Netflix: Evolution of The Haunting of Hill House, from page to screen


You may know about the hit Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House, but do you know about its original source and the movies based on it?

Everyone knows that the Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House has been a huge hit, and most people know by now that Hill House started as a novel. But, how much do you know about how the book evolved into the movie, which evolved into another movie, which then evolved into a series?

Let’s start with the confusion aspect of the title. The novel, which was published in 1959, was titled “The Haunting of Hill House.” The acclaimed 1963 movie version was titled The Haunting, as was the not so acclaimed 1999 movie. None of these are to be confused with The House on Haunted Hill, Hell House (also a really good novel, written by Richard Matheson), or Hell House LLC. Are you with me so far?

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Shirley Jackson’s original novel is widely considered to be one of the best haunted house / ghost stories ever, although opinions vary on whether it is really about a haunted house, or about an emotionally disturbed and possibly psychic woman. Either way, it is loved by many horror fans, including Stephen King, who wrote about it in his non-fiction book Danse Macabre (that is, in fact, how I was introduced to Hill House; as a total book nerd, I found a copy right away, and fell in love with it). Jackson reportedly sketched the exterior of the fictional house, and created floor plans for both the upstairs and downstairs floors.

The book was popular enough that it was released in 1963 as a black and white film, which was well-received. It’s a very effective film, with cleverly designed sets that are…unsettling, let’s say. All of the “room” sets were built with ceilings, so as to give the viewer a somewhat claustrophobic feeling. Producer/Director Robert Wise used a wide-angle lens camera that was defective, purposely causing distorted images. Martin Scorsese listed The Haunting as number one on his list of the 11 scariest horror films of all time, and a stage production was mounted in 1964.

Courtesy of MGM Studios and Argyle Enterprises

With a blockbuster cast (including Catherine Zeta-Jones, Luke Wilson, Lily Taylor, and Liam Neeson), and Steven Spielberg as the uncredited executive producer, the 1999 remake of The Haunting  should have been a top-notch film. Unfortunately, it was hindered by a bad script and way too much emphasis on the spectacular CGI effects. It was nominated for five Razzie Awards.

Courtesy of DreamWorks

Things stayed pretty quiet at Hill House until 2015, when another stage production was mounted in Liverpool, England. And then Netflix picked it up, and the rest is recent history.

Story-wise, Flanagan went in a different direction, but his affection for his source material is evident throughout the ten-episode series. Original character names are used, along with references to events in the book.

In the series, for example, Nell finds a tea set that contains “a cup of stars”, which references the book’s Eleanor, who overhears a child in a restaurant refusing to drink milk unless it is in her cup of stars. Theo is awakened by who she believes to be Nell in the middle of the night, and holds her hand, only to find out that no one is in bed with her at all. The event, and Theo’s chilling response, “Whose hand was I holding?” is taken from the book. The opening monologue is a direct quote from the book’s opening paragraph.

— Courtesy of Netflix

The enormous popularity of the Netflix series all but guarantees there will be renewed (and well-deserved) interest in Shirley Jackson’s novel, and most likely a second season of Flanagan’s show as well. Who knows? We may not have heard the last of Hill House!

In the meantime, we can look forward to the upcoming film adaptation of Jackson’s 1962 horror novel “We Have Always Lived in the Castle.” And, oh, dear readers, that is another great story!

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Fan of The Haunting of Hill House? Enjoying the Netflix adaptation? Let the other spooky spirits know what you think in the comment section below.