Talking Past The Conversation

the haunting of hill house

First Edition of The Haunting of Hill House

Last October, Netflix released an in-title-only adaptation of one of my favorite novels The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. By chance, I had also assigned my creative writing class Jackson’s famous short story “The Lottery” along with a reimagining of it by Megan Mayhew Bergman called “The Lottery, Redux.” The very fact that I decided to assign Bergman’s story reveals my deep love for it—after all there is no better way to ensure that you can start a conversation about a story than to put it on a syllabus. Netflix’s adaptation, by itself, is a great horror miniseries and would be one of my favorites of all time if I didn’t hate it so much.

I have a complicated relationship with film adaptations. Without the 1995 adaptation of Persuasion, I would have likely never read Jane Austen. However, Peter Jackson’s Lord of The Rings (not only a great adaptation but great movies in and of themselves) have ensured that I will not reread the books. I have tried, but I can’t help but imagine Frodo, not as I originally imagined him, but as Elijah Woods. Film adaptations can introduce an audience to a work that would otherwise overwhelm them. Give them a path when they feel like they may otherwise be lost. However, film adaptations can also supplant the images in a reader’s head, well, at least it can for me.

1963 the haunting

1963 The Haunting 

Hill House was adapted into film before in 1963 and 1999. I rather like the 1963 version, which hues closely to the book and, I think, benefits from the lack of special effect technology available at the time. When my father first recommended the book to me, he said something along the lines of “I was half way through it and was terrified—and nothing had happened yet!” Oddly, that is one common complaint I’ve encountered from people who’ve not enjoyed it. Hill House is all about the mood and atmosphere, and, if the mood doesn’t work for you, then the book isn’t going to either. While no film can completely capture Hill House’s mood as the book depends on the close third person that allows us access to Eleanor’s thoughts and fears, the 1963 adaptation comes the closest. However, it is not so good that it supplants my own relationship with the book. The 1999 adaptation is an over-the-top cheese fest that I don’t really think is worth mentioning. Its greatest crime isn’t that it wasn’t a faithful adaptation, but rather that it’s just a bad horror movie.

Had the Netflix’s miniseries had a different name—changing nothing else about the story—I would have thought it made interesting and annoying allusions to Jackson’s book, and I would have happily recommended it to anyone. Episode 5 “The Bent-Neck Lady” and Episode 6 “Two Storms” are outstanding for how they build on the tradition of the ghost story. The relationships that they present between the past and present and between the dead and the living is fascinating and terrifying. But by using the same title as Jackson’s book, the Netflix miniseries promises to be, if not an adaptation, at least in conversation with the original. However, I’m not sure that it is.

Now it would be hypocritical for me to dislike the miniseries simply for utilizing the characters and elements of the story in a new way. I do that in much of my own writing with fairy tales (“The Perils of Glass” and “The Frog Prince“). However, I feel, that when you do borrow elements, you should be in conversation with the original. That is part of why I so enjoy Bergman’s reimagining, “The Lottery, Redux.” In Jackson’s “The Lottery” she presents a tradition whose origins have been lost to time and takes place in a timeless America. The reader is left questioning their own traditions: how they are taken for granted and how they may harm people. However, Bergman, by moving the story to a possible post-apocalyptic setting, explores how violent traditions originate, are justified, and become normalized. Rather than make us question our current traditions, Bergman has us question what we would do if we thought our own survival was on the line. Both stories explore how tradition causes people to be othered and, in turn, allows them to be harmed by society at large. Jackson explores how that type of tradition is incorporated into a comfortable daily life while Bergman explores how extremes can push people to everyday violence. Bergman’s reimagining works, in part, because it is in direct conversation with Jackson’s original and caused me to go back and think more deeply about it.

The Haunting of Hill House TV Series.png

Movie Post for Netflix The Haunting of Hill House

The Netflix miniseries didn’t make me think more deeply about the original novel. As I watched it, I recognized that characters in the miniseries shared names with characters in the book and little else. I would recognize objects and quotes from the book—often ascribed to a male author who, in the series’ universe, wrote a book called The Haunting of Hill House. This is a whole other can worms especially since there is a female character name Shirley.

While both stories are about haunted houses, they have very little to do with each other. In Jackson’s novel, whether the events are actually supernatural or whether the characters are working themselves into a shared hysteria is ambiguous. Even if you read the novel as definitely being about something supernatural whether the supernatural thing is a ghost is in question. Jackson’s novel explores the isolation one woman feels and her failures to find connection and a place to belong. Hill House, whose “walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut,” does not look like a cliché haunted house. It is well-ordered and maintained, and it is that order itself that seems to drive people insane.  Hill House in the miniseries is a traditional haunted house. In the modern storyline it is shown with boarded up windows, cobwebs, and dust. Where as in the past storyline, it is under refurbishment. Not only is there is no doubt that ghosts exist in this universe, but almost every scene has one somewhere in the background. The miniseries is concerned with the consequences of a family trauma and whether it is possible for the family to heal from it.

While these two themes could certainly tie into each other, the creators of the miniseries don’t really seem interested in entering into a conversation with the novel. Rather there are some stylistic elements that the creator wanted to utilize, which in and of itself is fine. However, the use of the title promises the audience something more, not necessarily a faithful adaptation, but at least an adaptation that is in conversation with the original. Hell, I would have preferred a takedown of the original.

It was only at the end of the miniseries that it seems to enter into a conversation with the book at all. Hill House is, of course, known for its opening paragraph:

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. 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.

Also, the book’s ending line repeats that ending of the first paragraph: “Within, its walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors where sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.” The opening and closing reaffirms that sense of order and how that creates isolation. The miniseries ends with:

Fear. Fear is the relinquishment of logic, the willing relinquishing of reasonable patterns. But so, it seems, is love. Love is the relinquishment of logic, the willing relinquishing of reasonable patterns. We yield to it or fight it, but we cannot meet it halfway. Without it, we cannot continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality. Hill House, not sane, stands against its hills holding darkness within. It has stood so for a hundred years and might stand a hundred more. Within, walls continue upright, bricks met neatly, floors are firm, and doors are sensibly shut. Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and those who walk there, walk together.

Netflix Closing Scene.png

Umm…Netflix, I don’t think the bricks meet neatly or the floors are firm any more.

I may have thrown something at the TV when I heard this. Jackson wrote a story of a woman who wanted to belong but could not find a place for herself and was destroyed by this failure. The miniseries tells the story of a family that survives—well, most of the them do—by pulling together and loving each other. Jackson showed us the real problem of a person who is isolated to the point of mental illness and suicide, and the miniseries answers this with, “Love is how we survive this awful world.” Even within the miniseries this is problematic. The murder of one child and the attempted murder of two others is done out of a familial love, so suggesting a family just needs to pull together seems at best an oversimplification. However, when held in juxtaposition to Jackson’s novel, it feels like it is barging into a conversation without actually knowing what is being said. In Jackson’s novel Eleanor’s family is toxic and staying with them would have been a sort of living death for her. Her failure isn’t that she pushes people away as is the case for most of the characters in the miniseries. Her tragedy is that she can’t find a place where she belongs and is loved. In the end the miniseries is having a different conversation than tne one the book is.

After the Netflix miniseries was released, I kept hearing people exclaim how much they loved it and that they were going to read Jackson’s novel, and, while I’m happy that more people will be reading her work, I worry that it will be dismissed because it is so different from what caught their attention. They enjoyed a story of a family experiencing a tragedy, falling apart due the trauma, and eventually rebuilding and healing, and in the novel they will find none of those things.

 

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In Praise of Endings

My now complete copy of Because They Wanted To

My now complete copy of Because They Wanted To

I have a habit, where, as I’m reading a book, I turn to the last page. I don’t read the last page, I just see what it is and calculate how many pages I have left to read. I do this whether I am enjoying a book or not. The other night, as I was reading Because They Wanted To: Stories by Mary Gaitskill, I noticed that the last sentence didn’t have a period or closing quotation marks. There was no flyleaf or an about the author page. My copy was missing the last four pages. Google books let me preview several pages, in fact a surprisingly large amount of pages—but not the last four. I’ve checked several libraries and have discovered that there is no e-book version of the text that I can quickly check out. They did have physical copies, so I was able to Xerox copy those missing pages.

I wish I made this discovery earlier in the book, when I could have contacted the bookseller and got a different copy. But since I was 220 pages in, with annotations, I’m just going to hold on to the copy I have. Never before had I felt so much like the protagonist of Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler.

We are all frustrated when we are denied the ending of a book, a film, or a television series. We want to know how the story turns out. But recently, I find myself not longing to know what happens next, but wondering how things will end. There was time when I devoured the books in the Star Wars expanded universe, but somewhere in my twenties I lost interest. One book would introduce a new idea with interesting consequences, and the next would find a way to get rid of the consequences and return the characters to the status quo. I once was a fanatic about the show Supernatural, and considered the ending of season five near perfect. It would have been perfect if it had ended five seconds earlier, removing the cliffhanger that would lead into the sixth season. When I meet other fans of the show, they are shocked and even suspicious of me. How could I allow the characters to remain in such an awful situation? Didn’t I want to spend more time with them? However, the continuation of the story cost the fifth season’s ending its catharsis.

Once I just wanted to spend time with the characters, and I still do, but catharsis has become much more important to me. Even if that means things don’t go well for the characters that I love. Now I’m not knocking those who turn to fiction only to spend time with characters they love—it’s just that we have different tastes and want different things from our fiction. I also enjoy ongoing series. However, I’m aware that if a series goes on long enough I will eventually lose interest, even if it is still good, because it’s denying me the end, the catharsis.

Perhaps the reason that I find endings so satisfying is because things do end. People break up, retire, and die. The hero of one battle is rarely the hero of the next. Yet the longer a series goes on, the hero becomes more and more central to the universe. Eventually the universe seems to revolve around them, and, when that happens, it becomes unbearable claustrophobic. The protagonist becomes the most important person in that world. No longer are they just a human being fighting against fate, but they are mythical in their power and influence. While there is a certain pleasure in reading about characters whose importance is of mythical proportions, I prefer when the characters start out mythic rather than becoming so through each new edition to the story. Perhaps the best example of this transformation is that of John McClane, which has been noted by many people. One of the pleasures of Die Hard is that John McClane is an everyman, a regular cop, who finds himself in an extreme situation and rises to the occasion. However, several movies later he has become the supreme bad ass. All sense that he is a regular guy is gone, which means the tension of the original is gone. We know he will succeed because he’s no longer is a mortal man. He’s something more. Also, the bit of escapist fantasy that is in the first one—a regular person winning against near insurmountable odds—is gone. I like John McClane, but I rather his story ended when his universe was big, and he was only one somewhat believable man.

Of course there is also a certain aspect of escapism that comes with an ending. Yes, a person dies, but humanity will continue. When humanity dies, life will continue even if its just molecules on the sea floor living off the heat from volcanic vents. When the sun goes out, the universe will continue. The events of our life are rarely tied up in neat cathartic bows. No one really has the last word. In the Grace Paley story, “A Conversation with My Father,” the narrator’s father asks her to write a story like “‘the kind Maupassant wrote, or Chekhov.’” She attempts to write the story, and, when she finally gets one that her father likes, she frustrates him by adding a scene beyond what her father considered a good ending. The narrator then says of the character that she has just created, “She’s my knowledge and my invention. I’m sorry for her. I’m not going to leave her there in that house crying. (Actually neither would Life, which unlike me has no pity.)” If stories in someway mirror life, then, yes, endings can feel arbitrary. After the story ends, the character—unless died—will continue living and making choices.

I think the best endings leave room for the knowledge that time continues. You feel that, when you close the book or turn off the film, the characters’ lives don’t stop. You sense that they will continue with their lives for better or worse, but that they are changed. Or maybe the characters aren’t changed, but the audience is. You have observed the characters go through a set of events that makes you realize something you hadn’t before, and part of the satisfaction—albeit a more melancholy one—is understanding what the characters fail to understand. That is what a good ending provides: a sense of consequence. We are changed by it. We understand how the characters will be dealing with those consequences for some time. I think one of the best examples of how an ending can do this is the new film The Babadook. (Obviously there are spoilers ahead, so go watch the film if you haven’t yet. I highly recommend it)

Poster for The Babadook

The Babadook ends with the titular monster locked in the protagonist’s, Amelia’s, basement. Amelia is caring for it or at least feeding it. I like this ending for several reasons. If you interpret the story as literal—this woman was actually dealing with a monster—the ending suggests that the monster is so powerful that it can never be killed. The Babadook is a curse she can’t rid her family of, but it is one that she can contain and keep from harming her, her son, and others. If you interpret the film as being symbolic, the Babadook representing her chronic depression, then we see the ending as her learning to manage mental illness. She will continue to suffer from it, but she has found ways to deal with it and still live a good life. As I walked out the theater, I discussed the “what ifs” with my husband. It was a fairly long conversation. I spent a lot of time wondering what would happen next for Amelia and her son. However, I do not want them to ever make a sequel to The Babadook. I do want the director and the actress and everyone involved to continue making films, but the ending is so satisfying I don’t want to lose it.

The risk of every sequel, of each new edition, is that it will somehow undermine the consequences of the original’s ending. The couple who started a relationship in the last story are suddenly divorced at the beginning of the new one. The lesson that was learned is forgotten. A sequel to The Babadook would perhaps eliminate one of the possible readings of the original. If the Babadook attacks a new family, I would have to view him as real rather than the manifestation of the protagonist’s mental illness. I’d also wonder what happened to Amelia and her son, whose survival I was so invested in in the first film. If they are killed off to tell this new story, I would be livid. If a sequel returned to these characters, there is a chance that I will lose the interpretation that the Babadook is a supernatural monster.

While it is possible to make a good sequel, doing so without undermining the ending is hard. Part of the reason I think so many people disliked Alien 3 was because the character whose survival was key to the tension of Aliens was killed off at the beginning. Suddenly your joy at the little girl, Newt, being rescued by Ripley is taken away and off-screen at that. For a lot of people, the new film doesn’t change the enjoyment of the old one, and I wish this was true for me. But whenever I sit down to watch Aliens, I can’t help but watch Ripley’s rescue of Newt with sadness because I know that she will die soon after the credits roll.

Once again it’s not to say a good series or sequel can’t be made, Aliens certainly proves that, but sequels can alter how we feel about the original’s ending. Hell, I think that the third sequel to Alien could have killed Newt and still have been a good movie. However, since her survival was a key part to the ending of the second film, her death needed some of its own time. As it stands in the film, it feels like they simply got rid of the character because she stood in the way of their new plot. The consequences of the last film were not explored, instead they were brushed aside.

Perhaps I’m not writing in praise of endings but rather in praise of consequences. Like I keep stating, serialized stories can be good, but each new edition must feel like it is building on the last story. Sometimes the new situation created by the ending can lead to a new story. I feel that the best ongoing series, whether book, film, or TV, acknowledges these consequences. However, when the series does not acknowledge them, the impact of these consequences are negated, and the characters become either caricatures of themselves or just empty vessels that are used to better advertise a product. When a story ends, whether it be realistic or fantastical, I want a sense that what has just happened has some sort of impact on the character’s life and is not just another adventure in a set of adventures that becomes, no matter how extraordinary to us, a boring routine for them.