I vaguely remember The Haunting (1999), the movie version of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. It was one of Catherine Zeta-Jones’s first roles since she made it big and it also featured a lesser-known Owen Wilson, Lily Taylor (who I knew from her guest appearance in an episode of The X-Files), and the always great Liam Neeson. It’s pretty easy to guess who plays which characters – Zeta-Jones as the theatrical and flamboyant Theo, Wilson as the sophomoric Luke Sanderson, Neeson as Dr. Marrow (Montague in the book), and Taylor as the meek Eleanor. The characters are the same and the basic plot is the same, but the similarities end there.
While the book is an evenly paced, psychological examination of the paranormal, the movie is a straightforward ghost story, complete with CGI phantoms and blood and gore. Theo saunters through the house in short skirts and high heeled Prada boots, Luke trots after her like an enamored puppy, and Eleanor tries her best to convince everyone she isn’t crazy. It is, unfortunately, quite laughable.
Here the writers thought it necessary to provide a reason for the house’s spookiness. Eleanor is charged with figuring out the mystery when she rifles through the original owner’s books and figures out that he, SPOILER ALERT, was a child murderer. The children’s spirits are haunting the house and call on Eleanor to help them drag their murderer to hell. In doing so, Luke is viciously decapitated, Eleanor suffers mortal wounds, and only Marrow and Theo are left to face a stunned Mr. and Mrs. Dudley in the morning. It’s so 90s, I can’t even take it.
What was great about the book was its reservedness and all of that is lost here. If the writers believed that audiences could not understand subtle nuances, they should not have picked a work whose success relies on it. It’s condescending to audiences in general, and frustrating to those of us who have to watch a great story be torn apart by overly enthusiastic producers. It’s not the worst adaptation of a book I’ve ever seen (The Time Traveler’s Wife was far more vomit-inducing), but it bears only the faintest resemblance to its source material. What a shame.