From 00CC33 to 33CCCC: a road narrative analysis of Haunting of Hill House, book and Netflix television series: 11/09/18
Before the Netflix adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House my memory of the book was a single sentence, which I think comes from the 1999 film adaptation; namely "It's the house!"
In Shirley Jackson's 1959 novel, there are literally no ghosts. Instead there is a house that has sat empty for many years and is in an ongoing legal dispute between the surviving heirs but will someday most likely go to Luke by the virtue of him being the youngest of the surviving heirs.
In Netflix's version there are seven ghosts, a personal ghost for each of the Crains. That's the other big difference: an inversion on who built the house and who is most affected by it. In Jackson's book, it was built by Hugh Crain and it was intentionally built wrong as a bigger part of some life time obsession with piousness.
Both versions are complex and inspire deeper readings. This essay will be a brief introduction to the two versions (of many that exist) and will focus on the three road narrative axes they are built. Later I plan to do an essay on Eleanor and then possibly a third on the use of space to define character.
For right now, though, let's look at how both versions, the 1959 novel and the 2018 Netflix television series are road narratives. One might expect an adaptation to be faithful enough to the source material to not change where the new version sits on the road narrative spectrum. The Netflix one is faithful (in its use of visual motifs) while attempting to invert the dynamic of the characters and the road taken, all while pivoting on the same destination.
Since the destination remains the same across both book and Netflix, let's start there. While the title of both versions remains The Haunting of Hill House, one might think that the destination is the house or as I usually put it, home. It's not. Yes, Hill House is the structural containment of this narrative but it isn't the destination. Rather, the destination is uhoria — or no time.
In Jackson's novel, the uhoria is achieved through Dr. Montague's investigation into the history of Hill House. It's also done through Luke's stories of the place and Eleanor and Theo's pondering over what life must have been like for the original sisters. For the Netflix version, it's uhoria at it's most basic for the hauntings. One a second level it's uhoria for how the past and present are decoupaged into a single narrative that from our outside reference point makes literal sense but is completely out of order for the Crain family experiencing it on their own timelines. Finally, it's uhoria for Eleanor's (Nell's) piece in this ten episode narrative. Uhoria puts both versions at CC for the second axis.
The most obvious difference in the novel and the Netflix series is in the protagonists, or as I call them for the road narrative spectrum, the travelers. Jackson's novel has six: Eleanor Vance, Theodora, Luke Sanderson, Dr. Montague, Mrs. Montague and Arthur. Netflix has seven: Shirley Crain, Hugh Crain, Steven Crain, Olivia, Theodora, Luke, and Eleanor.
The other key difference is that in the novel, the six characters are all adults and all privileged — meaning that they individually all have enough means and agency to get themselves to Hill House without needing to rely on anyone else. In the Netflix version, the now seven main characters, are set up as a family: father, mother, oldest brother, two sisters, and the youngest being fraternal twins Luke and Eleanor. The tug of war that Luke and Eleanor partake in over the house takes on an entirely different tone since they begin this tug of war as children and are effectively on the same side, rather than opponents because of "the twin thing."
In terms of the traveler placement on the spectrum, Shirley Jackson crafted her book to give her protagonists all the apparent power possible. They are adults. They have cars. They chose to come. They can chose to leave. The fact that they stay and that one of them dies when they finally chose to leave is what gives the final punch to the horror. In Jackson's version, the protagonists are 00: meaning they shouldn't be at any risk on the road; it's a fairly common starting point for the horror genre and one I will highlight more as I get through the privileged traveler.
Finally there is the road traveled, which over and over I have sown can and often is a metaphorical rode. For Shirley Jackson, it is a very literal road and for Eleanor's journey to Hill House she gives a very detailed description of the day it takes her to drive there. As the roads take Eleanor through small towns and because of the novel's publication coming before the construction of most of our modern interstates, this final piece comes in at a 33 (Blue Highway). At the time, though, these roads were probably written to be modern descriptions of a short American road trip, and could have clocked in at a 00 (Interstate / rail road). Regardless, the road is set up to be a sure thing for Eleanor and the others. That reliability of the road is another piece of what makes Eleanor's ultimate death at the "hands" of Hill House so shocking.
The Netflix version, however, by choosing to use decoupage (a slicing together of disparate scenes to show one continuous story across time and/or place) decides to show their cards early in the opening credits. After showing all major actors as well as the crumbling statuary, the camera pulls up and back to reveal a maze which is then slammed shut behind what we quickly come to learn as "The Red Room" because of it's perpetually locked red door. Right there we are given two major clues for how this adaption will work: it will be a maze, done through cross time editing (which we have seen already through a juxtaposition of flashback and a present days scene), and the "monster in the middle" to use Kat Yoh's term, will be whoever is in the Red Room. Of course, this being Hill House, one can assume that it is the room itself that is both the blind alley and the monster.
By making the six strangers into seven family members, the traveler dynamic is given less individual agency but more power in the realm of the fantastic. Then by replacing a literal road with a metaphorical road as the agent for the uhoric destination, the supernatural possibilities of the narrative are expanded. Put another way, to guarantee ghosts, one needs a family and a maze.