Shirley Jackson’s “Hill House” vs. the Netflix Series

Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel, “The Haunting of Hill House,” blew me away with its first paragraph. I was especially chilled by the paragraph’s very last line: “silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

It was wonderful writing, and what a great way to introduce, and end, a horror story. It gave me goosebumps.

I finally watched Netflix's television program based on the novel. How does the Netflix production stack up against the novel? Jackson fans may be disappointed to hear that the series’ plot bears very little resemblance to the book.

In the novel, Eleanor Vance (Nell) joins a paranormal investigation at Hill House mounted by one Dr. John Montague. The other members of the investigation are Theodora and Luke Sanderson, who will inherit the house when his aunt dies.

Much of the novel focuses on Eleanor’s inner landscape, and how she views her fellow participants and the strange events that befall them. Among other occurrences, something mysterious hammers one night at Theo and Eleanor’s bedroom door while the men are off chasing after a dog-like creature. The next morning, something scrawls on a wall in chalk: “HELP ELEANOR COME HOME.”

Photo: Netflix.com
After one week, the doctor forces Eleanor to leave Hill House after she almost kills herself by climbing the decrepit iron stairs leading up to the tower. On her way out, she crashes her car into a large tree on the grounds. It isn’t clear at the end of the book whether Eleanor’s death is due to the house or because of her neuroses and deep loneliness.

The Netflix series, in contrast, centers on the Crain family. The parents move the family into Hill House, which they intend to renovate and flip. During the renovations, the two youngest children—twins Nell and Luke—witness terrifying sights, including a “bent-neck lady” and a giant man with a walking stick who floats one foot off the ground.

Photo: Netflix.com

The father, Hugh, drags his children out of bed one night and flees with them in the car. The police find the mother dead in the house, apparently of suicide. The horror in the series is explicit, and it is clear that there is something terribly wrong with Hill House. 

The children, devastated by their mother’s death, scatter to opposite coasts when they grow up. However, the house continues to exert its unhealthy influence, especially on Nell and Luke.

I would recommend the series to any ghost-story fans. I was hooked from the very first episode, and binge-watched all 10 episodes (ranging from 43 minutes to 71 minutes) in two days. It was compelling, and some parts are not for the faint of heart.

Photo: Netflix.com
I thought the storytelling was excellent, and the actors well-cast. The children and adult versions of the Crains looked enough alike to be believable. (Don’t you hate it when they don’t?) The series also did a masterful job of capturing the gothic atmosphere of Jackson’s book, despite its divergence from the actual story itself.

If I have one criticism, it is that the ending was slightly schmaltzy. I almost prefer Jackson’s enigmatic ending—where the reader has to draw his or her own conclusions—which I find more sophisticated, and ultimately more haunting.

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