“The book was better than the movie.”
You hear it a lot, and it’s usually true. For the adventurous mind–and this particular tale is for an adventurous mind–a novel will necessarily top a film. Novels can do things films can’t. Novels explore themes in depth. Novels get read at the reader’s preferred pace, get recreated through the reader’s imagination. When I read Shirley Jackson‘s The Haunting of Hill House (1952), it’s my mind building that foreboding manor surrounded by pressing hills. It’s my empathy rooting for protagonist Eleanor, hoping she’ll make it through, feeling signal by signal that she won’t.
Films, on the other hand, are a specific vision. Maybe evocative, a goad for debate, a master class in subtext, but in the end we’re watching concrete images there on the screen. Places, things, actors playing it a certain way. Movies, though, do some things better than novels. They’re sharper. A movie has to push ahead, no getting sidelined. Attention spans and stimuli exhaustion. Leg cramps, nature calling. What movies do best is drill into a story’s core. The Haunting had one hell of a core to mine.
The Haunting of Hill House was a successful novel, critically and commercially. For October, I analyzed the novel backward and forward over at Sleuthsayers. Given it did so well, it’s odd that a film version took eleven years before showtime. Even then, only a committed director, an unfulfilled contract, and creative British financing got it made.
Robert Wise was the director intent on the project, and it seemed right for him, too. Wise had a reputation for putting character and story over gimmicks, as he’d proven in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). As for pull and range, he was fresh off an Academy Award double for 1961’s West Side Story.
Her Majesty’s incentive money stipulated Wise pick a British filming location and a cast heavy with British actors. Wise made great choices here, scouting Ettington Park–in Stratford-upon-Avon, no less–as Hill House and then bringing his headliner stars onboard. Julie Harris played lead character Eleanor with a brilliant mix of vulnerability and childish pique. Claire Bloom played the bohemian Theodora with a sly depth and slashing wit. Both women had won accolades for their stage performances, and they brought their considerable talents to Wise’s closed-ceiling shoeboxes for sets.
Shirley Jackson was in poor health but still around for the production, and Wise consulted her on several elements. The title, for one. Wise wanted something snappier. Jackson suggested a trimmer The Haunting. Wise and his screenwriter Nelson Gidding ran with her advice, like they faithfully ran with much of her novel.
There are major differences, and that’s the fun stuff to point out.
Wise read the novel as essentially an allegory on insanity. Eleanor is a damaged person, and the hauntings and growing isolation are her receiving–and not responding to–treatment at a psychiatric institution. No, Jackson assured Wise. The novel is about supernatural things and the fear of them. Wise played up Eleanor’s going mad anyway. In the novel, she seeps into it. In the movie, it’s a stumble. Advantage: Novel.
Wise’s biggest and most interesting add was romance. The novel is virtually bereft of it. Marriages are portrayed clinically or as loveless. No guest locked in the castle is much into anyone else, not really, although Jackson slips in a hint of tension between Eleanor and Theodora, a psychic but without much gift. Theo as a lesbian is clear but unspoken in the novel, a point of her isolation from society in a novel dripping with isolation. In the end, no one is up to anyone else’s standards.
Wise puts love in the foul air. Eleanor begins crushing over their leader Dr. Markway (Dr. Montague in the novel), not realizing he is faithfully married–to his pseudoscience as much as his wife. The love angle seems understandable, in a box office way. The Haunting of Hill House was an intellectual examination, a study of fear and rationalization and isolation. A major film’s broader audience meant forging a broader appeal. Wised used romantic interests to condense motivations into a movie’s shorter space.
Still, having Eleanor so fixate on Markway (in the novel, a much older man and semi-father figure) comes off as Eleanor casting about for a man, any man. Eleanor isn’t husband-hunting in her depth. Eleanor wants an over-fantasized retreat that only a high tower or return to the womb provides. Jackson makes this clear by keeping Eleanor not really much into anyone but herself. Advantage: Novel.
Theo is Eleanor’s perfect foil, open and mature and aware. Her sexuality is overt and is called out as such. Judged for it. Theo seems open to a fling with Nell (Theo is not the committing type), but it comes off as more a protector’s role, someone to grow Nell up a bit. Theo, in Wise’s vision, is more obviously psychic. Her powers are firing even when she says not a word–Theo is too-aware of the house’s design for Eleanor. Even Nell, far more powerful with her psychokinesis, relies on Theo as a haunting weather gauge. Bloom is impeccable as Theo, poetry in motion and just as fluid somehow when not moving. This is what happens when actor meets perfect role. Theo is a draw, the best character in both versions.
THE GOOD DOCTOR
Montague/Markway is a well-intended bumbler in the novel. In the end, he can’t be trusted to deal with the forces he conjures. It suits Jackson’s purpose. In the movie, Montague/Markway is more focused. He’s better at his work. I liked that take on some level, and it definitely suited Wise’s purpose. Call that much a draw.
But making that choice forced Wise into another one. He had to change Mrs. Montague/Markway in age and vocation, and this part feels like a miss. In both novel and film, she’s the late arrival and final catalyst toward Hill House’s reckoning. In the novel, Mrs. Montague blows in as a force of nature, almost comic in tone and blind embrace that the house might be in need of a little love. The missus is herself a self-declared paranormal expert–and more skilled at it than her husband.
Wise flipped this and fashioned Mrs. Montague/Markway as a put-upon housewife come to rescue her husband’s reputation. She naively agrees to sleep in the house’s paranormal epicenter (at Eleanor’s suggestion–a nice add), and the house seems to claim her instead of the destined Eleanor (a la with the doctor himself, another awesome add having gone down this path). Mrs. Montague/Markway then pops up as cheap scares for Eleanor and a possible cause of Eleanor’s ultimate fatal accident. That in turn demands a whole stretch of unnecessary dialogue at the end absolving Mrs. Montague/Markway of any real intent to harm. It’s a lessening of an all-important character. Advantage: Novel.
The final person locked away is Luke Sanderson. In both novel and film, he’s set to inherit Hill House. In the novel, he is mostly the lay person lens on the paranormal disturbances. Beyond that, Jackson often treated Luke as if a late fourth needed for bridge. Wise makes Luke more a creep than a cad, but he gives Luke a clearer motive: Inherit the house and sell it for big bucks. Advantage: Film.
The movie is gorgeous in cinematography and detail. It’s lush and chilling and bewildering, with camera tricks to build viewer disorientation. Wise kept every scene locked inside the house or on the noose of a veranda that rings the house. It works to keep things claustrophobic. Jackson lets our houseguests ramble the grounds, often sunny and promising by day. It’s a trap. The grounds are more dangerous than the house, if anything, but Jackson had space to explore that angle. Both choices suit their mediums well. Call it an impressive draw.
I am a book lover, so yeah, for me the novel beats the film. Both are pretty damn good.