The Haunting of Hill House (Flanagan, 2018)

This is certainly not your mother’s Hill House. Mike Flanagan has taken Shirley Jackson’s novel and re-imagined it as a family saga—something I was apprehensive about, because family sagas are so common nowadays. I’m rather partial to Jackson’s setup, with a group of strangers trying to tolerate each other while being driven out of their minds because of strange forces. It’s more interesting to me, because the lack of meaningful connections drives home the isolation and loneliness of the most sensitive outcast. We travel into the recesses of her mind and begin to question every little thing, until the nature of the haunting is left up in the air. The fear drills into you because you don’t know what to fear, exactly.

Flanagan’s idea here is to pick apart the wedges that have kept members of one family at arm’s length, investigating their individual traumas and insecurities as they are tied back to their childhoods in Hill House and its dangerous power. The mysteries in Jackson’s text sort of vanish by the end. Instead of making you question the supernatural, Flanagan’s interpretation asks you to accept it as truth, because only then can people move on and start putting their lives back in order. Horror and dread give way to the final stages of grief: accepting that we grow by what we lose, and that no journeys ever truly end. Furthermore, no one ends them alone. The final word of the novel is, quite significantly, altered.

I did miss Jackson’s careful mythology of the house, which is (for some reason) given short shrift by Flanagan. Only a few of the ghosts have names and identities, and even they are tossed off glancingly in brief asides. One, for instance, is a flapper girl named Poppy; she’s featured prominently in the last few episodes, but all we’re told is that she was “crazy.” Okay. Haunted houses have deep histories, and this Hill House felt like it was owned by nobodies prior to the Crains. A seemingly minor issue when the Crains are the real focus, but it would have been nice to get that backstory, so as to centre our fears of these spectres.

Aside from that, there are a few inconsistencies, like the nature of Abigail and the inexplicable way neither Nell nor Luke talk about her in their adult forms. I assume her demise manifests itself in the seriousness of the twins’ troubles, because there’s no other way to explain why she is so conspicuously absent in their memories. I also just don’t buy the idea none of the other Crains knew (or believed) she existed. This kind of bending and twisting for narrative suspense strains credulity, and is probably one of the more noticeable weaknesses in Flanagan’s attempt to stretch the ideas of the novel into a ten-hour miniseries.

But stretch them he does, and for the most part, he does a good job of it. The character work is fantastic, as Flanagan allows every actor to own the moment at some point. Even the Dudleys, who are almost non-entities in the book, are given fuller characterizations and their own personal tragedies to cope with. Because of this, their arcs are very easy to invest in, and the majority of them end in ways that are sensible. I did miss Nell being the face of the story, but Flanagan’s version of the character is more or less in keeping with the spirit of Jackson’s creation. He also splices aspects of Jackson’s Nell into Olivia Crain, and the result isn’t very egregious. More egregious is how much of a dick Steven is made to be—and he’s not even Jackson’s character!

Steven, for all his stubbornness, does serve some purpose, though. Because, ultimately, this miniseries deals a lot with the destructive effects of stigma. Through Steven and his bitter rants, it’s hardly subtle, but it’s there. Ignorant judgement calls and dismissing cries for help run like a virus through this narrative, and only until the final hours do we realize that this is as much a path to understanding as it is to healing. Nell and Luke are the figureheads: tortured souls who are quickly put down as lost causes by their family, and who suffer the most because of it. One can count Olivia among them, too. In the end, we see their beauty most clearly, and this is why I don’t mind the more sentimental aspects of this adaptation. In their tragedies, we end up witnessing their goodness. Olivia wants to protect her children from their unhappy fates. Luke has the purest heart, despite a debilitating addiction. And Nell, as we find out, “loves them completely.” In her loneliness and pain, in her desperate pleas to be seen, she still loves them completely. Perhaps the greatest tragedy here is that death was the only way for the Crains to truly realize how much they were loved.

And so they now walk together instead of alone. What before ended on a note of sinister unease now leaves us with hope. And I guess we can be fine with that. There is no such thing as too much hope.