When a story has already been adapted into two movies, you may think you already know it by the third time. However, Mike Flanagan’s Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House will betray your expectations. It features the Crain family, including Theodora (Kate Siegel) and the Dudley’s (Annabeth Gish and Robert Longstreet), with future appearances by Eleanor and Dr. Montague.
But if you think you know these characters, Flanagan has some surprises in store.
“It was important to us, with all the characters in the book, to try to take what we felt made them who they are and re-contextualize them somewhat,” Flanagan said. “One of the things about Theodora in the novel is she was a groundbreaking portrayal of a lesbian character at a time when that just wasn’t done. We wanted to honor that and lean even further into that side of her. With Eleanor, you’re going to see the same kind of fragility and strength and complexity that [author Shirley] Jackson imbued her with. She’s one of the most finely written characters in horror history I think. With us, it was how can we keep these notes of her and drop her into the modern world. It’s the same strategy with Luke. Dr. Montague is more of a fun cameo for us. It was more about taking all the pieces she had made so beautifully and trying to arrange them into something new.”
Supervising producer and co-writer Jeff Howard added, “The idea is this is a very famous haunted house and we’re dealing with a story that’s most likely after those famous events of the novel but the house has a reputation. And so rather than just have those exact characters show up, their names are borrowed but you want it to be fresh too. You want to tip your hat to the original source material and you want to be as true to the tone and the feel as possible, but you also want to be able to open it up for 10 hours and have a different experience that feels like it’s part of the same world.”
Ultimately, Flanagan is telling a different story about The Haunting of Hill House with inspiration from the book.
“It’s a very different story,” Flanagan said. “In the book, Hugh Crain as Shirley Jackson envisioned him was this religious fanatic… kind of dark, powerful, rich man whose wife was actually the first victim of the house. He built it for her and she died on the way to see it for the first time. Her carriage ran into a tree. The Crains as Shirley Jackson described them are way more like our Hill family. I really wanted to look at this more as a remix than a straight adaptation because I think Bob Wise did it perfectly back in 1963. There’s no real point trying to beat him at that game, and the story wouldn’t naturally fit into 10 hours. We were always trying to riff on it more than do a straight adaptation.”
The Haunting of Hill House bounces back and forth between the Crain children in the past and in the present as adults, something with which Flanagan and Howard have experience.
“Flanagan’s original intention was let’s tell a family story almost in the Oculus vein with the multiple timelines,” Howard said. “And, let’s tell a story about grief and tragedy and hopefully ultimately coming to accept that, but let’s do it in a way that totally fits Shirley Jackson’s tone and world.
“We spent a lot of time especially tailoring the scares so they would be in that Jackson spirit. There’s a couple I’m particularly proud of. The wiggling doorknob is a favorite.”
The Dudleys are also different. Portrayed as comic relief in previous adaptations, Mrs. Dudley is now a stern caretaker.
“I don’t think anybody wanted anything to be silly,” Howard said. “I think like all of the Flanagan films, there’s humanity in there and there’s real life and there’s a sense of hey, this family operates a lot like my own or I understand a lot of their experiences. Comic relief didn’t seem like anything that was really necessary for them. Plus, Annabeth Gish makes such a great different tone Mrs. Dudley that I can’t imagine her being used as a yokel to be made fun of.”
And now The Dudleys remain involved in Hill House antics.
“You didn’t really get to see what made them tick because they showed up to introduce the house and then say, ‘In the night in the dark’ and take off,” Flanagan said. “For us, that was another really great opportunity. There’s these wonderful characters who are so memorable but who are kind of blank slates. We can take them in whatever direction we would like. I just wanted to hear her say, ‘In the night in the dark’ and then after that she was all mine to do whatever we wanted.”
The Haunting of Hill House drops Friday, October 12 on Netflix.