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The Haunting of Hill House Triple Threat: 1959 Book vs. 1963 Film vs. 2018 Netflix Series

A few months ago I reviewed Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House and mentioned that it diverged a lot from the play I saw in Liverpool back in 2016, which was supposedly a faithful adaption of the book. I needed to know for myself how far the series had diverged from the 1959 book and if it had actually improved on it. So I read the book first and then watched the 1963 film, The Haunting, which I’d heard was a classic. I must admit I enjoyed both of them – and found them very different from one another – so I decided that all three needed to be compared: The Haunting of Hill House (1959) vs. The Haunting (1963) vs. The Haunting of Hill House (2018)


Fear

The Haunting of Hill House (1959)

In the book, as it’s wrote mainly from Eleanor, or “Nell’s” point of view, so when she’s scared, we too are scared, yet something like the blood on her mother Theodora’s clothes seems trivial. However, when Nell slowly becomes mad we fear for her, more than the fear induced from random noises within the house, or Mrs. Montague’s attempts at using a planchette to speak to the dead. The scariest moment not involving Nell’s sanity is the inclusion of a gun in the house which turns out to be an effective false herring. In short, there is no spooky manifestation in the story. It’s more implied and the main fear in the book is from Nell losing her sanity.

The Haunting of Hill House Triple Threat

The Haunting (1963)

The film is in black and white and uses a Panavision camera which wasn’t ready for use, so there’s not as much detail in the horror but there’s distortion, causing claustrophobia despite the house seeming endlesss. [1] Like the Hammer films of the 1960s, there is an amazing use of sound to amplify the atmosphere of any scene. As the film follows the book closely, Nell’s descent into insanity is the real fear and it’s almost as tense as the book, using some of the same dialogue, but removing the gun in the house (the character of Arthur Parker isn’t in the film). From the start, where Dr. Markway (aka Montague in the book) gives an overview of Hill House, the gothic elements and the danger are evident, and the rest of the film rarely disappoints. The staircase scene in particular is terrifying with the trapdoor, but I’m still unsure if it would have been scarier if Nell had actually died.

The Haunting of Hill House Triple Threat

The Haunting of Hill House (2018)

Jump scares, heavy use of background music to create calmness, unexplained creatures and situations… The TV series had it all. The bent-neck lady. The bowler hat man that follows Luke silently and persistently… Others can’t see him, which makes this ghost as terrifying as It Follows. Episodes featuring children are scarier, as they have less of a chance of fighting back. But the fact that the house haunts them years later as adults is petrifying.


Character

The Haunting of Hill House (1959)

As stated above the book focuses mainly on Nell and her fleeting sanity. She’s portrayed as lonely, sad, and childlike through both her dialogue, and the interactions with others. Shirley Jackson has done a marvellous job of making you wish somebody would help Nell, as she’s innocent and not used to the world due to her overbearing family. Even when Nell starts to lose her sanity you don’t blame her… It’s the other people who have failed her. Unfortunately, with all this focus on Nell, the others characters aren’t as developed. Theo seems to appear kind, friendly, spiteful and jealous as the story progresses, which is no doubt a reflection of how Nell sees her, but it would be nice to know more about her. Dr. Montague is one of the more fleshed out characters and he comes across as a father figure, and a scholar, but when his wife arrives he becomes ineffective, and frustrated. The later scenes with his wife actually reminded me of Richard and Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced “Bouquet”) in the British sitcom Keeping Up Appearances, which was a nice comical touch.

The Haunting of Hill House Triple Threat

The Haunting (1963)

Julie Harris captures Nell from the book perfectly, her mannerism (the blinking), her outbursts, innocence, and fleeting sanity is all there. As with the book, the other characters aren’t fully developed; although Luke is shown to be more money focused than a potential love match for Nell, which I feel suits the story better. Theo is similar to her book counterpart but Dr. Markway is now the potential love interest rather than a father figure, and his wife disapproving of his research is more realistic. Dr. Markway as the love interest seems more fitting. Nell displays her childlike behavior, wanting someone to look after her – a paternal figure, or perhaps a lover? – and there are several spots in the film which show the awkward tension between Nell and the doctor. Interestingly one of Nell’s phrases from the book, ‘Journeys end in lovers meeting’ isn’t repeated. This suggests Nell doesn’t know what she’s fully looking for, and there’s a potential for love, friendship or even Hill House to be the answer.

The Haunting of Hill House Triple Threat

The Haunting of Hill House (2018)

There’s a family of main characters now and they all have their own experience with the house. Nell is possibly the most tragic character as, along with her brother Luke, she has a deeper relationship with the house to the extent they are both still tortured by nightmares. They both achieve happiness at one point, only to have it snatched away. The insanity which Nell is plagued with in both the book and the film is now associated with her mother. However her mental health is more subtle, like her wandering off for example, holding a knife, and forgetting things. Their mother doesn’t invoke as much sympathy as Nell did on the other media discussed. Shirley, Nell’s older sister, is the only character I don’t think is developed enough, or even needed apart from looking after Theo; the middle child.


Plot

The Haunting of Hill House (1959)

Nell is one of a few people invited to research the haunted Hill House, but her sister doesn’t want her to go as she’s never done anything by herself. As the story progresses Nell’s lack of people skills, low self-confidence, and fear are explored, making this more of a social tale than a haunted house story. The house makes the group nervous as they tries to adapt to it, but Nell’s interactions and thoughts about the other inhabitants are more important than any event in the story. Character is more important than plot and the abrupt ending when Nell is at her most desperate displays this rather than a more visual scene.

The Haunting of Hill House Triple Threat

The Haunting (1963)

With the exception of the portrayal of Mrs. Markway, and the omission of Arthur, the plot for the film is almost identical to the book. The same events happen, like the ghosts knocking on doors, the cold spot, and the car ending. The tone and character development of Nell are more important than the plot, as with the book, thus there’s a lot of internal monologue from Nell which shows that the film is more about her mental health than the haunting.

The Haunting of Hill House Triple Threat

The Haunting of Hill House (2018)

Bouncing back and forward between past and present can be confusing in the TV series, as well as slightly lowering the tension as you know the kids survive into adulthood. The story of the past is that the Crain family are trying to live at Hill House, and renovate it to sell, but they are plagued by strange occurrences – several of which are featured in the book. In the present they are trying to just live their lives, but Nell struggles more than the others to forget Hill House; bringing back the past – and thus the ghosts – to the present day. There are individual episodes dealing with each character, some of which are stronger than others. Thus the plot isn’t as tight in places that I feel the scares could have been stronger. There’s little explanation in the series on how the ghosts affect them years later away from the house. The last episode is an info dump but it still doesn’t give a satisfactory answer as to what has happened and why. The ambiguity of whether its the character’s mental health or Hill House to blame for what occurs is lost in the series. In its place is the unexplained supernatural, which is a massive flaw.


Setting

The Haunting of Hill House (1959)

The description of Hill House in the book as not being sane is classic.

“Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it has stood for eighty years and might stand 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.”

The confusing layout of the rooms and stone lions may seem cliché now but they weren’t at the time. Talking about the location of the house being not at the top of the hill but in front of it, like the hills could swallow it is interesting; Nell herself being devoured by the house. Hill House is not built like a normal house. The unsteady spiral staircase and odd angle rooms which can affect your balance are nice touches as well which show how the design of the house can affect your sanity.

The Haunting of Hill House Triple Threat

The Haunting (1963)

The house in the film is very elegant and cluttered with decorations and patterns everywhere. The extravagance of the house shows why Luke agrees to research Hill House in the hope that the supernatural will be disproved, and then the house could be sold. Not being shot in colour doesn’t help with the details of the house, and I found it difficult to tell if the rooms were slanted like they were in the book. However there is no denying the eeriness of the house with its long corridors. The spiral staircase is a shaky all-metal affair with mosaic like holes in the steps. It is not how I imagined it from the book, but the sounds of footsteps, and the swaying make it terrifying.

The Haunting of Hill House Triple Threat

The Haunting of Hill House (2018)

A big budget and modern technology can accomplish a lot and thus the house design is no different. It’s very similar to the book and 1963 film, depicting the statue, spiral staircase, shutting doors, etc. But it doesn’t appear as extravagant. The basement that doesn’t appear on the house plans is claustrophobic, and the dumbwaiter lift elevator is a brilliant touch that hints at terror right from the start. You can tell the kids innocence will ensure they will get them in the elevator, and it reminds me of the Goosebumps episode ‘The Headless Ghost’ so I strongly approve. The ‘Red Room’ – a locked room that no one can open – is eerie to say the least. However, the focus on ghosts means I didn’t pay as much attention to the house itself as I did in the other media, but its still presented as a gothic and sinister place.

For Fear, the Netflix series was the most terrifying with all its jump scares and unexplained occurrences. For Character, it’s difficult to decide as Nell’s development is best fleshed out in the book, but Julie Harris’ portrayal of Nell in the film also comes close. However, it is the series that fleshes out most of the secondary characters – but do we really connect with any of them on the same scale as we do with Nell in the book and film? For Plot, the film is faithful to the book with its tight structure, but also focuses a lot more on Nell’s mental health thus creating ambiguity. And for Setting? I’d go with the Netflix series as it retained many of the classic features, but also added the dumbwaiter lift and the mysterious ‘Red Room’…

So to conclude, having looked at the 1959 book, 1963 film, and the 2018 Netflix series across four different categories – Fear, Character, Plot, and Setting – I feel the Netflix series was personally the most enjoyable, although each version is original and entertaining in its own right.


Editor’s notes:

[1] The Panavision camera was only given to director Robert Wise on condition that he acknowledged that the lens was imperfect.




David Jenkins

Writes reviews, articles, comics, screenplays and short stories.