Movie vs. Book: The Haunting of Hill House

Don’t fall over from shock. I’m actually blogging rather than announcing something. Hopefully, this is the beginning of a trend. 🙂

If you’ve known me for any length of time, you likely know I have a thing for haunted houses, both in fiction and in real life. Like real haunted houses, not the fake kind that pop up around Halloween and are only good for a jump scare. No, no, I mean the old ones that have actual spirits in them. I have an aunt who for many years counted ghost hunting among her hobbies, so maybe it runs in the family.

Oddly enough, I can’t handle horror movies. I saw one in 1999 (The House on Haunted Hill remake) that scared me so much I had to leave the theater before it ended (there are reasons for that even though it is a terrible movie) and I haven’t watched one since. (Crimson Peak being the exception, but it was so bad it hardly counts as horror.)

Harlaxton Manor

However, one of my favorite guilty pleasure movies has long been the 1999 remake of The Haunting, starring Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta Jones, Owen Wilson and Lili Taylor. I will be the first to admit this movie is cheese – or at least the last third of it is. But I love it. You see, I have a special connection to it. I was fortunate to go to England for the first time in the spring of 1999 as the capstone to a class I was taking in college. We were there for two weeks and the first week we stayed at Harlaxton Manor, an old Jacobean manor house in Lincolnshire that is now used in part as the overseas campus for the University of Evansville. (It really is haunted by at least two ghosts. Ask me how I know.) That just so happens to be where The Haunting was filmed just a month before. They still had set pieces we got to see and we were allowed to fish through a pile of what they considered trash for souvenirs from the set. I got a wardrobe tag for the photo double for Nell (I checked the credits and it is authentic) and my friend got the padlock that is prominently seen in an exterior night shot when they show how the front gates are chained at night. I’ve seen every “making of” related to that movie. Sadly, only two of the interior shots (minor ones you wouldn’t even notice) and the exterior actually made it into the movie. The rest was filmed on a sound stage.

Quick plot recap for those who have not seen/read The Haunting of Hill House: Psychologist Dr. David Montague (in the book) or Marrow (in the movie) contrives to bring together a group of unsuspecting subjects (who all have some kind of psychic abilities) in order to study, well, here’s the first place where the plots diverge: in the book, it is supernatural phenomenon, but in the movie it is more the power of suggestion in supernatural phenomenon. Anyway, you get the point. He is hoping for a large group, but ends up with only two: Nell, a timid woman who up until recently has acted as caregiver for her mother (who has now died) and Theo, an obnoxious, possibly lesbian (or clearly bisexual in the movie), socialite who can be downright mean. Then there is Luke. In the book, he’s the heir to the house who is only there at the insistence of the current owners who want family present and as a possible love interest for the girls. In the movie, he’s another study participant. So they gather and are told about the history of the house and not long after supernatural things start to occur. Eventually, we are lead to question if those things are really happening or are just in the minds of the participants, especially Nell. I’ll leave it at that to avoid spoilers.

The Haunting has been adapted for screen three times: first in 1963 by Robert Wise (I’ve seen parts of this version and can say it is much better and closer to the book than the later version) and again in 1999 by Jan de Bont, then for Netflix in 2018. (I have not seen this; my friends have warned me it would be too scary for me.) If you want to see laugh out loud parity, watch Scary Movie 2, written and directly by the Wayans Brothers, which was highly based off of this movie. (Fun fact: their version of Theo was the inspiration for the physical description of Mia in Been Searching for You.)

For purposes of this blog, I’m only going to discuss the 1999 movie and the book.

The top picture is an actual interior of Harlaxton that appears in the movie. (I have the exact same picture from when I was there.) The bottom is one of the many interiors shot on a sound stage.

My thoughts on the book vs. the movie:

  • Characters – Nell is much better fleshed out character in the book. (Granted that is usually the case with film adaptations.) She has a charming, captivating imagination in the book that you can easily see devolving into madness, something totally lacking in the movie where she is just child-like. Theo is meaner in the book (sometimes unnecessarily so) and still lacks the depth of a fully-formed character, but she’s better than the vapid version in the movie. It’s like she only exists in the movie so Catherine Zeta Jones can be sexy. And Luke. *sigh* He’s a filler in both versions, but at least in the book he has a bit of a purpose as someone for Nell and Theo to fight over. In the movie, he’s just – there. Its like they felt they had to include him. One character I’m glad they axed in the movie is the doctor’s wife, who in the book is cartoonishly obnoxious, overbearing and wholly unnecessary. And why, why does each version have a different last name for the doctor? (Even different between the two movies.) Of all things to change, that is NOT important!
  • Plot – This actually follows much more closely than I expected. Most of the supernatural phenomenon are similar, at least until you get to the end of the book/movie, which I think is good. Jackson does a pretty darn good job of scaring the crap out of you, to the point where it doesn’t need to be embellished. However, the back story of the house is TOTALLY different, another completely unnecessary change from book to movie. In the book, the story is of the tragic family of Hugh Crane and his two daughters who possibly haunt the house. In the movie Hugh Crane is a coal magnate who employs slave labor and the ghosts are the children he worked to death. WHY? Why, why, why, why, why? Ugh! Throughout the book, I found bits and pieces that the movie gave a brief nod to (such as one of Crane’s wives hanging herself), but if you hadn’t read the book, they didn’t make any sense. They do now that I have read it, but it is a sign of poor film-making when you don’t weave your homages into the plot.
  • The scene from the 1999 movie where Nell’s bed attacks her.

    Setting – I’m biased here. I think Harlaxton was perfect for the movie, especially in it’s isolation and architecture, though I wish they would have used more of the actual interior in the movie. What they did design was beautiful in an odd way, but also way over the top. I would have preferred more of an old Victorian house interior, the kind of place that could give you the creeps in real life. (For what I’ve seen of the 1963 movie, they did right in that version.) There is a scene in the book where Nell fears the canopy of her bed is going to lower and suffocate her. Now the scene in the movie where Nell’s bed attacks her and cages her in makes more sense. But there is one change in scenery doesn’t make sense to me. In the book, next to the huge main doors there is a little door that goes into the library that Nell refuses to enter. For some reason, it scares the hell out of her. (I don’t think you ever find out why…or least I don’t remember it.) In the movie, when Nell finally gets up the courage to enter, it goes into a replica of her mother’s sick room. I think there is supposed to be some psychological symbolism there, but to me it is totally baffling why they didn’t keep it as a library and a totally pointless change.

  • Script – If you’ve seen the 1999 movie, even without having read the book, you will find yourself repeating “in the night, in the dark.” I was thrilled to find that phrase came from the book. Seriously, anytime anyone says “in the night,” I have to say, “in the dark,” which makes me giggle. Read it or watch the movie and you’ll see why. And the movie tagline “some houses are born bad” also comes from the book.
  • Ending – I won’t give anything away here, but I will say that the ending to both the book and movie are highly unsatisfying. The book feels like Jackson got bored with it and took the easy way out. I mean, there is sort of a motivation there, but there are other ways the same point could have been accomplished that would have been more in keeping with the plot and more satisfying for the reader. The movie, oh the movie. Let’s just say that someone was impressed with their own CGI skills. The movie actually scared the bejezzus out of me until they showed you the ghost of Hugh Crane. I am a firm believer that your imagination is way scarier than anything Hollywood dreams up to make a ghost visible. At this point, the movie devolves into a sort of morality tale that pits the evil child-killer (Crane) against the savior of their spirits (Nell) for the redemption of the house. It has a kind of similar theme to the book’s ending, but is utterly ridiculous.

(The cherubs are from the 1999 movie.)

Even for all it’s faults, the book is iconic and has spawned countless ripoffs and retellings. (For a fairly good YA version, read Lois Duncan’s Down a Dark Hall.) Jackson’s writing is likely the reason why. That woman can turn a phrase and build atmosphere like no one’s business. The movie, is…well…likely only admired by me and the director.

Have you read the book or seen any of the movie/TV adaptations? Let me know your thoughts. I’d love to discuss them in the comments.

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