Definitely a Haunting, But Is It Hill House?

I’m late to the party for The Haunting of Hill House (2018), the critically acclaimed miniseries loosely (very loosely) adapted from Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel. Although I’ve read some of her short stories, her novels have long been a glaring gap in my reading, but I absolutely love Robert Wise’s masterly atmospheric black & white film adaptation The Haunting (1963). Having finally watched Mike Flanagan’s adaptation, I can see that it has certainly earned the acclaim it’s received, but my own feelings on it are more mixed (and will require me to discuss the ending, but not before the 7th paragraph).

Hugh and Olivia Crain (Henry Thomas and Carla Gugino) make their living by renovating properties and selling them on at a profit. Olivia is a professional architect and Hugh is largely responsible for coordinating and carrying out the labour-intensive aspects. In 1992, they move into the mansion Hill House with their five children to commence an 8-week renovation project which will allow them to finally build their own dream house. The house proves to be more problematic than expected, none of the blueprints exactly match the building, and there is a room at the top of the house which nobody can open. The caretakers (Annabeth Gish and Robert Longstreet) refuse to stay in the house after dark and the children aren’t sleeping well. One night, Hugh Crain packs the children into the car and flees the house. The next morning they learn that their mother is dead.

Twenty-six years later, the children are estranged from their father (Timothy Hutton) and are dealing with their emotional damage in various ways. Steven (Michiel Huisman), the oldest, has built a successful career investigating and writing about haunted houses, playing to his audience but secretly believing none of it. Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser), the oldest daughter, owns a mortuary and has a particular personal investment in helping children to confront the physical reality of death. Theodora/Theo (Kate Siegel), the middle child, has become a child psychologist who secretly uses her psychometric talent to gain additional insights into their hidden trauma. Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), the older of the twins by 90 seconds, is a heroin addict who has been in and out of rehab but has just received his “90 days clean” pin. Eleanor/Nell (Victoria Pedretti), the younger twin who suffers from sleep paralysis and has never quite escaped from her childhood nightmares of the Bent-Neck Lady, takes a sudden turn for the worse and returns to Hill House, only to be discovered hanging from the balcony the following day.

The miniseries is impeccably structured and disciplined in its pacing, slowly releasing information about what happened in 1992 as overlapping perspectives on different events gradually fill in the back story. Each of the first five episodes follows one of the five children (in descending order of age) across roughly the same time period, allowing the audience to get to know each character in their daily life before the impact of Nell’s death and its immediate aftermath. Episode six brings everybody together at the funeral home and is technically the boldest episode – the first 40 minutes of the episode is made up of two continuous 20-minute takes which manage to move seamlessly between the modern day and the past. These extended sequences are followed by two more extended takes of roughly 10 minutes each, before returning to the standard multiple-edit scene construction. Episode seven covers the funeral and grants us access to Hugh’s perspective. Episode eight covers the funeral’s fallout, and episode nine finally provides Olivia’s perspective on the events of 1992, before everything is brought to a conclusion in episode ten.

All of the actors, including the child actors, do a sterling job and provide the solid foundation of believable characters necessary for this to succeed. It comes as no surprise to learn that many of them have worked with show creator/director/co-writer Mike Flanagan before. Kate Siegel is his most prolific collaborator – first appearing in Oculus (2013), she co-wrote and starred in Hush (2016), marrying him in early 2016. She also appeared in his later projects Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016) and Gerald’s Game (2017). Henry Thomas is probably still best known as the young star of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), first working with Flanagan on Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016) before appearing in both of his Stephen King adaptations, Gerald’s Game (2017) and Doctor Sleep (2019). Elizabeth Reaser and Lulu Wilson, who play older and younger versions of the same character here, appeared as mother and daughter in Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016). Annabeth Gish (a regular in seasons 8-9 of The X-Files) appeared in Before I Wake (2016), and the amazing Carla Gugino had the difficult job of starring in Gerald’s Game (2017). Victoria Pedretti did not have a prior history with Flanagan, but would go on to appear in Shirley (2020), a pseudo-biographical psychological horror about Shirley Jackson. If I have any complaint about the main cast, it’s that Timothy Hutton is so much more interesting as the older Hugh Crain than Henry Thomas as his younger self. This could simply be because the younger character is so much more clear-cut and normal, but I found it difficult to connect to him and it gave me the impression that there was something off about the character (which could well have been deliberate misdirection).

Shirley Jackson’s original novel The Haunting of Hill House (1959) is a psychologically rich contemporary gothic horror telling the story of a group of psychic researchers investigating a notorious haunted house for evidence of the supernatural. The house begins to exert its influence on them, with particular focus on shy young woman Eleanor. Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963) makes some changes but is generally faithful to the feel and events of the book. Flanagan has taken a much more liberal approach in drawing inspiration from his source, with the closest parallels being the setting, the caretakers (Mr and Mrs Dudley) and (I think) some of the details of previous inhabitants. Hugh Crain was the architect who designed and built Hill House in the original book. Eleanor’s role in the novel has been split between her namesake Eleanor/Nell and her mother Olivia, both of whom are swallowed up by the house. Dr. John Montague, the leader of the psychic researchers, has been transformed into the oldest son Steven. Theodora, the liberated modern lesbian with an interest in Eleanor, has become Nell’s older lesbian sister Theo. Luke, the irresponsible heir to Hill House, has become Nell’s twin brother. And oldest sister Shirley is, of course, named in tribute to the author.

Flanagan has used these elements as a framework on which to construct his own story – but while this works to the benefit of the story he wants to tell, it also portends the ways in which his adaptation goes against the spirit of the original. Stories about hauntings are an excellent medium in which to deal with our thoughts about death, loss and mental illness. Flanagan has carefully constructed his central characters to reflect different aspects of how the (apparent) mental illness and suicide of a loved one can resonate through the years and affect their lives. Many of the characters are given the opportunity to tell an extended story – whether a ghost story or a tragic anecdote – which illustrates another way in which people in our society reflect on or are impacted by death or other forms of loss. By spending an episode focusing on each of the seven central characters, with another episode devoted to the experience of their collective grieving, Flanagan allows this core concern the room to breathe, building to the final episode in which each character has the opportunity to exorcise their deepest personal demons and begin to heal.

But it’s this much-needed aspect of healing his characters (which, I should stress, is an entirely appropriate choice for what Flanagan is trying to achieve) which ultimately makes the story sit so uncomfortably as an adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel. In preparing the ground for this, Flanagan establishes that not all of the ghosts inhabiting Hill House are malevolent. While some could be characterised as scary but otherwise neutral in intent, others are actively helpful to the characters. Even more jarringly, after the traumatic events of 1992, the only reason Hugh does not burn down the house is to allow the caretakers to visit the benevolent spirit of their dead daughter, something which they are apparently able to continue to do without consequence for the remainder of their lives before joining her in the house. This significantly undermines the concept of the house as a malevolent entity which is so central to the book and the 1963 film. Even within the world of the miniseries, this tonal shift doesn’t sit well with what Flanagan has previously established – it gave me the sense that Flanagan had not fully committed to his setting and was prepared to abandon it in order to achieve a cosy emotional resolution. The human drama of the story which has been so compellingly told across ten episodes doesn’t quite fit the blueprints of the plot he’s chosen to build upon, ultimately undermining the coherence of the work and leaving it with shaky foundations.

The Haunting of Hill House (2018) remains a worthwhile work with a lot to offer, despite its betrayal of the source material. I can only hope that his follow-up The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020) (a similarly loose adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw) doesn’t make the same mistake.

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