When We Mess With a Good Thing: Adaptations Haunting Hill House

Just recently, it was announced that Netflix ordered a series based on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. 

My first reaction: Yay!

Second reaction: Why, god, why?

Third reaction: Is it here yet?

The Haunting of Hill House is my favorite novel of all time and if you ask me about it, I will tell you all about Shirley Jackson’s spare, impactful prose, kaleidoscopic characters and overall brilliance.

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There have been two film adaptations of the book. Now there will be a Netflix TV series helmed by the director of the sequel to Ouija (your classic horror film based on board game fare), the fun-bad Oculus, and a couple of better-received films, Absentia and Hush. 

I am of two minds about this project. Since I can’t decided if I am happier than I am sad, I made a pros and cons list to assist me in my decision making process.

PRO: Jan De Bont is not directing. 

In 1999, a  wholly superfluous remake of The Haunting was directed by Jan De Bont. His previous films included two “hits,” Speed and Twister before he devoted the remainder of his directorial career, so far, to a superfluous remake and two superfluous sequels: Speed 2 and Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life. Can I emphasize the word “superfluous?”

De Bont’s foray into horror included dumbing down all the nuances that characterized the original, adding a metric crap-ton of special effects, and basically shitting over everything that was good about the original. The result was a mediocre film with a surprisingly better than average cast (Lili Taylor, Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta Jones, Owen Wilson…well, mostly better than average.)

I’m not gonna lie. The film scared me when I first watched it. I was also 14 years old and watching it by myself, so. The greatest gift that film gave me was an interest in the source material. I would eventually read the book and come to love it, despising the travesty that the remake inflicted on Jackson’s masterpiece.

CON: Robert Wise is NOT directing it. 

The first adaptation of Haunting was released in 1963 and directed by Robert Wise, whose ouvre consists of some strange bedfellows, including The Sound of Music and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Besides introducing some revolutionary sound editing in The Haunting, he managed to distill the subtleties of Jackson’s story and characterizations, in particular the complicated Eleanor and her fragile state of mind, and create a film that was scarier for not knowing what was on the other side of the door.

Sadly, Wise is no longer with us, and his vision of Jackson’s great novel draws an even starker contrast between the original material and De Bont’s abomination. Wise’s The Haunting represents for me, that elusive book-nerd unicorn, the perfect book-to-movie adaptation.

PRO: TV today is so freaking good!

Forget your Walking Deads. Forget your American Horror Stories. A newer, better brand of TV horror is reinventing old standards, from Hannibal and Bates Motel to the upcoming Twin Peaks and The Mist, there’s a revolution taking place in television. Netflix and Amazon have thrown their hats in the ring, and it’s made for better TV. Sure, there’s some mediocre horror shows floating around out there (did we really need MTV’s Scream ?) but it’s a promising trend.

CON: The temptation of the cheap scare

The most jarring difference between the two film adaptations of Haunting is the use of special effects and cheap scares. Whereas the original used effects sparingly, to enhance the story, in the remake, the philosophy is basically “throw all the shit at the wall and see what sticks.” In 1963, the SFX was limited to camera angles and sound effects. Shadows and reaction shots, implication and POV was used, often to great effect, because there was no CGI. Now CGI is cheap, a shortcut to easy scares. My fear is the director might resort to these cheap shots because “that’s what the audience wants.” Maybe that assumption is right, but I hope for better.

PRO: The slow burn

The Haunting of Hill House is a slim novel that packs a rich story with fully realized characters and a deliberately paced plot. This GQ article describes the novel as a “tense, almost unbearable book at times.” The format of TV allows the full slow burn to bring shades and nuance to Haunting that can’t necessarily be accomplished in a two-hour film.

CONCLUSION?

A peculiar aspect of rabid bookish fandom is that we as readers tend to freak out when our beloved books are adapted in a film/TV format, even though the majority of the time we know our expectations are just setting us up for bitter disappointment. We sit there with our “The Book was Better” flashcards even when the movie/show turns out to be pretty good.

In a way, we are preemptively ruined by the book. Primed to critique. Because at the bottom of our fanaticism is hope, hope for a perfect distillation of perfection. Will this time be “the one?” If not, there’s always next time.

Unless you’re a Dune superfan. In that case, you’re screwed.

 

 

 

 

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