Design by Tamara Turner

When a book as perfect as Shirley Jackson’s classic horror masterpiece “The Haunting of Hill House” is adapted to the screen, the very notion is understandably worrisome. The prospect of it being better than the original? Entirely unfathomable. Two films titled “The Haunting” have tried before, one a fairly faithful rendition in 1963, and one very much not in 1999, yet neither could respectively hold a candle to Jackson’s magnum opus. While the 2018 adapted Netflix miniseries “The Haunting of Hill House” is in no way better than its source material, it is a wholly perfect adaptation. Confused? I’ll explain.

To me, an ideal adaptation must toe the line between staying true to the essence of its original source material and standing firmly on its own two artistic feet. Take Amy Heckerling’s (“The Muppets.”) “Clueless,” for instance. Arguably the greatest adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Emma” to date, it both revitalizes the gossip-driven, status-obsessed atmosphere of the original for a modern audience and invokes the timeless nature of Austen’s literary genius. What is perhaps most vital to its superiority against countless other “Emma” adaptations (yes, even the 2020 version with Anya Taylor-Joy’s (“Amsterdam”) flawless portrayal of the titular character) is its willingness to take a calculated risk and step out from under the shadow of its own eponymous dependence, to contribute to the culture in a way the original work so indisputably did. Hence why the 1994 “Little Women” film is good, relative to the book, but Greta Gerwig’s (“Lady Bird”) 2019 version is great. Starting to get it?

Such is the case with Mike Flanagan’s (“The Haunting of Bly Manor”) 2018 miniseries, “The Haunting of Hill House,” which introduced a whole new generation of viewers to Jackson’s eerily chilling brilliance. In a greatly reductive nutshell, the book follows a troubled and lonely young woman named Eleanor, who stays at the notoriously haunted Hill House with two other guests, Theo and Luke, as part of a paranormal investigation on the mysterious forces at the root of the house’s enigmatic evil. In totality, the show offers a far different narrative focus than the original, centered around a family that briefly stays at Hill House in the ’90s, and is then plagued by unseen terrors that linger for decades after their traumatic time there. The show flips between these two timelines, of the summer spent at Hill House during childhood and of their present-day navigation through adulthood, each tormented by an unresolved past. 

At its heart, this take on “The Haunting of Hill House” is a family drama wrapped in the cobwebs of a classic gothic ghost story and one horrifically haunted house. The five Crain children include “Nell” (Victoria Pedretti, “You”), Theo (Kate Seigel, “Hush”) and Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen “The Invisible Man”) who we know and love, rounded out by newcomers Steven (Michiel Huisman, “The Age of Adaline”) and Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser, “Twilight”) (Get it? Because – you know, Steven Spielberg and Shirley Jackson?). The first five episodes guide us through each of their childhood experiences at Hill House and their present-day vices: disbelieving “know-it-all” Steven, high-strung and haughtily righteous Shirley, cold queer clairvoyant Theo and lastly, the twins, deeply tortured drug-addict Luke and anxiety-ridden Nell. Following a tragic death in the family, the siblings are forced to confront the past and figure out exactly what went down in that house all those years ago.

Much as described in the book, Hill House is a character in and of itself, with a manifestation of raw, unadulterated evil embedded in its very architecture. Steven, as the writer of the family, iterates many of Jackson’s sublime descriptions of the house through voiceovers, including the iconic opening and final lines that immediately immerse you in the realm of the house and its foreboding, darkly unsettling energy: “Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within.” Beyond these more obvious homages to the original, an abundance of easter eggs are woven into the fabric of the show, from Theo reading Jackson’s “The Lottery” to the most minute details in the production design of the house. As a massive fan of the book, I was elated to spot the little nods to Nell’s “cup of stars,” her blue room or her therapist, Dr. Montague (Russ Tamblyn, “Twin Peaks”). This meticulous precision is such a frightful delight in the horror genre, as Flanagan littered countless “hidden ghosts” in the scenes shot in the house, always lurking in doorways, ever so slightly out of frame, just visible enough to fill you with dread at the hinted prospect of horrors you haven’t even noticed yet.

Evidently far ahead of her time, Jackson capitalized on that profound effect of being betrayed by one’s own psyche, in that nothing she could explicitly write would ever be quite as terrifying as the visual concocted in the audience’s own mind. As far as adaptations go, this show is exemplary primarily because it’s the product of a genuine understanding of her innovations. With Flanagan at the helm, the show becomes less of a direct page-to-screen translation and more so a masterful interpretation and projection of Jackson’s artistic vision. It captures something pure and true of the book’s subtle horror, dancing around glimpses of blood-curdling sights and leaving the rest to the audience’s worst imagination. Never overly dependent on jumpscares or gory deaths to induce a shocking reaction out of its audience, it rather kindles a terribly unnerving feeling that creeps into the corners of your mind and hangs about you for days on end. Every time I think about Theo’s outwardly innocuous line, “Whose hand was I holding?” upon waking from a nightmare to an empty bed, an instinctual shudder courses through my body at the implication being made and the horrific insinuations left unsaid. 

Like a phantasmagorical recollection of a nightmare, it’s difficult to put into words what makes each gorgeously designed shot or impeccably acted scene of this show so fantastically unreal, yet profoundly impactful. But one of its key ingenuities is its ability to take the elements that made the novel so uniquely magnificent and build upon them in its own way. The show’s Theo absorbs all of the queer-coded subtleties of Jackson’s original work (no joke, “they were roommates”) and canonically confirms them. The heartbreaking arc in “The Bent-Neck Lady” encapsulates Nell to a tee, showing Pedretti dancing along the halls of Hill House on the verge of a psychotic break as a highlight of the show in its entirety. Even though Carla Gugino’s (“Spy Kids”) character Olivia isn’t in the book, her presence is a welcome addition due to her positively phenomenal performance. Seriously, she is at the top of her game as the horror mother of all mothers – I genuinely can’t remember being that terrified of a maternal figure since I watched “Coraline” for the first time. 

For all of Netflix’s faults, “The Haunting of Hill House” is an incomparable gem in that unseemly abundance of original “content” it churns out each month. I could advocate for the brilliance of this adaptation endlessly, because it not only delivers for fans of the book, but thrives upon the horror genre’s recent surges in popularity and Netflix’s wide-reaching audience to revive the original story for the 21st-century masses. As good as the show is independent of the book, it remains particularly special to me as a grandiose tribute to Jackson’s genius and a testament to her enduring power to affright, respectfully actualizing her immeasurable impact on the landscape of the horror genre as we know it. No one writes about maleficent homicidal architecture quite like her, and I’m not sure if anyone ever will.

I leave you with this final quote, which might just be my favorite mildly pretentious description of her masterful artistry: “(Jackson) has produced caviar for the connoisseurs of the cryptic, the bizarre, the eerie,” reads the 1959 New York Times review of “The Haunting of Hill House.” Truer words have never been written.

Daily Arts Writer Serena Irani can be reached at seirani@umich.edu.