintain a certain essential fidelity to its source.
This essential fidelity is kind of hard to pin down in a simple rule, but I will try: to maintain essential fidelity to their sources, literary adaptations should preserve whatever stimulates the strongest emotional response in the reader. This isn’t something that’s easy to objectively quantify. It can cover several factors about the work being adapted, from characterization to setting to theme.
Essential Fidelity to Shirley Jackson's Hill House - Four Major Characteristics to Maintain
So what is most memorable about Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House, and how does the Netflix adaptation fail or succeed on adapting those factors for the screen? I’ll summarize both briefly so you can compare and contrast. Again, SPOILERS.
Eleanor (“Nell”) Vance has just buried her domineering, bullying mother after spending eleven years nursing her through illness. Resentful at spending much of her young adulthood in seclusion with a sick old woman, chafing at living with her unpleasant sister’s family, Nell jumps at an invitation from paranormal psychologist Dr. Montague to take part in an investigation at the reputedly haunted Hill House. She steals her sister’s car to drive north, joining Dr. Montague along with Theodora, a bohemian artist (who is also implicitly a lesbian—racy stuff for 1959), and Luke Sanderson, a charming young man who is due to inherit Hill House in the future.
In Hill House, all four of the occupants learn tantalizingly dark hints about the life of the house’s founder, Hugh Crain, and experience terrifying phenomena: things that bang on the walls at night, disembodied voices, words written in blood that appear from nowhere. These phenomena seem to impact Nell the most—indeed, it’s her name that is found written in red on the walls, and she soon stops cowering at the night noises in favour of getting up to join in making them.
After Luke saves Nell from leaping to her death off a spiral staircase in the library, Dr. Montague insists she has to leave for her own safety. Whether she’s having a breakdown after her years of seclusion or being “worked on” by supernatural agents is never quite clear.
By this time attached to (or possessed by) Hill House and unable to face the prospect of freedom from it, Nell deliberately crashes her car into an oak tree in the driveway as she is leaving and dies.
The novel ends with Jackson’s famous coda: “Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”
The Netflix Series
The five Crain siblings (Stephen, Shirley, Theodora, twins Luke and Nell) are all marked by a summer they spent in sinister Hill House twenty years earlier—a summer which ended with their beloved mother Olivia’s apparent suicide. Over the course of the series, we see the events of that summer from each sibling’s perspective.
The narrative circles around the terrifying events of their final night in Hill House, when their father piled the children into a car to flee, and their mother plunged to her death from a spiral staircase in the library. Was she experiencing a psychotic break, or was she driven to her actions by malign forces within the house? Only Hugh knows, and he won’t tell his kids.
When Nell Crain returns to the ruin of Hill House as an adult and hangs herself, the surviving siblings and their father reunite to reckon with the forces which have haunted them—in some cases, literally—all their lives.
Nell's twin Luke, now a troubled addict in the early stages of recovery, flees Nell’s funeral to burn Hill House down. The remaining Crains follow, and in a confrontation with spirits inside the house, they learn the truth about that last night decades before: under the influence of a crazed ghost, their mother nearly killed the twins and actually killed the daughter of the house’s caretakers.
But Olivia Crain, along with the caretakers’ daughter and the late lamented Nell, lives on in ghostly form within its decaying walls. These spirits can be spoken to! They can forgive and be forgiven! Love endures beyond the grave! The series ends with novelist sibling Steven declaring “Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and those who walked there, walked together.”
Which is terrible, but more about that later.
I’m not the first commentator to observe that this re-imagining is basically This Is Us with a few more family corpses (though not enough of them). I am probably the first to observe that there are ways this basic re-imagining could have been tweaked to make it less underwhelming and more resonant with Jackson’s original themes—the homage that showrunner Mike Flanagan clearly wanted it to be.
I would say there are four major points Flanagan could have brought back into alignment for better essential fidelity:
Re-centering women as the narrators
Making characters less likeable, particularly the mother
Dialing the CGI and ghost interaction wayyyy back
Not comforting the audience
There are other issues with the adaptation (Where are the early 90s fashions? Can’t anyone in this family just have a simple conversation? Why does Olivia Crain wear wedge heels as bedroom slippers?). These four, for me, are the big ‘uns. Let’s break it down.
Put Women Back at the Center
“But there are three women in the sibling group and only two men!” you cry. “And one of them is so sexy and badass and has actual magic powers and should have her own series!” Fair points, but Steven is the main character. And while it’s fine that he’s also an asshole, it’s not fine that Flanagan decided what this adaptation of a woman’s novel really needed was a man to explain it all to us.
I’m not sure I agree that this choice effectively erases Shirley Jackson, as Holly Green argues in Paste Magazine, but I do agree with Abigail Nussbaum's observation in Strange Horizons that this choice turns the story, which can be read as a metaphor for women's repression, into one about "men who have failed women".
So despite the abundance of women characters, Steven is the most important person. He’s the skeptic in the group, and the one who, along with the viewer, has to be convinced about the ghostly goings-on. Much of the dramatic tension in the series centers around whether Steven will finally accept that something supernatural happened to his family instead of writing it off as hereditary mental illness. Hell, his voiceover even opens and closes the story.
This could easily fixed by swapping his role and occupation with that of the second sibling, Shirley, who is, you know, named for the author. Also? Elizabeth Reaser (as adult Shirley) is a better actor than Michiel Huisman (as adult Steven).
Meanwhile, Nell, the novel’s main character, gets downgraded to a plot device in the series. Unlike the other siblings, she doesn’t seem to have a job; she’s merely there to react prettily to what happens to her until it all becomes too much and she hangs herself. It’s her suicide that sets the rest of the story in motion: a twist on the fridging trope, with elements of the Lost Lenore. You could call her a panicked pixie dream girl.
And that speaks to my next issue with this adaptation: everyone is just so fucking sweet. Sure, they’re damaged, but if they solve the reasons behind that damage, they can all hug it out at the end, right?
Don’t Default to Sympathetic
This nicey-niceness in the characters is also a failure of essential fidelity on the part of Mike Flanagan. Jackson's characters always had a sharp edge in them that was there independent of anything that had happened to them. But aside from one outburst at her brother Stephen, the Nell Crain of the adaptation is completely unselfish toward and supportive of her siblings—Papa Hugh dwells on this at great length at her wake, describing how Nell would write letters to Santa asking for gifts for the others, not herself.
Compare this to how Nell is introduced in chapter one of the book:
“Eleanor Vance was thirty-two years old when she came to Hill House. The only person in the world she genuinely hated, now that her mother was dead, was her sister. She disliked her brother-in-law and her five-year-old niece, and she had no friends.”
This is not a beautiful soul tragically stained by her haunted childhood. This is an adult woman, albeit a resentful and emotionally stunted one. She’s lonely, awkward, and even a little desperate for something to happen in her life. This makes her the perfect target for the malign influences at work in the “vile, diseased” Hill House: Here you will belong! Here is a place of your very own, if you just surrender!
The major theme of Nell’s life in the novel—complicated loyalty towards toxic family members—could very well have been incorporated into the 2018 adaptation. All these Crain children had a mother, after all.
Parental Resentment – A Theme of Jackson’s Work and Life
I wish Mike Flanagan had had the guts to make Olivia Crain mean. Not just a “sensitive” creative type who gets convinced by a flapper’s ghost to poison her youngest children in a shocking act that’s totally out of character, but a person with an actual nasty streak.
The elements were there. Olivia is an architect/decorator who flits from house to house so she can re-decorate and flip them, which shows a certain mercenary instinct. She drags her brood along with her on these adventures, and doesn’t seem to worry about the potential negative impact this peripatetic existence might have on them. She gets blinding headaches. She has FIVE FUCKING KIDS. She could easily have toggled between the sweetness-and-light supermom and something darker and more cutting. Something that would have engendered resentment in her children (and guilt about that resentment) as well as a powerful sense of complicated loss.
This would have been a better choice for dramatic purposes as well as for my pet idea of essential fidelity—Nell Vance in Jackson’s novel genuinely hated her mother, but also feels guilt about her mother’s death and about her inability to selflessly serve her while she was alive.
It would also have resonated with Shirley Jackson's own life: she herself was a mother of four who managed the household and supported the family while writing. She also abused alcohol and prescription drugs to cope with the pressure of being the breadwinner and her husband's numerous infidelities with his students.
Most important of all, Shirley Jackson had a fraught relationship with her own mother, who had very specific ideas about how her daughter’s life should have been lived, and disapproved of the way her daughter actually lived it. Joyce Carol Oates, writing about Ruth Franklin’s excellent biography of Jackson a few years ago in the New York Review of Books, focuses on this:
“On the occasion of the success of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, [Jackson’s mother] Geraldine had no congratulations for her daughter but could only complain about Jackson’s picture in Time:
'Why do you allow the magazines to print such awful pictures of you…for your children’s sake—and your husband’s…. I have been so sad all morning about what you have allowed yourself to look like…. You were and I guess still are a very wilful child….'
Jackson was forty-six at the time.”
Examples of escaping or killing difficult mothers abound in Jackson’s stories. Making Olivia Crain a more difficult, more selfish woman rather than one tragically susceptible to suggestions from scheming flappers’ ghosts would have woven this thread through the television adaptation. It wouldn't have recreated the plot points of Jackson's original, but it would certainly have rhymed with them better.
But maybe Flanagan was just daunted by the prospect of having to write a compelling mother-child dynamic when there are two other shows that have mastered it already: Bojack Horseman and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
A Little Less CGI
There are some visual flourishes in the Netflix adaptation that I really love. The ghost that comes back for its hat in episode four genuinely freaked me out. It’s also fun to play spot-the-ghost: Flanagan has them stashed in various hiding places on the Hill House set while the main actors emote at one another, and when you catch a glimpse of one it provides an enjoyable distraction from the child actors’ child acting. And while Jackson’s insistence on not giving any of her Hill House spooks physical form is a key part of creating terror in the novel, it’s inevitable that in a ten-hour visual story, you’re going to need to show some actual ghosts in the actual haunted house.
However, laying on the jump scares and the CGI storms so thickly (and relying so much on that chatty fucking dead flapper, oh my God) really makes it obvious to us far too soon in the story that there are real ghosts here, and that there isn’t just a strain of psychosis in the Crain stock as brother Steven keeps insisting.
Jackson is able to maintain that tension between what’s truly supernatural and what’s the result of a character’s breakdown right up to the final paragraphs, when Nell Vance smashes her sister’s car into that ill-fated oak tree. Flanagan…isn’t. And that lack of a more subtle touch means viewers like me spend a lot of time wishing someone would just sit Steven the fuck down and have a short, two-minute conversation with him (one of Roger Ebert’s examples of the “idiot plot”), without having to rely on a lot of metaphorical guff about “witness marks” the way Hugh does when he eventually tries.
An approach to the ghosts that relied a little more on sound and a little less on imagery, as with Robert Wise’s 1963 adaptation, would have been even creepier.
Don’t Comfort the Audience
The end of the adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House includes a montage set to an acoustic guitar ballad. In this montage, we see the wounded made hale and whole, lovers reconciled, a previously barren wife pregnant, and an old couple dying peacefully as a vision of their lost children appear before them. And over this, an actor best-known for banging Daenerys Targaryen burbles about love and togetherness, and how death is not the end. It’s all very heartwarming and bittersweet, and therefore total bullshit as an ending to a Shirley Jackson adaptation.
When Shirley Jackson’s stories end, you don’t feel it in your heart, unless what you feel is something sharp between the third and fourth ribs. You feel unsettled. You feel like you’ll be sitting up for a while, wondering not whether ghosts are real, but whether everyone you met in the street that day is capable of the kinds of things Shirley Jackson’s characters do. You’ll wonder whether you yourself are on the brink of a Nell Vance moment, or a Merricat Blackwood moment, or whether you would be content to find some round, smooth stones to take to a gathering in the village square.
Think of The Lottery’s last sentence:
“It isn't fair, it isn't right,” Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.
It’s absolutely pitiless. Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House has many flaws (any story does), but its ending is where the lack of essential fidelity to its source turns to actual vandalism, where Flanagan flips from writing a story about children to one for them. In a truly Jacksonian universe, no matter how far the details are removed from her original plot and characters, the House should always win.
“Shirley Jackson in Love and Death” – Joyce Carol Oates, New York Review of Books, October 2016
"How Netflix's The Haunting of Hill House Betrays Shirley Jackson" – Holly Green, Paste Magazine, October 2018
"Whatever Walked There, Walked Alone: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson" – Brit Mandelo, Tor.com, December 2016
“The Lottery” – Shirley Jackson, The New Yorker, June 1948
And Another Thing
It's entirely possible one of the things that makes me bitter about The Haunting of Hill House adaptation is that it features a pair of twins in which the sister is called Eleanor and the brother's a heroin addict. I have a pair of twins like this in my TV series Distance. Eff Em Ell, as the kids say.