Netflix's Haunting anthology seems bent on proving the book is better
I don't tend to put a lot of stock in the old cliché about the book being better than the movie. Aside from having the same self-congratulatory ring to it as the person who finds every opportunity to bring up that they "don't own a TV," it just doesn't check out. Great adaptations have of course been made of great literature — Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 thriller The Birds, based on Daphne du Maurier's short story of the same name, comes to mind as a personal favorite — and arguing about which is "better" misses that each work has its own individual identity.
Netflix's Haunting anthology appears bent on proving me wrong. Each season has centered on a different literary haunted house, with the first two rather ambitiously tackling what Stephen King once described as the "only two great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years," Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House in 2018, and The Haunting of Bly Manor, based on Henry James' Turn of the Screw, out Friday. Though each season, like Hitchcock's The Birds, is only really an "adaptation" in the loosest of terms, the modernizing of the novels and creative liberties with the plots aren't the problem. Rather, by suggesting the comparison at all, the Haunting anthology highlights just how watered down it is compared to its source material.
Speaking with Den of Geek in 2018, Haunting writer-director Mike Flanagan explained that Hill House is intended to be watched "as a remix." "It was more interesting," he said, "to break down the book and pull out the characters and the themes and individual moments and pieces of prose, even, that had really stuck with me, and try to rearrange it." Still, that's a little like pulling down the Pyramid of Giza or the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum — a structurally brilliant and precise work — and attempting to build something with the rubble. Admittedly, Flanagan had been asked to tackle what even he admitted was the impossible project of adapting Shirley Jackson's 150-page novel — which contains perhaps the greatest opening paragraph in all of English-language literature — into the ten-hour format of a Netflix TV show. But in the process of getting "remixed," Hill House does away with Jackson's psychological subtleties, literalizing what she had left in the subtext.
For fans, that didn't matter; the 2018 adaptation is sleep-with-the-lights-on scary, and sometimes that's all you need. But I find myself agreeing with Newsday critic Verne Gay, who wondered why Netflix bothered keeping the title at all if it was going to do away with so much of the book's intentions: "Haunting is so far from the original source material that it's more of a demolition than adaptation," he argued, suggesting that leaving the comparison to Jackson's Hill House in place only made it look weaker. The New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum was even less kind and more on point: "The bigger problem," she wrote, "is that the pungency of the original story — its off-kilter vision of how fear shreds identity; its insight into social outsiders — has been drained away, sanded over, then renovated with Goop-y self-help truisms about bereavement and healing." The remix actually declaws the original.
The new season of Haunting, based on Henry James' Turn of the Screw, is perhaps even more egregious in its disregard for its source material. For one thing, it simply isn't very scary. That's a pretty remarkable achievement in and of itself, seeing as Turn of the Screw is so terrifying a novella that it even freaked out its own author when he was doing revisions: "When I had finished [correcting the proofs], I was so frightened that I was afraid to go upstairs to bed," James told his friend in 1898. The Independent called the book "the most hopelessly evil story that we could have read in any literature," which would have made a pretty great blurb. But while there are a handful of jump scares and string crescendos in The Haunting of Bly Manor, the imagery isn't nearly as disturbing as its predecessor. The show instead falls back on crutches of the horror genre: creepy kids; creepy drawings by the creepy kids; creepy dolls; a creepy ill-advised game of hide-and-seek inside the haunted house; a creepy waterlogged ghost lady à la The Ring; a creepy doppelgänger. It's all so by-the-numbers that it induces more yawns than chills. When the brother throws his sister's doll down the laundry chute and it needs to be fetched from the cellar, it's hard not to react with, oh, right, I know how this one goes.
Most bewildering of all, though, is the fact that Bly Manor throws out the biggest central tension of Turn of the Screw: the governess' sanity. Almost immediately, the show confirms that the ghosts in Bly Manor are definitely real, although this question is so hotly debated in the literary community that the opposing factions actually have names: the apparitionists, who argue Bly's ghosts are real, and the non-apparitionists, who argue the narrator is unreliable and the phantoms are in her head. As author Colm Tóibín (whose novel, The Master, is about James) wrote for The Guardian in 2006, "For anyone thinking of making a film of the story, this ambiguity was a godsend." True: so why did Netflix's Bly Manor strip it of its primary suspense?
Both Netflix's Hill House and Bly Manor end on upbeat notes, entirely devoid of the dread that Jackson and James so magnificently cultivate with their words. It's fine that both set out to be their own projects, but nothing significant is gained by throwing out what made their source material great. I wish Netflix and the show's creators had been confident enough in their visions to detach the stories from the recognizable literary titles, or to allow the audience to do some of the work of understanding the metaphors on their own. As it stands, the comparison of the books to the adaptation is unfavorable, not because the Haunting writers fail to be at the level of Jackson and James — who is? — but because the cited sources only emphasize what the show is missing.
Addressing his interest in du Maurier's "The Birds," Hitchcock once said: "If the story had involved vultures, or birds of prey, I might not have wanted it. The basic appeal to me is that it had to do with ordinary, everyday birds. Do you see what I mean?" While his film is nearly unrecognizable from du Maurier's original British war allegory, it honors the horror in the familiar, and how uncanniness can be built by knocking a formerly friendly world slightly, violently, awry. Substitute "birds of prey" for "literal ghosts" in the Haunting anthology and you begin to understand the massive blunder by its creators. Were the show to tackle du Maurier's story in an eventual third season — The Haunting of the Cornish Farm House, say — you'd brace for vultures.