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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Atrocity by Increments

This summer I taught Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery,” for the first time. The reactions to the story were interesting to say the least. About half the students were shocked by the end, and the other half revealed they had not finished it when they interrupted the class to exclaim “They did what?”  One student flat-out refused to read the story because her son had told her about its grotesque end, and she was still unsettled by “The Cask of Amontillado.”

As we discussed the story, what I found interesting were my student’s assumptions about the setting.  A few of them assumed that it took place in a post-apocalyptic future.  After all, the setting had no overt technology with which to place the story in time, and they couldn’t imagine this happening anytime in recent history.  (I also suspect their reading was colored by Octavia Butler’s “Speech Sounds,” which we had read the week before).  However, my students all agreed that this story was not realistic that it could not happen in our world or at least in our culture.

Jackson seems to be mainly known as a horror author and with good cause.  She has great talent for creating unnerving atmospheres where her reader is waiting for things to go wrong.  In her more famous and one of my favorite books, The Haunting of Hill House, she creates an atmosphere so oppressive and so off kilter that I when I first read the book I was terrified before anything had happened.  And lets not forget her mastery of prose, I could swoon over the first paragraph of that novel.  Without a doubt, Jackson is great horror author.

However, the thing about genre fiction, like horror, is a lot of readers (and those who don’t read the genre but are still very vocal about it) tend to treat this all as pretend, which is true to a certain extent.  After all, we know that we don’t need to worry about vampires or the elder gods. But the assumption that it could not happen in the real world is sometimes applied to more realistic works, like Stephan King’s Cujo. When in reality, it is unlikely but still possible.  This reason seems to be why my students saw “The Lottery” as fantastic.  People just don’t kill their neighbors for the bad luck of drawing a piece of paper with a black spot.

I was inspired by my class to read The Lottery and Other Stories.  Taken in the context of the collection, “The Lottery” no longer is as easy to separate from the real world as it was before.  Throughout these stories, Jackson shows people going about their daily lives and the myriad of ways that they are isolated and isolate others. The main source of apprehension I felt reading these stories is the petty cruelties that people visit on each other.  The stories are in our world, but there is still a sense of uncanny about them.  In “Daemon Lover” a young woman tries to track down her fiancé, but we are left wondering if he ever existed in the first place. In “The Renegade” we see a housewife’s growing distress as her neighbors and eventually her own children delight in the fact that her dog, who had killed some chickens, must be put down.  Jackson shows how the city allows people to grow indifferent to each other, and how they can become lost in the crowd.  Jackson also show how the country allows people to form close-knit communities that exclude and shame outsiders.  By the time the reader gets to the titular story, it’s all too clear the “The Lottery” could take place in our world.  The cruelty and inhumanity seen at the end has already been shown in small increments elsewhere.

While I have always read “The Lottery” as being about how tradition allows us or drives us to do some so pretty awful things, Jackson’s short story collection shows the many small ways that pettiness and clannishness leads to atrocity.  When we wonder how groups of people can get together and do terrible things, Jackson answers us in these short stories.  She tells us that the small and petty crimes we commit against each other everyday add up, until we, without a thought, throw stones at neighbors we’ve known our whole lives.