Philip Pullman describes trying to remember a dream as the delicate operation of watching something out of the corner of your eye without looking at it head-on. You can’t deal with it literally or directly; handling it too roughly sends the deep-down meaning of it shivering away. To me, the process of paying artistic homage looks very similar.
As we know from this year’s strained adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time, the magic of books is a difficult thing to translate to magic on the big screen. This is especially true for books like L’Engle’s where the magic of the story lives both in the story and between the lines. Authors like L’Engle set a high bar of entry for adaptation of their work: it’s called inimitable for a reason. Despite our bastion of CGI effects and ever-expanding visual culture, the intricacies of wonder and terror in stories like A Wrinkle in Time, The Golden Compass, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy all wander elsewhere before they can be captured on screen. Shirley Jackson is one of these authors whose writing acts as a willo-the-wisp to lead readers out of their world and into hers. Setting out to adapt an author whose spellbinding magic lives in the language itself is not an easy task to set yourself. But it’s one that The Haunting of Hill House understands.
The Netflix adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House, from creator Mike Flanagan, conquered October streaming with social media buzz and unsettling Halloween costumes. But the strength of it as an adaptation feels novel in its own right. Jackson’s 1959 novel is essentially a story of paranormal investigation, which opens the doors wide for Jackson’s intricate portrayal of how the handful of characters portray themselves to each other, what they allow themselves to believe and what they bury deep.
The Netflix adaptation tells a different story: a fractured family who lives for a time in a Massachusetts haunted house grows up struggling to cope with the hold the house still has on each of them. While names are borrowed from Jackson’s most famous works (Theo, Luke, Hugh, Nell, and Shirley herself), the narrative is very much one of individualized trauma that doesn’t necessarily relate to the characters’ namesakes. Michiel Huisman, Elizabeth Reaser, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Kate Siegel, and Citoria Pedretti play the adult versions of the Crain children, with terrifying flashbacks to their younger selves (played by (Paxton Singleton, Lulu Wilson, Julian Hilliard, McKenna Grace, and Violet McGraw) sinking into the complicated terrors of the grand old manor house. The split child-adult narrative line is a familiar one from Steven King’s IT, recently re-adapted for the big screen. As adults, the siblings’ paths diverge dramatically—writer, addict, mortician, psychologist—but the roots of their trauma bind them uniquely together.
Close, individualized perspectives, a keystone of Jackson’s writing, are rendered gorgeously on screen. There are predictable maneuvers, such as visual scares only being visible to one character, but also more entrancing technical tricks. In one episode, a Birdman-like series of long takes makes for a dynamic, dizzying free fall from one character’s POV to another. Because we’ve been taught by the show how to understand each of the children’s perspectives over the course of previous episodes, even without cutting the shot Haunting is able to tour us through different perspectives on a single scene, one at a time, with confident clarity. The characters remain definitively, painfully isolated from one another emotionally even as they occupy the same, somewhat claustrophobic physical space. More than any plotline or visual feature (although keeping the novel’s cup of stars in play was a nice touch), this achievement of internalized, personalized terror is a fitting homage to Jackson’s spellbinding original.
I was very nervous about Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House when it was first announced. Jackson’s complex, masterful character writing and chilling subtleties are hallmarks of some of my favorite novels like We’ve Always Lived in the Castle. But Netflix’s Hill House gave me hope (as well as nightmares). The show has that delicate way of looking sidewise at dreamlike material and reimagining it, a process about as delicate as disassembling a spider web and reshaping a new pattern from the silk.
I hope adaptation continues to move in this direction: re-invention and engagement that brings us a new story while preserving the magic of the original. Jackson’s posthumous surge of popularity is finding a particular purchase in the dark and trying times of 2018, and her work has gotten the update to make it soar with a new audience.