Houses Next Door: Novel vs. Lifetime Movie
At this point I almost feel like I should start a separate series called “Book To Movie” or something instead of just cramming these types of posts into my “Favorite Horror Scenes” series, but fuck it. Maybe I’ll get around to it; it doesn’t make much difference, I guess, but my anal-retentiveness really likes to have everything categorized neatly and correctly. The Goddess is nothing if not fastidious.
EDIT: Okay, I went ahead and did it. Not that anyone cares, but there are a couple new categories called “From Parchment to Pixel: Great Horror Books on Screen” to encompass these kinds of posts, and a “General Genre Musings” category as a catch-all for stuff that didn’t fit in any of the other classifications. Everything is correctly categorized, and I feel better now.
All that aside, here’s another discussion about a great horror novel that got turned into a mildly disappointing TV movie! If you’ll recall, I’ve done similar posts on Thomas Tryon’s Harvest Home and Stephen King’s miniseries version of The Shining. And if you’ll further recall, I highlighted today’s book in an earlier post about my favorite horror novels written by women. As you might have guessed, the subject of this post is Anne Rivers Siddons’s stellar 1978 novel The House Next Door and the surprisingly-not-terrible 2006 Lifetime TV adaptation of same. Into the breach!
Because this was made for Lifetime, the shoe-buying, chocolate-scarfing menstrual cycle of TV networks, I was expecting this adaptation to be far more cheeseball than it turned out, particularly because the source novel contains such sordid, over-the-top plot points (albeit presented in an oddly toned-down sort of way). But the movie—starring Lara Flynn Boyle and her surgically unfortunate upper lip as Col Kennedy, Zack from “Saved by the Bell” as Kim the architect, and a few other familiar faces—is actually relatively restrained, which was kind of nice to see. The book handily pulled off its ridiculously melodramatic incidents because of Siddons’s matter-of-fact delivery and pacing, but I’m not sure some of the crazier, modern-Southern-Gothic stuff would have flown in the movie; it could have easily slipped into camp. So points to Lifetime for tamping down on the more lurid aspects of the novel (although I admit I did enjoy those on the page).
The story has been modernized, obviously, to reflect the twenty-eight years between page and screen. The suburb in the movie is just presented as a generic yuppie enclave, so the more specific “old South vs. new South” themes of the book (which was set in a fancy suburb of Atlanta) are no longer in evidence. I feel like main protagonist Col Kennedy (never referred to in the movie by her full book name of Colquitt) is a bit younger than in the book, as is her husband Walker (who was named Walter in the book, which I guess seemed like an old-fashioned name, so okay), but that’s pretty standard as adaptations go. The horribly class-conscious, shallow and backbiting characters of the novel actually make pretty good fodder for a Lifetime movie, so I’m awarding more points there; some of the characters in the movie, in fact, were more likable than their novel counterparts.
The plot follows that of the novel pretty closely (and by the way, if you haven’t read the book, I’m gonna spoil it for you, so go read it real quick and then come back, okay? It’s pretty short; I’ll wait). Done? Okay, moving on. The House Next Door is basically a frame story, with the Kennedys watching a succession of three families moving into the gorgeous, newly-built house next door, and slowly coming to the realization that the house is evil and destroys everyone who lives within it by pinpointing what the residents value or fear most and then dismantling their lives in the most spectacular ways possible. The movie is only an hour and a half long, so obviously the plot had to be substantially compressed, with incidents being combined, or one horror coming quickly on the heels of the last one. Characterization suffers, of course, and to someone who’s read the book it will seem as though shit is happening at lightning speed, but that’s a failure of the medium, really, so I’m not going to fault the movie for that. It seems they did okay within the time constraints.
The novel is told from Col’s point of view, but despite this, she remains on the periphery of the action for a good part of the book, mostly hearing things about the house next door second hand, and not witnessing anything herself until quite late in the story. In the movie, though, Col is the main character, so this outsider status wouldn’t really work. However, the screenwriter came up with what I thought was a fairly elegant solution: as in the book, Col is an interior decorator, and in the movie she gets to spend a lot of time with the families next door because they hire her to help them decorate. A totally believable approach, and a good way to get her more directly involved in the shenanigans.
As in the book, there’s a short flash-forward introduction where Col and Walker are shown leaving copies of their wills conspicuously at their house before heading over to the house next door, with Col’s voice-over explaining that they know what they’re going to do is terrible, but that it won’t matter because they probably won’t live long enough to get into trouble for their actions. Then we cut to eighteen months earlier, as Col, Walker and the neighbors express their understandable displeasure that a house is being built on the beautiful wooded lot next to the Kennedy house, and then there’s the same change of heart as they meet the hot-shit, tormented genius architect Kim (a shockingly well-cast Mark-Paul Gosselaar) and the couple that will be moving into the house, Pie and Buddy Harrelson.
The Harrelson family section of the movie was the most different from the novel, and I think most of the changes made were probably the right ones (though I’ll have more to say on that in a minute). In the book, Pie was a very young, naïve, perky cheerleader type with a bizarre, quasi-sexual relationship-cum-competition with her old-fashioned father; in the movie, only the competitiveness and spite are highlighted, with Pie telling Col that she’s basically basing her whole life around showing her father up, since Daddy never thought her husband was good enough. Movie Pie is actually much less annoying than Book Pie, which I thought was a good decision, as portraying Pie on screen exactly as she was in the book may have made her not only less realistic, but also much less sympathetic.
As in the book, Pie is happily pregnant and unable to believe her luck at how her life is progressing. Also as in the book, Buddy buys her an adorable puppy that you just know something bad is going to happen to (especially as we’ve earlier seen Col finding a torn-up animal in her garden). Shortly afterward, the puppy is found ripped to pieces (RIP puppy), and though Pie is heartbroken, she goes ahead with a planned housewarming party, so that she can schmooze with her neighbors and show Daddy how high up the social ladder his little girl has climbed.
So here is where the movie parts ways with the book rather significantly. In the movie, everything bad that happens to the Harrelsons comes crashing down all at once; the party seems to be going swimmingly, but partway through, Pie can’t find Buddy and goes to look for him. As she is standing at the top of the basement stairs, Buddy pushes her to the bottom, possessed by some evil within the house. Col finds her and rallies the troops, Pie is carried off in an ambulance (she ends up having a miscarriage, naturally), Buddy is carted off in handcuffs and charged with attempted murder, Pie’s Daddy screams at him that he always knew Buddy was a piece of shit, and that’s the end of the Harrelsons.
In the book, however, the events had a darker and much more batshit quality. Pie actually does fall down the stairs and lose her baby at one point, but it happens earlier in the story, and she is alone in the house at the time. She is found by neighbor Virginia (if I recall correctly), and Col is summoned to help. Despite the miscarriage, Pie decides to go on with the party, since displaying her status to her Daddy is of utmost importance to her. At the party, she loses track of Buddy, but she finds him in a much less murderous frame of mind; in short, he’s indulging in some intensely ass-slapping gay sex with his law partner on the bed where all the guests have been leaving their coats. Not only that, but Pie’s Daddy has found the fuckers first, and is in the process of dying from a shock-induced stroke on the bedroom floor. Now, I can see why the movie chose to downplay the novel’s scenario; public infidelity aside, homosexuality is not shocking or immoral to anyone anymore (aside from a few knuckle-draggers), so the scene would not have played out the same in 2006 as it did in 1978. Additionally, the screenwriter likely thought that the incidents portrayed in the book would have just been too much for audiences to swallow. A caveat, though. The whole M.O. of the house, both in the book and in the film, was that it systematically took away everything that was most important to the people who lived there or came in close contact with it. In the book, the house was very specific in how it chose to destroy the Harrelsons: It took their beloved puppy, then it took Pie’s baby, then it shit all over Buddy’s professional reputation by involving him in a sex scandal with his law partner (which everyone at the party saw, by the way), then it not only had Pie’s Daddy see Buddy in such a compromising position, but it killed Daddy off too, thereby leaving Pie with her life in complete and utter shambles. So while I can see why the movie went in the direction it did, it also seemed to soften the blow for Pie somewhat, as her father didn’t die in the movie, leaving her with something of her old life left to cling to. The book left her no such consolation.
Anyway, as in the book, after the Harrelsons beat cheeks, a new couple called the Sheehans (Anita and Buck) move in. Buck seems pretty similar to how he did in the book, but the character of Anita is quite different. In the book, Anita was a delicate, dark-haired beauty who seemed haunted by something unspoken in her past, but was eager to make friends in the neighborhood despite her still-fragile mental state. During the course of the story, we discover that the Sheehans’ son Toby was killed in a helicopter crash in Vietnam, and Anita had to be institutionalized to deal with her grief. Buck, unable to deal with what had happened, had an affair, which Anita found out about. Through counseling, the couple had reconciled and were well on their way to getting their shit together; Anita was in a much better mental place, Buck had made his amends and had newly committed to their marriage, and things seemed to be looking up when they moved into the house next door, looking for a fresh start.
In the movie, Anita was an average-looking, matronly type with short mom hair and nothing of the ethereal or mysterious about her; in fact, she seemed completely open and friendly when Col and a couple of the other neighbor ladies showed up with flowers and cake to welcome the couple to the neighborhood. Immediately, though, things start going to shit; Anita orders a pizza for the ladies, and when the pizza guy comes to the door, she freaks out, thinking her dead son (killed in Iraq in the movie) is standing on the doorstep. As in the book, she begins to receive mysterious phone calls where she thinks she hears Toby calling to her, and she eventually starts to see the helicopter accident which killed him playing on the television in the living room; unlike in the book, Col is actually a witness to one of these horrific telecasts from beyond. As I said, the plot had to be substantially speeded up due to time constraints, but it was still jarring that Anita flipped out so quickly; in the book it was a much slower progression. And in the book, this was the point where Col only started to suspect that maybe something was wrong with the house; Book Col didn’t actually see the helicopter crash on the TV, but after Buck told her about it, she checked the TV listings and saw that no war movie had been on TV at the time when Anita had seen the vision, thereby making her wonder if something more sinister was going on over there. The rest of the Movie Sheehans’ arc plays out similarly to the book; Anita keeps seeing visions of Toby and loses her marbles, then is pushed over the edge when she sees Buck and Virginia in flagrante delicto. Anita kills herself, Buck moves away, and Virginia flees the neighborhood in shame at what the house made her do.
Part three, with the Greenes, is also fairly similar. Norman Greene is a self-important, tight-assed, abusive asshole with OCD issues, his cowed wife Susan vainly tries to be perfect for him while attempting to maintain a pleasant social face, and their daughter Belinda (who I think was named Melissa or Missy in the book) suffers from some unspecified illness that causes her to have stomachaches and vomit at times inconvenient for her jackwad father. (In the book, Norman is her stepfather, and the girl’s gastrointestinal disease is a source of intense embarrassment for him, so much so that he denies that she has it, claiming that she is simply faking illness for attention. This is touched on in the movie, though it is never explicitly stated that Belinda is anything other than his biological daughter.) As in the book, the Greenes have a party which few people attend because the invitations mysteriously never get mailed, even though Susan is shown getting ready to mail them; also as in the book, Susan is blamed for her “stupidity” in not getting the invitations out. Norman makes the most of the awkward vibe at the party, though, and pontificates at length to his captive audience about how awesome he is and how put-upon he feels at being burdened with such a sub-par and useless family. In the film, the party comes to a screeching halt when Belinda pees herself in front of the party guests (shades of The Exorcist), horrifying her father’s sense of neat-freak propriety. This scene is also substantially toned down from the book, but that’s probably for the best, because it would have been pretty gross to portray as written. In the novel, everyone at the party is alerted by a scream from the kitchen. When they go to investigate, they find Melissa-or-Missy cramped up in a fetal position on the floor, spraying diarrhea all over her white dress, the floor, and her mother, as the illness her father frightened her into ignoring comes to a spectacular head. If I recall correctly, the capper on the evening is the power going out (ruining the “perfect” party Norman had planned), and then coming back on just at the moment when Norman is standing over the blender, which Susan has conveniently left the top off of. Norman is drenched by whatever was in the blender, filthifying him and making his public embarrassment complete. In the book, he furiously runs everyone out of the party, and it comes to light later that after everyone left, there was a blistering argument between Norman and Susan which resulted in Susan finally flipping her shit, and shooting him, her daughter, and then herself. In the movie, this is also toned way down; Susan does end up shooting Norman and herself, but Belinda escapes, fleeing to the Kennedys’ house for help. Lifetime didn’t want to kill off the cute little girl, I guess.
The rest of the movie plays out in pretty much the same way; architect Kim returns from the trip to Italy he took to get his mojo back, and he buys “his” now-empty house. When he and Col are in there alone, the insidious evil of the house causes them to uncharacteristically act on their previous light flirtations and start going at it, Walter/Walker witnesses the infidelity and attempts to kill them both, but Walker and Col manage to drag themselves out of the house before anything too horrible happens. As in the book, it is this shattering event that finally shows Walter/Walker how evil the house is, and cements his decision to join with his wife and destroy the thing. In the book, Col and Walter actually went to the press to warn people about the house and subsequently had the entire neighborhood shun them; in the movie they never go to the press, but are kinda given slight pariah status just the same because of their theories about the house next door. In the movie, they destroy the house by blowing it up (which I think is pretty much the same thing that happened in the book) and making it look like an accident. Kim is killed in the explosion, which I think also happened in the book, though I’m not entirely sure and don’t have the book with me to check. Similar to the book, the movie ends with Pie and Buddy’s contractor from the beginning of the movie talking to an idealistic new couple about these fantastic house plans he still has from some hot-shit but now deceased architect, and he tells them that he can build the house for them if they want it, because the house on the plans looks “magical and alive.” And thus the cycle of evil continues, even after its emissary is dead. I think the movie was a lot less subtle in its portrayal of Kim as the definite agent of the evil, making him almost seem a willing participant. In the book, it is understood that there is something inside of Kim, a curse of some kind, that causes everything he designs to cause misery and death, but he doesn’t seem complicit in the evil, simply an innocent conduit (though I could have been misreading the text on this score). As in the book, Col and Walter eventually leave their house and move permanently to their beach house to escape the sneers of their neighbors (in the book they also escaped a substantial media frenzy surrounding the haunting; this isn’t really touched on in the movie); unlike in the book, they seem to adopt the surviving Belinda Greene, neatly tying up the several hints in the movie that the Kennedys (or at least Walker) were somewhat bothered by their childlessness. End film.
As I said, not really a bad adaptation at all, especially considering it was a Lifetime movie. It never got too eye-rollingly silly, and moved along at a pretty good clip. Some of the changes made from the novel I agreed with, and some I didn’t, but I can understand why certain changes were made, even though I might not have liked them. Worth checking out if you’re bored and have ninety minutes to kill, but as always, the book is light years better and would obviously be a much more satisfying investment of your time.
Until we meet again, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.