I remember reading Shirley Jackson’s gothic horror novel, The Haunting Of Hill House, over a hot and humid summer weekend in Seoul, South Korea. Instantly, I was transported to a crisp, autumn day in a hilly, remote, forested region of the United States.
"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,” the opening lines read. “Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood 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.”
Mike Flanagan’s series, of the same name, opens with the same lines. When I learned that Netflix were adapting the novel, I couldn’t wait to get lost again in Hill House. If that sounds claustrophobic, it is, but there’s something strangely compelling about being thrown into the darkness and watching the shadows with caution. The novel achieves a subtle terror uncommon in genre fiction; it claws at your insecurities and deepest fears, and makes you doubt yourself – are you paranoid, or is this really happening? Am I, the reader, losing my sanity, like the shy protagonist Eleanor Vance, or is there really something lurking in the shadows?
I wondered how the adaptation would translate Eleanor’s fearful introspection to screen; though challenging, it could be doable. But director Flanagan had other ideas for what has turned out to be a rather loose adaptation, which begins with a new character called Steven Crain reading those opening lines of The Haunting Of Hill House, against the backdrop of the dark house bathed in moonlight. He exchanges one clause for: “It had stood so for a hundred years before my family moved in… and might stand a hundred more.”
Why are the chilling opening lines of the Netflix series – and all direct novel quotes to come – not attributed to their creator, Shirley Jackson, but instead given to a fictional male author?
Immediately, we are introduced to our apparent – and male – protagonist, the fictional author Crain, who claims Jackson’s words as his own. His name is reminiscent of another American author of genre fiction, Stephen King. But why are the chilling opening lines of the Netflix series — and all direct novel quotes to come — not attributed to their creator, Jackson, but instead given to a fictional male author? Why is this even a plot device? And where is Eleanor?
Last year, Flanagan adapted King’s novel Gerald’s Game into a film and, in some ways, this series also feels more like a King novel than something from the haunted mind of Jackson. Instead of a female lead, we have a man speaking on behalf of his family. The story he tells feels out of touch with Jackson’s tone and spirit. In strange homage to Jackson’s novel, Flanagan’s characters are named after Jackson’s – Nelly, after the lead, Eleanor – and one of the daughters is called Shirley, after Jackson. (Although, spoiler alert: Flanagan doesn’t hasten to kill off the women.)
In Jackson’s novel, it’s unclear whether what we’re seeing is madness — as with many real mental-health conditions, it seems Eleanor has her own rational system for interpreting the world around her. Within that system, her perception and responses seem reasonable. In Flanagan’s adaptation, we see female characters fall into fits of hysterical, unexplained insanity, portrayals of mental illness that are potentially damaging and might add to the stigma.
In her lifetime, Jackson struggled to be taken seriously as a writer. Her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, a literary critic and teacher, hogged the limelight, while Jackson appeared to be just another housewife, albeit a strange one who claimed to be a writer. Even now, her entire life’s work is often reduced to a single strong short story, The Lottery, or her essays on parenting for women’s magazines. In 2009, the literary critic Harold Bloom asserted that Jackson may not even be worthy of the literary canon.
Ruth Franklin’s biography of Jackson, A Rather Haunted Life, helped renew interest in the author, who is slowly entering our collective imagination and university curricula. A film about an episode in Jackson’s life, Shirley, is in production and Jackson will be portrayed by Elisabeth Moss. Last month, another adaptation, of Jackson’s novel We Have Always Lived In The Castle, premiered at the LA Film Festival. And authors continue to be inspired by Jackson, including the likes of Carmen Maria Machado, Joyce Carol Oates, Joanne Harris, Neil Gaiman and Richard Matheson.
The Netflix adaptation might be a fun thing to binge-watch in the lead-up to Halloween, but, during the festivities, let’s not forget this is Jackson’s story, not Stephen Crain’s. At least, the title, the setting and the unsettling opening lines are Jackson’s, but the rest feels more like a family drama dressed up for the season. Disappointingly, the subtlety and psychological terror of the original novel are lost, making way for the TV adaptation’s jump scares and explicit horror.
I’m all for adaptations where the original is used as source material to inspire something new, but this feels more like appropriation than an inspired adaptation. It’s also a missed opportunity to showcase a female writer who took risks, an author who is only recently getting the well overdue attention she deserves. Now is the time to pick up Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting Of Hill House and immerse yourself in the author’s haunted mind. I’m certain Jackson’s words, and world, will linger with you for many (sleepless) nights to come.