"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."

THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Monday, October 15, 2018


FILM AND LITERATURE are two very different mediums, and it is pointless to expect a smooth translation from one to the other.  There are reasons why Arwen was at the Ford of Bruinen rather than Glorfindel in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings; reasons why Mat Hooper doesn't hook up with Ellen Brody in the film adaptation of Jaws; and yes, even reasons why Ozymandias's sinister plan in the cinematic Watchmen doesn't include tentacles.  It's pointless to rail against such things.  Very few films are scene-by-scene faithful to the books that inspired them.

There are a few.  Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby is essentially just the novel put up on the big screen.  Robert Mulligan didn't stray far from Harper Lee for To Kill a Mockingbird.  And in 1963, legendary director Robert Wise did an adaptation of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House under the title, The Haunting.  There have been two subsequent film versions, one in 1999 and now a ten-hour television adaptation for Netflix.  Wise's faithful version is widely considered one of the finest haunted house films ever made.  The two subsequent versions missed the entire point.

Now, I did not object to the complete overhauling of the novel's plot; Jackson's legendary novel is far too short and to the point for a ten-hour binge-worthy Netflix adaptation.  Making the protagonists a family, rather than a collection of strangers brought together to investigate a haunted house, was not on the face of it a bad idea.  Nor was it a bad decision to flash backwards and forwards between the characters as children--when they lived in Hill House and it destroyed their mother--and adults still dealing with the echoes and the fallout of that tragedy.  But when fate has handed you one of the scariest pieces of fiction ever written to work with, you might wish to pay attention to the engine that makes it work. That engine is Hill House itself.

What distinguished Jackson's novel is that we are never really certain if Hill House--despite a reputation for being the "Mount Everest of haunted houses"--is really haunted at all.  Are there ghosts in Hill House?  We never see any.  To borrow a line from H. P. Lovecraft, "What I heard in my youth about the shunned house was merely that people died there in alarmingly great numbers."  That is the essence of Hill House.  People have terrible accidents there.  People kill themselves there.  But the implication is not that specters walk the halls, it is that the house itself is bad. Stephen King understood this, referencing Hill House directly in his 'salem's Lot.  His own Marsten House--like Hill House--holds evil in its "moldering bones."  King, like Jackson, is asking us to consider the possibility that a house, like a human being, can be wrong.

In the novel, and the superb Wise adaptation, there are poundings on the doors, there is writing on the walls.  But not all of the characters hear the poundings, and we are never really sure if it was a ghostly hand or--far worse--one of the characters wrote the words themselves.  To sum the Jackson novel up in the colloquial, Hill House is fucking with their heads.  People died there, but did they actually leave any ghosts?  Not according to Jackson;

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, "not sane," stands "by itself."  Whatever walks there, "walks alone."  The problem with the 1999 adaptation, and now Netflix's, is that the house is not alone.  It is filled to the rafters with ghosts.

Don't get me wrong, the Netflix The Haunting of Hill House is a bit more subtle about it than the 1999 version, and is superior to that one in nearly every way.  Right up until the tenth and final episode you can't be certain the ghosts are real or just hallucinations.  But it is in that final installment that the writers and producers demonstrate they either never fully understood the point of the novel or they simply did not care.  Hill House is bad, yes, but the ghosts are real and some of them are "good."  A husband is reunited with his wife there and they two of them live happily ever after as ghosts forever.  The Dudley's die there so they can live eternally with their child.  And in a rewritten line that is essentially a giant middle finger at Shirley Jackson, "whatever walks there, walks together."

Yes, there are legitimate reasons to rewrite books for films.  The film version of Goldfinger, for example, turns Ian Fleming's daft idea of the ultimate bank robbery into a far more chilling act of terrorism.  Yet despite this change, Goldfinger remains fairly true to the core of the novel.  This Hill House doesn't give a damn about Jackson.  It just wants to cash in on the title.

If you like well-written family drama, if you like uplifting tales of familial love overcoming obstacles, this is a good series for you.  It has genuinely scary moments, and the final revelation of the secret of the "Red Room" is brilliantly done.

But if you were looking for The Haunting of Hill House, go rewatch Robert Wise.    

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