The 2018 Netflix series adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House (1959) has garnered significant acclaim, with a 93% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Jackson’s novel is a slim volume, coming in at only around 200 pages in an average edition. The series itself turns this into ten episodes, ranging in length from 42 to 70 minutes. It is clear, then, that there will be a great deal of extra material in the adaptation, a matter of expansion rather than condensation.
Indeed, the film is not a traditional adaptation, if we take Linda Costanzo Cahir’s definition of the traditional adaptation as one which
maintained the overall traits of the book (its plot, settings, and certain stylistic conventions), but revamped particular details as the filmmakers saw fit. (Literature into Film: Theory and Practical Approaches, McFarland, 2006, Kindle loc. 348)
The Netflix adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House has a basic plot of a psychic researcher inviting a small group of people to inhabit a notorious haunted house for a certain period, leading to apparent manifestations of supernatural activity centring around one of the inhabitants (Eleanor/Nell), whose mental health undergoes a rapid deterioration. Almost the entire novel, aside from flashback episodes, takes place in the space of less than a week. The serial, focalised on a family who move around because of their parents’ jobs as fixer-uppers and end up in a possibly haunted house, definitely doesn’t retain the novel’s plot in an overall sense, and the setting only partially.
The setting within which the plot takes place is widened. For Jackson, all the action after the first chapter takes place in Hill House or on the grounds thereof. That lends a claustrophic feel from which the novel derives much of its power. The famous opening paragraph of the novel immediately foregrounds Hill House itself, and adds some anthropomorphic elements which become a feature:
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. 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. 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.
Hill House, then, is not sane, and as such, is human. The actual physical description of Hill House begins in the first paragraph of Chapter Two:
No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house, and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice. Almost any house, caught unexpectedly or at an odd angle, can turn a deeply humorous look on a watching person; even a mischievous little chimney, or a dormer like a dimple, can catch up a beholder with a sense of fellowship; but a house arrogant and hating, never off guard, can only be evil. This house, which seemed somehow to have formed itself, flying together into its own powerful pattern under the hands of its builders, fitting itself into its own construction of lines and angles, reared its great head back against the sky without concession to humanity.
Hill House evinces watchfulness, glee, arrogance, hatred, evil. Not only is it upsetting and frightening in its anthropomorphism, but it is terrifying geometrically:
Eleanor shook herself, turning to see the room complete. It had an unbelievably faulty design which left it chillingly wrong in all its dimensions, so that the walls seemed always in one direction a fraction longer than the eye could endure, and in another direction a fraction less than the barest possible tolerable length.
In Chapter Four, Dr Montague confirms that the house is not quite right geometrically. It was built that way:
Have you not wondered at our extreme difficulty in finding our way around? An ordinary house would not have had the four of us in such confusion for so long, and yet time after time we choose the wrong doors, the room we want eludes us. […]
Every angle is slightly wrong. Hugh Crain must have detested other people and their sensible squared-away houses, because he made his house to suit his mind. Angles which you assume are the right angles you are accustomed to, and have every right to expect are true, are actually a fraction of a degree off in one direction or another. I am sure, for instance, that you believe that the stairs you are sitting on are level, because you are not prepared for stairs which are not level—”
They moved uneasily, and Theodora put out a quick hand to take hold of the balustrade, as though she felt she might be falling.
“—are actually on a very slight slant toward the central shaft; the doorways are all a very little bit off centre—that may be, by the way, the reason the doors swing shut unless they are held…”
It’s not just Eleanor’s possibly skewed perception. It all adds up to a seriously powerful setting. We can easily engage with the idea that Eleanor will find it difficult to escape Hill House. Even to the reader, Hill House provides a heady mix of dizzying geometry and emotional overload.
The serial uses the setting of Hill House, and some of Jackson’s words, but it also sets extensive action in other locales, ranging from a drug treatment centre to a funeral parlour. Some episodes steer almost entirely clear of Hill House.
Jackson’s novel follows the four characters gathered in Hill House: Dr Montague, Eleanor, Theodora and Luke. There are a few bit-part characters in the early sections, most notably in terms of dramatic relevance Eleanor’s sister; there is a little of Mrs Dudley and a single appearance by Mr Dudley; and in the latter part there is the introduction of Dr Montague’s wife and her friend Arthur. It is worth noting that in the highly regarded and generally faithful 1963 film adaptation of the book, entitled The Haunting, Arthur is omitted, and certainly his absence does not leave any hole in the plot, nor does it seem to have been much lamented by reviewers. In the book, he and Mrs Montague come in as essentially comic relief, and, while they do not detract from the power of the novel, they are perhaps its most forgettable and narratively inessential element.
In the Netflix series there is a greatly expanded cast of characters. Almost all of the original characters are there, nominally at least. The main exception is Dr Montague, a character central to Jackson’s plot, as without him and his paranormal research, there is no gathering at Hill House. But he (as well as Mrs Montague and Arthur) is missing.
But rather than a faithful adaptation of Jackson’s characters, we have really only a nominal adaptation. We have a character called Nell, but it is not clear that she has anything to do with the supposed original. Jackson’s Eleanor/Nell is a woman in her 30s: her background is one of an adult life spent nursing her mother, who has died recently; her only other relative is her sister, who she dislike; she has no friends and no job. Her personality is deeply shy, crippingly self-conscious, achingly lonely. None of this can be mapped on to Netflix Nell, who is much younger, of a totally different family background and life experience, and not apparently afflicted by any of the painful self-consciousness that is the defining trait of Jackson’s Nell. Both Nells are indeed very sensitive, but their different makers had contrasting ideas of what it means to be sensitive.
Almost all of the main characters have Jacksonian names. One of them is called Shirley. This is, clearly enough, a reference of sorts to the novel, but, also clearly, not to a character in he novel, but to its author. Similarly, there is a book called The Haunting of Hill House in the series, but it is not written by the character called Shirley. Instead Shirley is merely a character therein. This book is not a novel, either, but a factual account of events that occurred to the series’ characters, written by one of them – Steven Crain. Again, the name Crain is a reference to the family who built the house in the novel, but Steven Crain is not a character from the novel. The funeral parlour is called Harris, a reference not to the novel or to Jackson, exactly, but to the actress who played Nell in the first film, Julie Harris. Recognition of this reference demands knowledge not only of the novel, but of other related media content.
So, what we get in The Haunting of Hill House is not a traditional adaptation taking plot, setting and character from its source. Rather it is a work which creates an original plot, and makes a point of sewing it with a plethora of intriguing but non-structural references to the work indicated by its title. Watching it, I was often struck by the idea that if the series simply changed the names, it would not have to acknowledge Jackson’s novel as a source at all, as it is barely more reminiscent of the novel as it is of various other works in the genre.
As such, The Haunting of Hill House reminds me of such recent adaptations as the series Sherlock, which presents itself clearly as an adaptation, but takes neither the setting nor the plots from the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle. Instead, it sews the episodes with references to the putative source, Easter eggs (I called them “canonical indicators” in my post on this element of Sherlock) for the discerning viewer who is familiar with the source. An Easter egg is defined by Urban Dictionary as “A hidden item placed in a movie, television show, or otherwise visual media for close watchers.” Thus the knowing viewer garners by recognition of the hidden item a surplus enjoyment unavailable to the unknowing viewer. Yet at a characterological level, Sherlock does definitely owe its central characters to Doyle, so it is still closer to a traditional adaptation than The Haunting of Hill House.
For works of canonical literature, like Doyle’s, or semi-canonical, like Jackson’s, the traditional adaptation may be dying. What is replacing it is the Easter Egg Adaptation, which delights the reader-viewer with oblique references to the pseudo-source, and caters to the viewing-viewer by presenting a story where, at the structural level, the contemporary trumps the classical. Because Easter eggs are at the level of detail rather than structure, the makers are not bound by fidelity. Because adaptations have a specific (series of) reference point(s), they are more suited to the Easter egg approach than other films. Thus Jackson’s story of lonely and desperate individuality can rather easily become a triumphant story of the working through of troubled family relationships. The ultimate demonstration of this is in the closing voiceover from Steven Crain:
Hill House, not sane, stands against its hills, holding darkness within. It has stood so for a hundred years, and might stand a hundred more. Within, walls continue upright, bricks meet neatly, floors are firm, and doors are sensibly shut. Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House. And those who walk there, walk together.
It is that final line which is most significant, substituting walk together for Jackson’s walked alone. A precise inversion of meaning at the final moment. Appropriating the solemn affect of Jackson’s prose in order to tell a human story which is revealed to be the exact opposite of the novel, which is nevertheless clearly referenced. From individuality to family connection, from tragedy to triumph, from horror to love. (“Love”, Steven piously notes just before this, “is the relinquishment of logic […]. Without it, we cannot continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.” Taken word-for-word, these are almost exactly Jackson’s words; nevertheless, the sentiment is entirely different.)
What this Easter Egg adaptation wants from its source are moments, and the recurrence of isolated references which provide a viewing pleasure in themselves. What it doesn’t need are the specifics of Jackson’s plot, and what it steers far away from is the Jackson worldview of individuals living their personal tragedies alone, barely noticed and unredeemed.