Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Review: The Haunting of Hill House at Strange Horizons

My review of Netflix's miniseries adaptation of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House is up at Strange Horizons today.  I ended up feeling deeply conflicted about the show.  Like many Jackson fans, I was initially dismayed by its decision to rip out the original novel's story and replace it with something in which only a few character names and details are recognizable.  Then I was won over by the excellence of this substitute story, and the way it combined supernatural haunting with thoroughly mundane family drama and the effects that unacknowledged tragedy can have on families.  And then, as the series's storytelling started groaning as it approached its conclusion, I started to notice how its deviation from the novel reaches much further than changing the plot, to a complete misunderstanding of what Jackson was trying to do with her story, particularly when it comes to gender.  The Netflix version of Haunting prioritizes male characters and treats women as tragic victims, which is something that Jackson would surely have strenuously objected to. 

Still, I've found that Haunting has lingered with me in the weeks since I watched it (certainly far more than Netflix's other major October offerings, like the third season of Daredevil and the reboot of Sabrina, both of which ended up feeling centerless, and uncertain about their main characters).  I'm not sure if I can exactly recommend it, but if you do choose to watch it, you'll find plenty to chew over.

This is also a good opportunity to mention that the Strange Horizons fund drive is running, and with only a week left, is still quite short of its goal.  The magazine has continued to do great work in the last year, and in the reviews department in particular, there has been some fantastic writing in 2018: Nandini Ramachandran on The Shape of Water, Maggie Clark on The Wrong Stars by Tim Pratt, Vajra Chandrasekera's excellent overview of this year's Clarke Award shortlist (part 1 and 2), Erin Horakova on Netflix's reboot of The Worst Witch, Matt Hilliard on the middle two books of Ada Palmer's Terra Ignota series (part 1 and 2), and many others.  If you want this work to continue, please consider making a contribution.

13 comments:

Unknown said...

I feel like the only Greg Berlanti show that came out with a great season 1 was The Flash. Every other show needed to find itself after trying a bunch of things season 1 and really came into its own in the second season (again, with the exception of Flash, which found itself quickly and then spiraled out of control into unwatchability faster). Arrow found fearless plotting and the amazing Manu Bennett in S2, Legends of Tomorrow committed to the silly and wonderful, Supergirl got to be on The CW instead of CBS and tightened up its focus, Riverdale became the glorious, compelling watch it is once it stopped trying to be a Cover Girl ad and the teen show of teen shows, or the new 90210.

So I have hope for Sabrina, which couldn't decide if it wanted to be camp or serious in the first season. I like all of the supporting characters and the setting, so there are good things to build on. I liked your idea about the parody of religiously conservative society and think that would be an interesting path to take it. I read the story as a gender-flipped Harry Potter - what does it look like when the not particularly smart, not particularly hard-working child magic user who, because of circumstances of her birth, has the entire wizarding world bent over backwards acknowledging her as the golden child is a woman. Given that witchery is seen as both empowering for women but in order to be a practitioner you have to be on the outside of normal society, there's a lot to be explored there. The show has some ideas about that, but like with your parody idea, never really commits to being about any one thing and is instead kind of about a lot of things.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Not sure I agree with your take on the Berlanti shows. I never watched Riverdale past its pilot, but the consensus about it seems to be that it had a great first season and has never managed to recapture that high. I would say something similar about Supergirl, whose first season had some teething problems but at least realized that it should be about its title character, and especially her growth process as a person, not just a superhero. In comparison, the second and third seasons made Kara static, and even saw her regressing into childish, thoughtless behavior, even as they downplayed the civilian life in which she might more easily be challenged to grow and change (S4 might be moving back in the first season's direction; it's still too soon to tell).

Meanwhile, the Berlanti shows that I do think found themselves in their second seasons were the ones who had a strong understanding of their core from day one. Arrow was mess in its plotting throughout most of its first season, but it knew who Oliver was, and has never really lost sight of him. Legends of Tomorrow made some important improvements in its second season - get rid of some of the dead weight in the cast, get better villains, commit more strongly to the comedic tone - but the core of the show, a Doctor Who-esque romp that substitutes standard superhero angst for compassion and open-mindedness, was there from day one.

I don't see that Sabrina has itself figured out on that level. The weakest aspect of the show is Sabrina herself, and her character arc over the course of the season is hopelessly muddled. The huge decision she makes in the finale barely even registers, because we have so little sense of who she is, much less what this decision will mean for her. Maybe the writers can figure this out in S2 (though that season is already in the can, so they won't be able to respond to any criticisms of S1 except on the most superficial level), but I'm not sure that this is a flaw that can be made up for so easily.

John Kleve said...

Abigail, would you recommend Jackson's short fiction? I read Hill House recently and quite enjoyed it, and I've had an eye on the new Penguin collection since but haven't taken the leap yet.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I would recommend just about anything by Jackson, but certainly the short stories are worth a read. "The Lottery" is the most famous one, but I think a lot of her less-known stories are even more interesting. In particular, a lot of them get into race relations and gender issues a lot more strongly than the more allegorical "Lottery".

Arkhivist said...

What I have read of Netflix's "Haunting of Hill House" makes me think that Flanagan must have conceived of it as an original story, but the studio refused to finance it except as an "adaptation" (requiring a few essentially cosmetic changes) because they thought that would give it a built-in audience. They might as well have named the characters Stanley, Stella, Blanche, and Tennessee and called it an adaptation of "A Streetcar Named Desire".

In her review of the film adaptation of Katherine Anne Porter's "Ship of Fools", Pauline Kael wrote something like, "Once again a male director and male screenwriter have turned a woman's writing upside down and come up with male fantasies." In 1965!

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I find it hard to believe that Jackson is such a huge draw that Netflix thought she would bring more viewers than an original ghost story. A lot of people I've talked to about the miniseries haven't read the book, and some weren't even aware that it existed.

My take on it is that this is Flanagan's interpretation of Hill House filtered through Stephen King. Jackson is a huge influence on King, particularly his ghost stories such as The Shining. But his homages to her are riddled with his own preoccupations - where Jackson was interested in women's frustration and alienation, King is interested in men's anxiety, particularly over fatherhood. My guess is that Flanagan was writing an homage to him as much as to Jackson, and also that - as the fantastic Kael quote notes - he's simply unaware of how he's shifted the original story's focus. Which is terrifyingly easy to do in a culture that so prioritizes men's stories, and is so unused to placing women at its narrative center, that it can completely fail to notice that the latter has happened.

Phillip Smith said...

I suppose I took away from the Haunting of Hill House not so much gender politics (perhaps because I'm a man and so that kind of discussion isn't at the front of my mind), but more about the long-reaching impacts of family trauma and how a refusal to directly confront that trauma can shatter a family. There's the initial house itself and all the hauntings that take place inside it, gradually disturbing the entire family until Olivia, driven mad by the house itself, tries to kill her kids and eventually is tricked into committing suicide. But then there's Hugh's either inability or unwillinginess to tell his kids what happened to their mom and the truth about the house and that creates almost as much trauma as the house itself. It's why Steven refuses to believe in ghosts and hates his dad so much, because he along with the rest of his siblings have been forced to sublimate their trauma imperfectly into other parts of their lives, affecting their spouses and siblings.

That said, I feel like Hugh didn't fail his family in the days leading up to Olivia's death, and I'm confused why in your review in Strange Horizons, you say that's the case. Hugh doesn't seem to notice any obvious signs of supernatural activity except for the Night of the Storm, and tbh even if he did, any rational person would probably refuse to believe that anything was actually happening. But he often isn't the direct victim of supernatural apparitions, so if you're a parent and your kid says that there was someone in the room with them, you check all the places they possibly could be and then dismiss it as a bad dream and most of the time you'd be right. I mean, there's no real reason why Hugh would immediately think that the House is haunted. And keep in mind that Olivia does know that the house is haunted but never tells Hugh what she's seeing or her suspicions. However, when Olivia starts becoming more and more unstable he does notice and kindly suggests that she get away from the house and spend time with her sister to re-calibrate. But she doesn't and instead comes back to the house in the middle of the night. Once Hugh realizes that she's back, he stops her from killing their kids and makes sure that they're safe. Given the unforeseen circumstances that happened in the House that NO ONE could've prepared for, he did a pretty good job. And IIRC, he's the only member of the family that answer's Nell's final calls and goes to reach her, but he's too late as the house's pull is too strong.


The ending of the Haunting was pretty weak as suddenly the house went from being malevolent and unknowable to being this kind of benign force where the ghosts all see them off and the groundskeeper takes his wife to be resurrected as a ghost. And there were monologues in the last episode, especially between Hugh and Olivia, that made it feel like they were reading directly from a book, and not in a good way.

One thing that I didn't get at all about the ending was how Hugh makes Steven keep his death a secret from the rest of the family and the show treats this like it's a noble thing, like Steven's shouldering responsibility, when so much of the show up to the finale was about how Hugh's secret keeping tore the family apart.

Overall though, as you said, the show really does stick in the mind after its done.

Andrew Stevens said...

Phillip: My take is that the house was never either benign or malign. It is simply hungry and stupid, as we are told. The ghosts within are malign or benign. When the show begins, the most powerful ghost in the house is Poppy. At the end of the show, it is Olivia. And the protagonist and heroine of the show is Nell, who is benign though much less powerful than her mother. I agree that Hugh is definitely not to blame for Olivia. He even made sure to get her out of the house before she completely flipped. Unfortunately, it was already too late and she snuck back in, but I can't see how that's Hugh's fault. Hugh is not the hero of the story; that's Nell. But he does play a significant heroic role in the story.

On the other hand, the show isn't even remotely about Steven. Hugh wasn't enjoining Steve to keep his death a secret (presumably Steven went back to the family and told them that Hugh died after he and Steven went back into the house, rather than before). The secret that Steven was supposed to keep was that Olivia was a murderess before she died.

Andrew Stevens said...

I think Hugh may have been right about that. Growing up with their mother's suicide was traumatic enough without adding her commission of murder into the mix as well.

By the way, as we are told, Nell wasn't calling her family for help. She was checking up on Luke. My take is that presumably due to "the twin thing," she knew he had left rehab and was in very significant danger. That's why she sacrifices herself to the house - to try to save him, which she does. Similarly she stops taking her medication when Luke enters rehab and has stopped taking his "medication."

Andrew Stevens said...

An interesting analysis, caught by someone on Reddit and confirmed by Flanagan is that the five Crain children represent the five stages of grief.

Steven is denial and this has affected his life by turning him into a professional liar and caused him to refuse to have the children his wife wants (his denial of the reality of ghosts led him to the false conclusion that his family was insane. Nell tries to break through his denial when she confronts him and this is why the first thing she does after death is appear to him as a ghost.

Shirley is anger, causing her to fake perfection so she can be mad at other people's imperfections. I also didn't notice immediately that Shirley, like all the women in her family, is "sensitive." She has prophetic dreams and sleep talks them ("Nell is in the red room" and, of course, penguins really don't like macaroni). This sensitivity does her no good because she doesn't accept it.

Theodora is bargaining. Her bargain is she will accept what happened as long as she doesn't have to feel anything about it. Ghost Nell accepts this bargain by taking away all her feelings with the implicit question, "Is this really what you want?" (Obviously she concludes it isn't.)

Luke is depression which he medicates with smack.

And Nell, of course, is acceptance and heals her family at the end with her love. "I'm sorry if I didn't listen." "It wouldn't have changed anything. I need you to know that. Forgiveness is warm. Like a tear on a cheek. Think of that and of me when you stand in the rain. I loved you completely. And you loved me the same. That's all. The rest is confetti."

Andrew Stevens said...

A personal, biographical note: my father was a schizophrenic. When I was six to ten, he was unemployed and lay on the couch, mad as a hatter, scribbling in his notebooks, watching TV, and playing darts while my mother got an entry-level job to support the family. (During this period, I watched Kubrick's The Shining with him which is why it will always remain the scariest film I have ever seen.)

When I was ten, he declined extremely rapidly over the period of about a week or two, becoming more erratic, much more explosive, and actively dangerous. This came to a head one night when my older brother had to physically restrain him from sexually assaulting my sister while my mother called the police to have him forcibly removed.

Could I blame my mother for letting it reach that point? Sure. But hindsight is 20/20, she loved the man (before his illness), and the decline was very sudden and rapid. If it had been me, perhaps I would have acted sooner or even kicked him out long before it reached that point. But, in the end, I simply can't bring myself to apportion to my mother any significant amount of blame. Anyway, that's why I have an almost hostile reaction to the suggestion that Hugh is to blame for Olivia. Things like that are very complicated and assumptions that we are so superior that obviously we would have handled it better are, in my view, pure speculations, and possibly even delusions. I have no idea how well I would handle my wife if she ever became seriously mentally ill, particularly if it was very rapid, even though I have given a great deal of thought to things like that over the decades.

Anyway, I do believe the series is a work of genius and it has stuck with me as well. The more I think about it, the better I like it.

Andrew Stevens said...

It definitely is unfortunate that it was packaged as an adaptation of Shirley Jackson's excellent novel. If only because it is being judged by, in my opinion, inappropriate metrics due to that fact by the book's biggest fans. I do believe that if he had tried to deliver a series on the themes which interested Jackson rather than the themes which interested him, he would likely have delivered a much inferior product.

I suspect this may have happened because the suits wanted the security of some sort of built-in fanbase even though we all know that fanbase is very small. I recall my horror at Archie comics being turned into a "dark, sexy teen soap opera." I'm not an Archie comics fan at all, but I do know that Archie comics was not that. For all I know it might be a great show in its own right, but why not just write your own dark, sexy teen soap opera? The answer, I strongly suspect, is that the suits are terrified of creating anything wholly new without the security that there is at least some group of people out there who will be predisposed to watch it. I'm not second-guessing them. They're the ones who get fired if their multi-million dollar gambles fail and I assume they know the business side better than I do. From an artistic perspective, it is very unfortunate though.

Andrew Stevens said...

A further thought which just occurred to me: Steven's distinction between the supernatural and the preternatural is important. At the beginning of the series, we don't understand the House. At the end, we realize that it is dangerous, but it is also just a dumb, hungry beast. We have intelligence and it doesn't, so it's significantly less frightening. Thus the happy ending (though it's not a truly happy ending for the Dudleys, Hugh, Olivia, and Nell).

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