The iconic opening to the novel The Haunting of Hill House is one that sticks in your brain forever. Its first paragraph ends with the words: “Whatever walked there, walked alone.” As the soft, gravelly voice of the narrator of Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House TV adaptation said those same words in episode one, an icy chill of anticipation slithered down my spine. Filled with foreboding and the underlying concept of isolation, this one sentence says so much, which is the beauty of Shirley Jackson’s book, its haunting language is thick with meaning. I hoped the direct use of the source material was a good omen for the show.
It turned out it was and it wasn’t.
“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.” – Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
First, the book…
When I first read the book, I noted how the old-fashioned language sometimes felt convoluted based on current standards, which can make character motivations difficult to discern. That said, the writing itself is gorgeous. The descriptions, albeit formal by modern-day standards, strike fear in every letter. More importantly, however, the Gothic horror novel isn’t just there for scares and thrills. It reminds the reader the boogeyman may be in the closet or inside you.
“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.” – Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
In the book, the main character, Eleanor, a fantastic early example of an unreliable-type narrator, strikes out on her own after her mother dies by secretly taking the car she shares with her sister and heading off to stay at Hill House at the behest of a paranormal researcher named Mr. Montague. She’s joined by two additional strangers – Theodora, an artist, and Luke, the heir to Hill House.
As the book unfolds, strange things begin to occur in the house, mostly focused on Eleanor, whose character is also an exploration of female independence in a time (the late 1950s) when social mores wanted women home tending to husbands and children and not secretly jaunting off to haunted houses. In addition, the characters begin to peel back and reveal the hidden darkness within. Bickering, jealousies, misunderstandings tear at the initial friendliness of the group, particularly Eleanor, who continues to succumb to the terror of the house.
“No, the menace of the supernatural is that it attacks where modern minds are weakest, where we have abandoned our protective armor of superstition and have no substitute defense.” – Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
The book ends the way a book like this should end. At that, I will say no more because it should be read and not told.
If you want a faithful adaptation from the TV show, get ready to be disappointed….
Conversely, the TV show pulls at threads of Jackson’s novel but never quite unravels the psychological magic of her book. It borrows character names, but wherein the book the people were strangers, in the show they are a family living in the house and fixing it up as part of a flip.
The Dudleys, caretakers of Hill House who live nearby on the property but do not stay in the house itself after dark, might be the only narrative aspect of the novel retained from the book. That said, in the book, their motivations and history with the house are hinted at and they are ancillary characters. In the show, the pair is more fully fleshed out and become a hinge point in the conclusion, something that felt very “Hollywood ending” rather than the couple simply reflecting the house’s malevolence.
The change from strangers to family works well in the TV show format as the timeline flips back and forth from present day to the past. The interactions of the characters and their emotional struggles feel authentic. In this way, it is faithful to Jackson’s work as an exploration of the emotional houses we build around ourselves and, in some ways, increases investment in the characters because you see them both as children and adults. Their love and struggles, their attempts to escape their past instead of facing it, pluck at the modern heartstrings. Theirs are modern and also eternal issues of self-worth, belonging and love we can understand. Many of us feel them.
Had the threads established at the beginning of the show, the concept of self-isolation and living together while building up walls and barriers, carried through to the end of the TV show, it may have been as incredible as the book. Unfortunately, it did not.
That said, nine out of the ten episodes of The Haunting of Hill House are filled with terror both overt and subtle and are worth seeing. The show, for the most part, expands on the metaphor of how we build up walls to keep people out and create narrow passageways in our minds to prevent ourselves from seeing the truth. In that way, the show succeeds.
Where it failed, was that it did not take that metaphor through to a natural conclusion, as was done in the book, or at least a conclusion where the characters come to some sort of self-realization that wasn’t spoon fed to them. Instead, the muddled ending tries to combine too many themes and resolve too many issues without coming to a cohesive, satisfying conclusion, unless you’re a fan of Hollywood endings. If you are, this one has it. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t fit with the rest of the show.
The final episode spends too much time trying to explain logistical matters, such why has no one burned this damn house down yet, rather than giving the characters the emotional wherewithal to get themselves out of the house, physically and metaphorically. Instead, the house and the ghosts inside it set them free without any of the characters doing too much substantially in the way of final self-actualization. However, in the ending, there are nuggets of brilliance, if you look hard enough. If you hold onto those, you may enjoy it.
I heard Stephen King, a fan of Jackson’s book, said of the TV show that it was “close to a work of genius.” I understand what he meant. The show comes to the edge of greatness but is never able to make the final leap across.
“…close to a work of genius.” – Stephen King
My biggest issue, particularly as it relates to the book, is the supernatural aspect. While the book plays with the question of what is causing the strange phenomenon, overactive imaginations, insanity, telekinesis, or actual supernatural influence, the show ultimately doubles down on supernatural influence, which left me feeling a bit duped because of the emotional depth of the rest of the episodes. I wanted more than “the ghosts did it.” The final episode leans heavily on the supernatural and teases how it may relate to the emotional issues of the characters, but never fully realizes the concept.
From reading this you might think I didn’t like the show. On the contrary, as I said, the first nine episodes were near perfection and it is a show I would recommend watching. The acting is some of the best I’ve seen, both from the adults and the children. And the writing, reminiscent of a play rather than a tele-script, is filled with long soliloquies and a first-person story-telling style narrative unique in today’s TV world.
But if you’re a fan of the book, my recommendation would be to put aside your memory of it and watch the show as if it has no source material. And, for all, beware of the ending. It may disappoint, but it’s still worth the trip, even if, in the end, we find out contrary to Jackson’s telling, not everything walks alone.
Final/brief summary: If you’re looking for the perfect TV show to get your good and scared in the last few days leading up to Halloween, the TV version of The Haunting of Hill House will not disappoint. However, if you are a fan of the book or not a fan of Hollywood, wrap-it-in-a-bow style endings, proceed with caution.
Let’s chat! Did anyone else watch the show and/or read the book? What did you think?