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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An Incongruity in Taste

I’ve recently recognized an incongruity in my tastes with regards to movies and books. I love retellings of fairy tales and classic literature, but rather despise the current remake culture of TV and film.

Now fairy tales and folklore already lend themselves to retellings, since they originated in an oral tradition and had to, by its very nature, go through different transformations as the story passed from teller to teller. Angela Carter, Tanith Lee, and Neil Gaiman may, at the outset, appear to be radically changing the stories they’re retelling, but on closer inspection they’re doing what storytellers in the oral tradition have always done: changing the story to fit the needs of the audience. These writers, among many more, look to older stories for possibilities. They ask “what if this had happened instead,” “what if we saw the story from another point of view,” or “what other things may have been going on behind the scenes?” Even films like Snow White: A Tale of Terror and the guilty pleasure Hansel and Gretel  Witch Hunters similarly explore the older material.

I enjoy when classic literature is similarly explored. Jean Rhys in Wide Sargasso Sea does a wonderful job of exploring the back-story of the mad wife that Rochester kept locked in his attic in Jane Eyre. Alan Moore in his graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (not to be confused with the abomination of the movie adaptation) does a wonderful job exploring the possibility of a world where all our favorite Victorian science fiction and horror stories simultaneously exist. I love Fred Saberhagen’s The Dracula Tape, a novel that retells Bram Stoker’s Dracula from the point of view of the titular character.

If you’ve read some of my poems, you’ll probably notice that I also retell older stories. For instance, my two poem, “Lucy’s Plea” and “Lucy’s Reunion with an Ex,” which have recently been published by the awesome Versus Literary Journal (didn’t I work that self-advertisement in smoothly), deal with Lucy Westenra’s point of view on the events of Dracula. As the more sexual woman who is quickly killed off, she is the character who is most often overlooked or written out of the story. I thought it would be fun to explore her thoughts, even if I had to change some things from the story for her to speak.

Considering how much I love these retellings, you wouldn’t think I’d be completely filled with rage at the NBC’s upcoming Dracula television series, but I am. Maybe I being a bit unfair, since I’ve yet to see the actual show and my opinion is  based on the below ad.

This show seems to be expanding the Dracula universe in a “what if” direction, not something I normally oppose. Mainly what bothers me is if I didn’t recognize the names Renfield, Jonathan Harker, and Mina Murray, I would have never connected it to Dracula beyond “Oh it has vampires and takes place in Victorian England too.” What otherwise would have appeared to be an original story, now has the brand recognition of Dracula.

On the other hand, if we looked at The Dracula Tape, we see Saberhagen’s obvious love for the source material. While reading, and probably rereading, Dracula, Saberhagen noticed that a narrative structured as the characters’ letters and journals naturally has questionable reliability. He also noticed that blood transfusions before blood typing could be a little deadly, which makes how Dr. Van Helsing was treating Lucy not just questionable but possibly fatal. Saberhagen had to sit with the events of novel and wonder in what other ways they could be interpreted. He is asking us to read the original material more deeply.

Whereas this new Dracula TV show doesn’t ask us to look back at the source material, it doesn’t ask us to think critically about it and maybe realize that there are some problematic issues with it, and it doesn’t ask us to find patterns in the story that could connect it to a completely different tale. We just have sexy vampires, secret societies, and the same old conflicted love story involving a possibly reincarnated lover who looks exactly the same (that’s not how reincarnation works). It may be fun, but I can’t help feel it is trying to manipulate me by calling itself Dracula.

In some ways, this TV show seems to be doing the same thing that the all too infamous Catwoman movie did. Give the product a name that audiences will recognize, throw together a lot of plot elements that seem to sell well regardless of the original story, and look surprised when the already existing fan base doesn’t give you their money.

Ahem…

 

It is all right when an artist radically changes the story. Take Carter’s “Lady in a the House of Love,” where she turns Sleeping Beauty into a vampire. Carter seemed intrigued by the idea of how Sleeping Beauty is an unchanging figure in ever-changing time. She makes the natural connection from the fairy tale to vampires. She explores what happens when this figure is awakened to the changes of time by a young man on bicycle soon to serve in World War I (he is the very figure of the twentieth century). Carter takes an image of the perfect always youthful girl waiting in the tower and changes the story to explore new themes.  Yet, we can still find the seeds of the older fairy tale.

Hell, I even have good will towards the Jane Austen monster mash-up Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. While I have yet to read the book (I will be so angry if it’s bad), the excerpts I have read suggest that the Seth Grahame-Smith loves both Austen’s fiction and movie monsters. One is the epitome of high culture, while the other the epitome of low. In trying to bring them together, Grahame-Smith, I hope, was trying to find a common ground for these two disparate things. Let the Austen fans have a little fun with zombies, and let the zombies fans have any entry point for a rather intimidating piece of fiction. However, I doubt the author could have pulled the book off, if he didn’t love both Austen and brain-eating corpses.

What I hate most about this remake culture is that just how cynical it is. So many of these movies are being made not because the director has something new to say about the story, but because of brand recognition. I don’t mind hearing story retold as long as each new storyteller wants to explore the parts that keep him or her up late at night wondering “what if.”

Up All Night With Wilfred Owen

As I mentioned before, I love horror movies, but I also have an overactive imagination.  To say the least, this combination often leads to disaster.  Growing up my bedroom overlooked a ditch, and I was convinced that La Llorona was going to get me.  I can’t stand to leave my blinds open at night, because of all those horror movie scenes shot from the point of view of the killer looking into the victim’s house (I’m convinced that half of all the victims in slasher films would still be alive if they had good thick drapes).

Right after I graduated from high school, my grandparents had me house-sit for them.  Now mind you this was the house I had grew up in, and my mother and I had only moved out a few months before.  Still, it was a creepy house, and somehow having my old bedroom empty made it all the worse.  I sat in the den, the TV on to keep my imagination engaged on something other than the half-human monster I suspected was waiting outside for me to open the curtains.

After midnight, cable fails to entertain.  I was stuck between infomercials, bad reality TV, and some forgettable old movies.  I ended up watching Behind the LinesBehind the Lines is a fictionalized account of the time that Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen spent in a military hospital.  At the time, I didn’t know who those two poets were.  I just started watching because I was interested in World War I (All’s Quiet on the Western Front was a very important text for me during my teens).

Wilfred Owen

At the end of the film, when the Doctor learns about the death of Wilfred Owen, the poem, “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young,” is read:

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,

And took the fire with him, and a knife.

And as they sojourned both of them together,

Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,

Behold the preparations, fire and iron,

But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?

Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,

And builded parapets and trenches there,

And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.

When lo! an Angel called him out of heaven,

Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,

Neither do anything to him, Behold!

A Ram! caught in a thicket by its horns,

Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

and half the seed of Europe, one by one.

As soon as I finished listening to this poem, I ran around trying to find a piece of paper and pen.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find them until I’d forgotten most of the poem.

This poem, I thought, was lost to me forever.  I didn’t know the name of the poet, the poem, or even the film.  Mind you this was before I really started reading poetry.  I felt that I should—I’d been writing it for years—but nothing I read caught my attention.  Yet when I’d finally heard a poem whose very words cut through me, reverberated from my head to my finger tips and toes, it was lost to film credits, only chance would allow me to find it again.

Or the fact that the channel that showed the film, replayed it two more times that night.  I always feel that when a television channel shows the same movie repeatedly that they are being cheap and lazy, but that night I was thankful to the television executives.  I watched the film again, pen and paper in hand, so that I could record a few lines of the poem, enabling me to find it with a quick internet search.

There are three poets that I consider responsible for getting me interested in the craft; Wilfred Owen is one.

Often poetry is presented as this elevated art that contains only the highest emotions, the best people, the most beautiful scenery, and the deepest thoughts.  It is something that only us mortals can aspire to, but never hope to, truly understand, which, as any one who has read a lot of poetry can tell you, is bullshit.  However, this poem was a revelation.  In the last two lines when Abram slew his son, I heard the anger and bitterness that Owen must have felt, that thousands of young men felt, as they were sent to die in a war they did not understand.  This poem wasn’t some grand denouncement by some figure of mythic proportions, but real anger that a flesh and blood man felt.  At that moment, I discovered that poems could be about ugly truths.

Take the poem “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” which has one of the best descriptions of both the exhausted tedium and the sudden chaos of war:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…

Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

This poem does not relent, making sure that you understand the horror this moment holds.  Then Owen finish it with the lines “My friend, you would not tell with such high zest/ To children ardent for some desperate glory,/ The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori.”  The Latin lines are from Horace and mean “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”  Owen is calling bullshit on the perception that war is honorable and beautiful.

When morning came, I left the house that I grew up in changed, not yet understanding that one small poem had changed the world, well mine at least.

Dreading the Remake

About a year ago, I put Dark Shadows in my Netflix queue.  I always had a certain ambivalence towards the show.  There are vampires, werewolves, witches, zombies and ghosts, how could I not love it.  Oh, it’s soap opera, damn.   With the exception of Soap, I’ve never enjoyed soap operas.   But, I come across references to Barnabas Collins all of the time, and ultimately I felt that I should give the show a chance.  In a year, I’ve watch about four episodes.

I haven’t really seen enough to know if the show is good or bad, but production values on a 1960’s black and white TV show are distracting.  I don’t think anyone could watch the below scene, the introduction of Barnabas, and not laugh when the music plays dramatically at the reveal.

Keep in mind, the audience has already watched a scene where a man breaks into the coffin of Barnabas only to scream (hilariously) and have a hand grab his throat.  The audience knows what exactly is going on, the reveal is not in any way surprising.  I can’t help but feel this show, if not good, is at least fun in the MST3K kind of way.

You can all guess where this is going: I recently saw the preview for Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows.  I’m actually surprised that I hadn’t already heard more about this film.  I have a long relationship with Burton’s films.  Batman Returns was the first Batman film I ever saw, and it led to me jumping on the bed while wearing a cheap plastic mask and brandishing my jump rope as whip (I was eight).  If not for that film, I would’ve never read the Catwoman comics, which led to my current comic hording ways.  I loved Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow and Big Fish. I even enjoyed Mars Attack! 

Yet something happened with Burton’s films.  I remember seeing Sweeney Todd  and feeling that I should enjoy this film, but something about it felt off.  I think that Burton, instead of trying something new, was just rehashing all the stylistic elements that worked in his earlier films.  Burton was imitating himself.  In Alice in Wonderland this became obvious (that is not to mention my literary-nerd rage at a heroes journey arch being forced onto Lewis Carroll’s characters).  And now, Burton has made a Dark Shadows film

I suspect that actual fans of the original show could die from watching this preview.  Remakes are a tricky business even if you’re staying within the original’s genre.  Turning a gothic melodrama into a comedy is going to be even more tricky.  I think that Dark Shadows does provide potential for comedy itself, but from the tropes the show actually uses.  But, as my uncle pointed out, Burton’s film looks a lot like Austin Powers.  There is time travel (trapped in coffin instead cryogenic freezing) and a fish out of water comedy (an eighteenth century vampire in the seventies instead of a sixties swinger in the nineties).  I find it interesting that events from the show that took place in the sixties were moved to the seventies, and I suspect that was in part to avoid the Austin Powers comparison. And boy, don’t the seventies look more groovy or funky, or whatever the slang was at the time, than the actual decade was itself.

The truth of matter is a vampire as fish out water comedy could be fun, and if not for the connection to the earlier show I may have been more willing to approach the film as a guilty pleasure.  However, when you remaking film you need to keep something of the original’s heart and soul intact.  Remakes should be a love letter to the original material; they should make people interested in seeing the original.  If your going to change so much that you alienate the fans of original to get an audience that does not or will not enjoy the source material, why not change the names, make it something different. Of course, I’m basing my judgment on a preview that maybe misrepresenting film, or maybe later on in the original show they started incorporating disco balls and lava lamps.