Hill House and Adaptations: Happy Halloween ’18!


I’m not sure when October became Halloween month, but I’ve decided it’s not such a bad thing. Over the past few weeks I’ve gotten lots of good recommendations for scary books and films. My husband and I made it a point to watch some beloved old-school scary films together, including The Haunting (based on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House), The Sentinel, and Rosemary’s Baby.

We also watched the television series, The Haunting of Hill House, the Netflix adaptation *cough cough* of Jackson’s novel. Ahem…

Have you read the 1959 novel? If you haven’t, then I’ll wait here while you do. Don’t worry. It’s long, but I promise you’ll speed right through it. But if you’re too busy, here’s the premise: University professor studying psychic phenomena gains access to a reputedly haunted house called Hill House, and brings along a presumed psychic (Theo), a disturbed young woman (Eleanor) who ostensibly caused rocks to rain on her house, and a young man (Luke) who is a descendent of the ill-fated family who built the house. They investigate over a period of a few days, and Many Scary Things happen. Someone dies.

I LOVE THIS BOOK. It’s also beloved by legions of fans. It’s nuanced and original, yet also and comfortingly familiar, with its haunting tropes like creepy statuary, darkness, unidentified banging, unsettling architecture, mysterious writing on the walls, a harrowing origin story, and bizarre servants who won’t stay after dark. But the true strength of the novel is that it is less a horror story than a tale of psychological suspense and festering fears and tensions. In fact, it was nominated for the National Book Award.

The 1963 black-and-white film adaptation adheres pretty closely to the book, and Julie Harris is brilliant as the fragile virgin, Eleanor.

We only speak in hushed, abashed tones about the 1999 Catherine Zeta Jones remake.

Husband and I began watching the Netflix series set in both the present and the 90s with heightened expectations. Then we almost didn’t make it through the first hour. I confess, we were pretty angry. Nothing felt right, and very little felt familiar. For openers, the house is ostensibly being renovated in order to be flipped by the Crain family. Um, what? There are five children in the family, and Timothy Hutton and Carla Gugino play the Crain parents. The children are named Steven, Luke, Nell, Theo, and Shirley. Again, what? The adult Steven Crain is a bestselling writer who made a bajillion dollars telling the family’s darkest stories in his novels. Shirley is an undertaker, Luke, a heroin addict, Theo, a psychotherapist, and Nell–well I can’t remember, but it was something innocuous. They’re estranged from their father, and their mother is dead.

Thank goodness for terrific child actors–the kids who play the young Crains were very, very good.

The two story lines eventually bear each other out. We discover why the mother died, and how she was killed. We learn what’s truly wrong with the house. But very, very little of this plot has anything to do with the book or the 1963 film. It’s as though the creator were a magpie who took all the sparkly bits of the novel and sprinkled them through an entirely new story.

Forgive my being vague, but I want to avoid spoilers in case you want to watch it. Which you should! It’s very good if you simply dismiss any notions you have about the book or the 1963 film. It does stand on its own beautifully. And, in my opinion, it should just be called The Forever House. But no one asked me, darn it.

So, has anyone else seen the series? Read the book? Seen the 1963 or 1979 films? If so, what do you think of them?

Something else to consider: What adaptations of your favorite novels elicit strong opinions from you, either way.


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About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including The Stranger Inside (Publishers Weekly starred review). Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at www.laurabenedict.com.

10 thoughts on “Hill House and Adaptations: Happy Halloween ’18!

  1. I remember my mom being a big Shirley Jackson fan. I’ve never forgotten the creepy cover for the paperback of We Have Always Lived in the Castle. A girl staring through a hole in a broken fence. I’d just stare at it. It stared back at me.

    Anyway, The Innocents (1961) is a terrific adaptation of “The Turn of the Screw.” Haunting (literally and figuratively).

  2. The real beauty of the novel, I think, is how much of the actual horror is left to the reader’s imagination; Jackson provides the outline, and you fill in the rest. The 1963 black and white movie is ultimately faithful to the book and allows the house to be the true center of everything, large, dark, and looming, and does its job without blood, gore, and special effects.

    I’ve always thought that Hill House is in many ways like The Turn of the Screw–what you imagine is far worse than the elegant prose on the pages.

    As far as the Netflix series, I couldn’t manage more than the first episode. It may well be fine as a stand-alone series for folks unfamiliar with the book, but it just wasn’t my cup of tea.

    • I agree 100% about the beauty of Jackson’s novel, Maggie.

      If it hadn’t been for my intrepid husband, I might not have continued after episode 1. The Netflix version would definitely appeal to non-novel horror fans.

  3. I think a lot of movies aren’t as good as the books on which they’re based. (Salem’s Lot, Pet Cemetery, Intensity, The Age of Innocence, Something Wicked This Way Comes . . ..) Even so, a spooky movie is always fun, and I liked the eerie, 1963 version of The Haunting of Hill House.

    Thanks for the heads-up on the Netflix version of Hill House. I’ll change my expectations from a Jackson story to a different, contemporary, haunted house story, and maybe it’ll be enjoyable.

    • I did like the 80s (?) miniseries of Salem’s Lot–or was it a film. But King’s books are a whole different experience. I like how the Kubrick film of The Shining is different but masterful.

      Hope you do enjoy the Netflix show…

  4. Halloween is actually the religious holiday All Hallow’s Eve. People were encouraged to visit the graves of the dead. I haven’t read the original book about Hill House but saw the 1963 adaptation and thought it was good. The ending was really creepy. I’ve started watching the Netflix adaptation but can’t judge it as I haven’t seen enough yet. —- Suzanne

    • As long as you don’t compare the two films, you’ll be fine, Patricia! Do go back and read the book when you’re in the mood for an excellent, disturbing read. Happy Halloween!

  5. I love the film and book, the Shining. I think it may be the best Steven King movie. Many of the others are either terrible outright, or not close to the book. OK, Christine is pretty scary.

    I read much of Shirley Jackson in high school. You can blame/congratulate my English teacher.

    • Christine is scary! King really tapped into Americans’ love affair with cars—taking something so innocuous and finding terror in it.

      Your English teacher is a hero!

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