* Spoilers ahead for Netflix’s Bird Box and Haunting of Hill House*
So recently there have two Netflix original productions that took the world (and the internet) by storm recently; The first was a television show (VERY, VERY LOOSELY) adapted from a Shirley Jackson novel of the same name, The Haunting of Hill House, and the other was the massively popular movie staring Sandra Bullock, Bird Box (also adapted from a novel of the same name, come to think of it).The later mentioned production burst on to the scene on December 13 and immediately became one of Netflix’s most-watched items while the former took slightly longer to catch on, but catch on it did.
Both of these productions were widely successful by Netflix’s standard… but what exactly Netflix considers a success is becoming a bit of a hot debate among critics. The issue is that recently Netflix has been using the pure statistic of how many people have watched the item to promote the item versus how many people liked it. I believe I first noted this tactic with the Netflix original series 13 Reasons Why, which a lot of people were watching and completing, but often only to validate their criticisms of the concept and further their argument for why it is a terrible piece of media. A similar thing can be said about Bird Box, which people were at least initially interested in and had high hopes for, but were hugely disappointed within the first twenty minutes of the film. Watching to the end was more out of obligation than enjoyment.
With Haunting of Hill House, however, I did feel that people were genuinely enjoying the show — at least for a little while. It seemed that HOHH would eventually suffer the same fate as Bird Box, but perhaps took a little longer to get there considering it was a 10 episode series rather than a two hour movie. And to HOHH‘s credit, it was much more well received than Bird Box, but at the end of the day I think that these two productions had similar problems.
Alas, we arrive at the title of this article: theme. Or rather, the serious lack thereof. Bird Box and Haunting of Hill House are the two examples that really stick out to me about how Netflix in particular is capitalizing on spectacle and the assurance that even the smallest bit of curiosity will prompt viewers to click, and regardless of whether or not its any good, people will surely talk. Talk seems to be the only real goal Netflix has been going for as of late — just get people to watch, who cares what they think of it!
I have to say that this problem may actually go as far back as the beloved Stranger Things, which Netflix famously marketed by… not actually telling anybody what the show was about. Again, a little sparked curiosity and a big online conversation was enough to shoot the show into the mainstream. But Stranger Things had one major thing going for it after the fact: story. (At least for a little while. Maybe we’ll get back to that.)
The same can not be said for Bird Box or Haunting of Hill House. Now, as previously stated, both of these works were based on novels, so some of the narrative issues can be traced back to those. However the Netflix adaptation of Haunting of Hill House is virtually unrecognizable from its book counterpart. Essentially they took the name of the house and some of the characters. That’s it. Bird Box was considerably more faithful to its book, and actually this really added to its shortcomings as a movie.
But I’m not here to give a full review of either of these products (but hint: HOHH bored me and Bird Box absolutely infuriated me). I’m here to talk about the one very specific, very important problem that I really believe is the root the issue. Though in different ways, Haunting of Hill House and Bird Box both suffer from serious thematic issues. Bird Box attempts a very forced theme about motherhood onto an already seriously contrived plot, and the result is a rather confused film. What exactly is it trying to say about motherhood? That the process is like walking around the world with a blindfold on trying to avoid seeing the absolute worst of it? Does Malorie’s character really evolve, or does protecting and raising the children become an obligation, with the alternative being either actively killing them or leaving them to die? What exactly are the creatures supposed to represent in this story, if indeed they represent anything at all?
In reality, Netflix doesn’t care what they represent. That’s left up to the audience, and it’s anyone’s guess. The fact is, the story — the actual film itself — was far less important than the idea of the story. After your viewing of Bird Box became a statistic, Netflix didn’t care what you thought of the metaphor. Perhaps this is a cynical view, but there’s no other way to explain the total lack of thought that went into this script. I mean, even the title of the film, “Bird Box,” refers to something that I can only assume is supposed to be metaphoric as it has no actual bearing on the plot, but the metaphor fails terribly as… who is supposed to be the birds in this situation?
Anyways, HOHH is not quite so egregious in its lackluster attempt to establish any meaning, but what it comes up with is equally as annoying. In Jackson’s original novel, there’s virtually no connection between the characters other than they were asked to be there by John Montague, an investigator of the supernatural. They are not related, they are not living in Hill House, and they only spend one night there. Instead, in the Netflix version it’s the entire Crane family that moves into Hill House for a summer, and the subsequent story is about how the family is haunted well after their leaving the house following the death of their mother on their last night there, and the much more recent death of their sister, who returned to Hill House.
This doesn’t seem like a bad idea for an adaptation at first, but the show runs into problems when it tries to keep some of the source material and completely alter the rest. The ghosts that the Crain family face are some of the same ones that are seen in the novel, but unlike in the novel the show tries to tie them to each of the characters in some very tenuous ways. It’s never really clear why the family continues to be so physically haunted by these ghosts that would otherwise have nothing to do with them, and the underlying theme of “family” that runs through the show is confusing because the show fails to make any actual point about being a family.
It sort of tries to say that if her family would have answered her phone calls that Nellie wouldn’t have died, but her dad did answer the phone and that didn’t seem to save her. Also that whole idea gets shoved down viewer’s throats so bad that I wanted the whole family to die just to spite it. This is a case where the idea was pretty good — a family that long-since drifted apart is forced to reconcile their differences and face their demons in the wake of their youngest siblings’ suicide — but the fact is there’s just no payoff. And maybe that’s because there’s hardly a set up. The kids didn’t have issues with each other growing up, and it’s only due to their respective personality flaws that they don’t get along when they’re older. Their familial issues have very little to do with house itself, and most issues they take with each other are so contrived and of their own making that you have to wonder how these people managed to have relationships with any other functioning humans in society.
The point is, the hauntings, the physical problems, don’t relate to the emotional & thematic thread presented by the show. Even the climax of the show, when Olivia attempts to poison her two youngest children so that they die and remain in the house with her forever seems to imply a “family” idea, but it doesn’t seem nearly as compelling because she was in no danger of losing the kids in the first place. The idea is that the family needs to learn how to stick together, but nothing was really driving them apart. And it was further annoying that the adult character counterparts were disagreeing on what they experienced in the house, even though as children they all clearly experienced it together. Once again, the theme losses its meaning because the audience is only TOLD that it’s important, but not given any real evidence. What remains is a rather hollow ghost story of some people that are, for some inexplicable reason, followed by ghosts that were attacked to the house specifically (except for Nellie’s Bent Neck Lady, who gets no explanation whatsoever).
All of this is to that these two programs, while extremely popular on Netflix, exemplify how weak a story becomes when it’s built entirely on a premise, the faint ghost of an idea, but without a theme to support it. Themes are the heart and soul of stories, and it’s obvious how media suffers without them.
More importantly, this is to say that Netflix and other streaming services will continue to pay big bucks for effects and visuals and A list actors all while skimping on the story because nobody is noticing. Of course, plenty of people are noticing (and ranting about it online), but the way in which people blindly consume and re-promote Netflix’s material as great because someone else said it was great is causing producers and studios to say “Enh, it’s good enough.”
It’s 2019, we should expect better from our entertainment. We’re smarter than that.