Great Adaptations: The Haunting of Hill House / Bly Manor
Throwing fidelity out the window
When we think of adaptations we love, we might reason that it’s because it remains “faithful” to the book. In post 1 and 2 of this series, I’ve talked about why the term “faithful” can be tricky when talking about adaptations, since our ideas about fidelity can be influenced by so many outside factors.
But today I want to focus on something different — namely, the adaptations we enjoy precisely because they offer a different experience from the book.
This enjoyment can stem from a number of reasons. Maybe we didn’t like the book, but the film/tv series/etc changed something at the core of the story that made it more to our taste.
Maybe reading 1,000 pages of a classic novel seems too daunting, but watching a BBC adaptation with attractive actors and a condensed plotline makes the experience much more palatable. (No judgment — we’ve all been there.)
It’s also entirely possible to enjoy the original book AND enjoy an adaptation that plays fast and loose with the plot, the tone, the timeline, and even the characters.
How can this be, when we often prize “fidelity” in adaptations over almost any other quality?
There is something admirable about a creator who takes chances with adaptations. They stand the risk of completely alienating their built-in core audience — so why even take the chance?
Adaptations will vary in how close they stay to the book, and though we might see this as a misinterpretation, some adapters choose to do so very intentionally. To differentiate between a “straight” adaptation and a retelling that ventures a bit further from the source material, Julie Sanders uses the term “appropriation,” to describe an adaptation that uses parts of the original but intentionally deviates from some of the key elements, like setting, plot, characters.
Let’s reference Pride and Prejudice by way of example. (Did you really think I’d be able to make it through one post without referencing Pride and Prejudice?) The 1995 “Colin Firth” Pride and Prejudice would be an adaptation, since it carries over most of the characters, plot, and themes from the original story.
So, too, would the 2000 Bride & Prejudice or the 2016 Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; even though they add in new elements to the original story (such as Bollywood-style musical numbers and zombies, respectively), they follow the same general template of plot points, characters, timeline, and so forth.
Bridget Jones’s Diary (2000), however, would be termed an appropriation, since it borrows elements from the original story of Pride and Prejudice — like the Wickham, Elizabeth, and Darcy characters — but only very loosely follows the plot or characterizations. (Likable as she is, Bridget is no Elizabeth Bennet.) The film definitely owes its roots to Jane Austen, but the story is its own unique creation.
To be clear, the word “appropriation” is not being used here in the same pejorative sense that it can evoke in other contexts. Being an appropriation does not make it inferior to the adaptation or the source text — it simply distinguishes that this text borrows elements from another story.
Doing so can potentially be something of a swing and a miss, since veering away from the source material means abandoning the thing that may have drawn your audience in the first place.
However, there can also be something enjoyable — even freeing — about seeing a completely new interpretation of an old story. Departing radically from the source material can allow the adapter to truly become a co-creator instead of a translator, critiqued for every missed beat and nuance from the original.
For an example, let’s look to Netflix’s adaptations of The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor, written and directed by Mike Flanagan. The series only loosely appropriates some source material from the respective works of Shirley Jackson (season 1) and Henry James (season 2), borrowing some character names and plot points that fans of the originals will recognize. (Ex. character names from season 1, based off Jackson’s Hill House novel, include “Nell,” “Theodora,” “Luke,” “the Dudleys,” and a nod to the author herself, “Shirley”). In most other ways, the series ventures into new territory, creating its own plot points, characters, and so forth.
The series has been critically acclaimed and popular with audiences, so Flanagan’s gamble with appropriating rather than adapting seems to have paid off. Though we can never fully know what makes one production a success and another failure, my guess is that distancing itself from the source material is what allows the series to thrive.
In the first place, “faithfully” adapting a Shirley Jackson novel would be a difficult undertaking at best, since so much of the tone and atmosphere of her novels relies on subtlety of detail and the deep inner thoughts of her protagonists.
Just look to the regrettable 1999 retelling The Haunting, which was anything but subtle or deep. Flanagan overcomes this hurtle by establishing from the beginning that his version is meant to be only an homage, not an exact replica.
The Turn of the Screw has fared better in terms of its adaptations. The Haunting of Bly Manor is a little more ambitious than most, in that it combines elements of multiple pieces of writing by Henry James. Unlike the novel, with its looming question of the governess’s sanity — The Haunting of Bly Manor uses the basic template of the novel — a frame narrative of a ghost story, a country manor, two troubled orphans, etc. — but gives the story an entirely different focus.
The season dismisses the question of the governess’s sanity early on; she is seeing ghosts, thank you very much. (The bigger issue, in fact, might be all the ghosts she isn’t seeing.) This frees Flannagan to use the story as an exploration of other themes — love, loss, greed, revenge, and the motivations that can drive people to their most despicable and heroic actions. It is, at least by my reckoning, a far more complex and interesting story.
It’s impossible to go into any adaptation without certain expectations, and as a fan of both The Haunting of Hill House and Turn of the Screw, my expectations were high. I remember one scene in particular, which I won’t spoil, but which involves “holding hands.” It remains one of the most terrifying things I have read in any book, and I wondered how Flanagan could possibly replicate that moment onscreen.
He does, and he doesn’t — the moment is referenced, but it doesn’t play out remotely the same, and it succeeds because it doesn’t try to. I went into watching the adaptation expecting to be disappointed, but the adaptation was one step ahead of me, and didn’t offer me the chance.
We original-book lovers are a demanding bunch, and it’s virtually impossible to appease all of us. There is something pretty ballsy and admirable in a co-creator who, anticipating this, knowingly thwarts us.
I use this term “co-creator” intentionally, because so often adapters are not given credit for their creations. While it is true that much of the credit goes to the source material and its author, acknowledgement must also be given to those who contribute something new to bring the adaptation to life.
Especially when the adaptation or appropriation is enjoyable — because, as we all know, there are all too many that ultimately fall short. We intuitively know that there are so many things that an adapter can do wrong, but we often fail to acknowledge the skill and talent it takes to do something right.
Perhaps the most successful accomplishment of a well-done appropriation is that it forces us to acknowledge the role of the adapter, because so much of the text is new and altered. The appropriation, then, can stand on its own as a fully developed entity from the source text.
As a result, we as an audience perhaps don’t feel as much frustration over the two not being identical, since it’s made clear from the get-go that they are, at best, fraternal twins, but probably more often like cousins who share some similar genetic features.
In the end, successful appropriaters can emerge as not usurpers, defilers, or thieves, but partners with the authors of source texts in creating a new extension of their stories.
It’s a big gamble, but sometimes the reward is worth the risk.