The Haunting: Print to Film
Almost all of of the novel is told from Eleanor's perspective. For the last 11 years or so, Eleanor has been taking care of her invalid mother. After her mother's death, she is propelled to accept Dr. Montague's invitation to join him at Hill House to be an assistant, after an unpleasant argument with her terrible sister and brother-in-law. For Eleanor, the trip to Hill House represents an attempt to free herself from her old contained life.
"She could not remember ever being truly happy in her adult life; her years with her mother had been built up devotedly around small guilts and small reproaches, constant weariness, and unending despair. Without ever wanting to become reserved and shy, she had spent so long alone, with no one to love, that it was difficult for her to talk, even casually, to another person without self-consciousness and an awkward inability to find words." - The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959)
In the novel, Eleanor doesn't start off mad, imaginative and dreamy, but not mad. Over time, she seamlessly slips into madness, taking the reader along with her. In the movie however, her transition in to madness is exaggerated to the point where it seems like she was mad from the beginning. There is a shallow background to Eleanor in the movie, which severs the emotional connection between the viewer and the character, unlike that of the novel. Without that connection to the odd "Nell" in the movie, the viewer has a hard time experiencing, and believing, the terror that "Nell" feels.
In the movie Dr. Montague, a.k.a. Dr. Marrow, is made younger, more handsome, and a romantic angle. He is unethical and less favorable in the movie compared to the book.
“You don’t tell the rats they’re actually in a maze!” - The Haunting, 1999
In the remake, Theo is openly bisexual, casually mentioning as one of her first lines that she has both a boyfriend and a girlfriend. During the rest of the story, she keeps making overt attempts to seduce "Nell". The connection between her and "Nell" in the film seems factitious and more awkward then that of the novel.
In the movie, Captain Obvious, was reduced to a lowly role as one of the insomniacs who stated the obvious and hinted that the Dr. might be making the house a setup. He was relatable when he stated that some elements of the house were creepy, while crazy "Nell" was boasting that she was "home" and that she loved the place.
“'I don't stay after I set out dinner,' Mrs. Dudley went on. 'Not after it begins to get dark. I leave before dark comes.'" - The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959)
"'In the night,' Mrs. Dudley said, and smiled outright. 'In the dark,' she said, and closed the door behind her." - The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959)
Although the main setting for the novel and the film, Hill House is a character in it's own right. In the novel, it serves as a possible explanation for the terrifying experiences that happen there. Towards the beginning of the story, Dr. Montague says, “some houses are born bad". That possible explanation for the ambiguous happenings in the house breathes life into the inanimate estate, transforming it into an aggressive entity (think Columbia Pictures' Monster House 2006, but without the love story connection).
"Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone." - The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959)
"No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house, and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice." - The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959)
Unfortunately, the house in the movie wasn't personified. Sadly, the house was used more as a tool for the ghosts than its own character.
The novel has a plot that obviously differs from that of the movie's. In the novel, Dr. Montague is determined to make a name for himself by proving the existence of the spiritual world. He plans on doing so by conducting a study of Hill House, which has a history of being a true haunted house with ghostly appearances and tragic deaths. Through newspaper reports, he finds incidences of individuals who have been involved in events which involve some sort of spiritual or paranormal activity. He then contacts the people and offers them a short term job as his assistant. He believes these people who have already experienced psychic activity would be more sensitive to the spiritual influences in the house.
“crazy house at the carnival”, which just so happens to be a feature of the house in the movie.
"It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope. Exorcism cannot alter the countenance of a house; Hill House would stay as it was until it was destroyed." - The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959)
"The house was vile. She shivered and thought, the words coming freely into her mind, Hill House is vile, it is diseased; get away from here at once." - The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959)
Unfortunately, too many CGI effects on the house made it difficult for the house to look anything but fake. In the book, yes the house was ornate, however, the movie tried to cram too much detail into the house. It was overall distracting and hindering rather than useful to the affect of the overall movie on the viewer.
In the book, Jackson never outright states that there are entities haunting the house. Instead, she leaves it up to the reader to infer what's really going on. Because of the ambiguity of the whole situation the haunting can either be a real apparition, the insanity and imagination of Eleanor, or an evil house. The genius of Jackson's work is that there will never be a concrete correct answer. The affect is simultaneously mind-boggling and chilling.
On the other hand, the movie is not a genius piece of work. In the movie, the conflict is "Nell" fighting to free the souls of the dead children from the murderous Crain. The terrible acting combined with the sketchy and dialog and plot make the central conflict hard to endure. Mostly, you just sit there and try to follow along while also rolling your eyes at psycho "Nell"'s antics. By changing the conflict outright and stating that the house was haunted by "good" ghosts who try to do people's hair and the evil ghost of Crain, the movie takes out the mystery that had us thinking even after we finished the novel.
Sanity v. Insanity
The movie, you could say, explores the theme of belongingness and family seeing as that is what calls Eleanor to action to try and save the children's souls. However, this movie was intended to scare, and since the dialog wasn't well planned out, we doubt their theme was either. Perhaps, it delves into the theme of insanity, because "Nell" did act crazy and babble, and was scatterbrained in her actions.
What integral scene in the novel was removed in the film?
Why might the director have approached the film the way he did?
How do outside sources feel about each individually?
- Carol Cleveland explained in And Then There Were Nine . . . More Women of Mystery that with this novel Jackson had given the traditional gothic story a twist. "The classic gothic formula, " Cleveland wrote, "brings a vulnerable young girl to an isolated mansion with a reputation for ghosts, exposes her to a few weird happenings to heighten the suspense, then explains the `supernatural' away by a perfectly human, if evil, plot and leaves the heroine in the strong arms of the hero. In House, the heroine is exceedingly vulnerable, the weird happenings quite real, the house really haunted."
- Stephen King, in his book Danse Macabre (1981), a non-fiction review of the horror genre, lists The Haunting of Hill House as one of the finest horror novels of the late 20th century and provides a lengthy review.
- According to the Wall Street Journal, the book is "now widely regarded as the greatest haunted-house story ever written."
- In his review column for F&SF, Damon Knight selected the novel as one of the 10 best genre books of 1959, declaring it "in a class by itself."
The Haunting (1999) did not fair well with the critics.
- Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a "Rotten" rating of 17%, with the critical consensus stating "Sophisticated visual effects fail to offset awkward performances and an uneven script."
- As a result of the negative reviews, it was nominated for five Razzie Awards.
- Roger Ebert was one of few critics to give the film a positive review, praising the production design in particular.