Book to Movie: The Haunting (1999)
Screewriter: David Self
Director: Jan de Bont
Based on the novel, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
First made in 1963, the adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s seminal haunted house story was hailed as a masterpiece of gothic style horror, incorporating all of the psychological elements of the Jackson story and its ambiguity to retell Jackson’s novel on screen the way it should be told. In 1999, those psychological elements were eliminated in favor of CGI, and the results were less than stellar.
Dr.Marrow (played by Liam Neason} plans to conduct a study in group fear. He contrives circumstances to get his subjects to Hill House, believing they are going to take part in a sleep study.
We are given two new characters when Dr. Marrow arrives – a male and female research assistant. The trio arrives at Hill House to find Eleanora – who has fled her family during an estate argument, Theodora who has already established herself as brash and outspoken, and Luke Sanderson who comes across as a mindless dolt when played by Owen Wilson. Hill House shows itself by having a clavet string break, cutting Montague’s assistant and forcing her and the other research assistant to leave.
After the wall banging scene that has Eleanor and Theo clinging to each other, there are out of body haunting scenes and visual manifestations of ghosts that do not appear in the novel or first movie and rob it of Jackson’s ambiguity of the house before the writing on the wall imploring Eleanor to come home.
Later, bloody footprints leading her away from her bed lead Eleanora to a library where she finds the home’s previous owner’s business records as it related to child labor while a childish specter looks on. Eleanor continues to see various manifestations while others do not. Finally, Luke asks her why she stays. She replies, “Home is where the heart is.” She continues her independent research of the family through their books. Eleanor in Jackson’s story was not nearly so motivated to act.
She discovers that the owner of the house, wanting the house filled with the sounds of children, used child labor to build the house and had them locked away. Hugh Crane is still locked in the house she tells them.
At this point, Montague is ready to get Eleanor, around whom all of the hauntings have been experienced, out of the picture since she is disrupting his experiment.
That night before Marrow wants her to leave, she sees herself pregnant in the house and talks to the children trapped within. She chases them and the others find her high up a dangerous precipice, similar to how she was in the book, under only much different circumstances. After coming down, she falls into a demented fugue.
As he discusses with himself how to get the others out of the house, Montague is attacked by a blood spewing statue that pulls him into the pool and tries to hold him down. Meanwhile Eleanor watches as the room slowly disintegrates and falls down around her and manifestations of children and monsters scream at her.
After finding Eleanor trapped to her bed by pieces of wood extending from the ceiling, the group decides that it’s time to get gone from Hill House. They go to the gate and break it open. Buy Eleanor returns to the house, telling the others she’s right where she belongs. She is at home.
Eleanor decides that she’s a descendant of the original Hugh Crane and she needs to stay for the other children. She refuses to leave. The others make a break for it, but they find that the owner plans to keep them as well. Luke defiles the painting of the owner and is cast into the fireplace where he is decapitated by a large pendulum of a lion’s head.
Eleanor runs about the mansion demanding that the spirit of Hugh Crane reveal himself. A giant Hugh Crane emeres from the behind the doors of purgatory just as the rest of the group arrives. Eleanor declares that she is going to stop him now. With Eleanor’s defiance, the souls of the children trapped in purgatory are released and drive Hugh Crane back into Hell. Eleanor joins them there, forever.
The next day, they are released from Hill House, it’s mysteries still unknown and unresolved.
This movie took all of the mystery of the Jackson novel and conjured its own stories to fill in what the script writer regarded as blanks. Losing that mysterious ambiguity ruins Jackson’s story.
In the story, we were never to know if it was Eleanor bringing the house to life or the house bringing Eleanor to life. All we knew was there was a symbiosis. We did not know if it was good or bad. This screenwriter solved that question and spoiled the story.
The end was quite unambiguous. Jackson’s ending, with Eleanor’s final thoughts as she sped away from Hill House in her car made for a much better literary ending and movie endingy as we shall see.
I guess the disjointed house and all that went bump in the night were regarded as too light of fare for modern movie goers. The script had to be brightened up with a gory death and CGI monsters roaming about. Jackson would have had no such nonsense in her movie.
It was a lackluster movie that ended up destroying the story from which it was conjured. If you want to see Jackson’s work brought to the screen the right way, watch the 1963 edition directed by Robert Wise. If Jackson were going to have her book made into a movie, I have to believe she would be impressed with Robert Wise’s treatment.