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Part 2: FLANAGAN AND DESPERATION - Not Another
King Adaptation (Although, Hear Me Out...)

By Christopher O’Halloran  May 19, 2024 

Warning: here there be spoilers.


There are many things Mike Flanagan does well: coaxing iconic performances out of diverse casts; injecting fresh air into classics known and loved by many; monologues. But one thing that sets each series ahead of those created by his contemporaries is how he captures debilitating, sweat-causing desperation. You see it in his early work like Oculus (2013) in which a brother and sister try to make sense of a tumultuous childhood (and disprove their shared
insanity) all the way up to his newest series, The Fall of the House of Usher (2023) where a family fights tooth and nail to secure legacy and make their mark in a world that did all it could to keep them buried. No matter which Flanagan project you tune into, desperation infuses every scene.


The Haunting of Hill House (2018) was my first introduction to the work of Mike Flanagan. He orchestrates every moving piece of the series masterfully, drawing unconventional performances from actors speaking odd dialogue and using camera angles in ways that make the skin crawl—keep a keen eye and you just might catch the hidden ghosts. All this makes for a tense experience that doesn't exactly follow Shirley Jackson's novel in plot, but provides the same gut- churning feeling her words do. Above all, though, it delivers an incredibly moving emotional core, driven by—you guessed it—desperation.


We're first introduced to Steven: an author and professional skeptic whose life goal is to show others that the ghosts they see are not their loved ones trying to speak to them from beyond the grave, but headlights and leaky pipes. On the surface, he appears the furthest from desperation—cool, intelligent, emotionally distant—but in reality, he's so ardent in his pursuits
because he's desperate to make sense of his traumatic experience as a child in Hill House. Similarly cool, calm and collected, Theo and Shirley take on vocations that only hint at their desperation to either make sense of their experience, or rectify that trauma in others—child therapy in Theo's case, and as a mortician in Shirley's. Outwardly repressing the trauma speaks to a desperation to avoid confronting it, and really, who can’t relate to that?

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At the heart of The Haunting of Hill House, however, is Nell. Despite dying in the first episode, it’s her desperate acts that draw her shattered family together. Initially, she’s as single-minded in her pursuit as the other Crain children; she’s desperate to solve the mystery of the bent-neck lady, a specter that is solely hers. Once she receives her fatal answer, she becomes desperate to restore the sanctity of her family from beyond the grave, culminating in a car scene seared into the mind
of every Flana-Stan.


After putting Nell to rest, the masterful Victoria Pedretti returns in Flanagan’s next adaptation, The Haunting of Bly Manor, as the au pair for a pair of strange children. Once more, her expressive eyes draw the watcher in and make them sympathize with her plight: her dead fiance is haunting her, appearing in any reflective surface, eyes two shining beacons of light. Without the desperation to escape sending her across the pond to jolly old England, we wouldn’t have this
adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw.

 

No matter which way you turn, we come face to face with someone driven by desperation: Dani desperate to escape the haunting of her fiance. Hannah is desperate to protect the children in the house, ultimately giving her life to do so. Jamie desperate to keep love once she finds it, dives into the murky depths of the lake in an attempt to bring Dani back in a scene that left not a dry eye in our little manor. Flanagan is more than just a man of adaptation, though. His mind is capable of spinning a wholly original yarn (one could argue he achieved that in the previous adaptations, but I’ll not digress.)


In Midnight Mass, Flanagan delivers something of his own creation. It also happens to be my favorite miniseries of all time, and yes I did watch the Gary Sinise version of The Stand (M-O-O-
N, that spells ANGEL.)

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Like Dani running from her bright-eyed fiance, like Nell running from the Bent-Neck Lady, we once again open the series on someone trying to escape their own demons: while driving drunk, Riley has taken the life of an innocent, young woman. After serving a few years in the clink, he returns to his home island, desperate to escape the life that led him to such a shameful act.


When strange happenings begin on Crockett Island, however, he is propelled into motion. He's so desperate to save his people and his old flame, Erin, that he literally allows himself to combust under the bright light of dawn, just to give her the evidence that their small town is under the influence of a vampire. But the desperation doesn't stop there! Father Paul is so desperate to save his congregation that he feeds them the blood of his "angel", and then forces them to make the transition to become like they are (come on, baby.) In his attempt to save his love, his daughter, and the people he’s long served, he dooms them to a terrible fate. It’s a mistake we can all relate to. After all, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

It's really every character on the island who’s inhabited by that desperation—even the dastardly Bev whose desperation takes on an equally religious bent, albeit slightly more murdery. Sheriff Hassan is desperate to solve the island's mystery, but also to connect with and protect his son after the passing of his mother. Erin is desperate to figure out what happened to her unborn child and gives everything she has to prevent what happened to her island community from happening
anywhere else.


Nobody half-asses anything in a Mike Flanagan project, and that's a good lesson for every writer to learn. When you have a character giving everything they have to achieve their goal, when the stakes are unimaginably high, that's where you find genuine connection with an audience. We know what it’s like to sob in frustration when something dear is taken from you, despite your best efforts. We know what it’s like to succeed, to work your ass off in order to win love and for
that love to be returned. We feel these things viscerally, in our hearts and our souls. Flanagan has figured that out, and it's why he's become such an influential figure to so many horror aficionados. It's why he's being trusted with adapting so many King properties, and I for one am dreaming of the day I can sit in a movie theater and watch him bring to life The Dark Tower.

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Christopher O'Halloran, (he/him) is the factory-working, Canadian, actor-turned-author of PUSHING DAISY, his upcoming debut novel from Lethe Press (2025). His shorter work has been published or forthcoming from Kaleidotrope, NoSleep Podcast, Cosmic Horror Monthly, and others. He is editor of the anthology, Howls from the Wreckage. Visit COauthor.ca for stories, reviews, and updates on upcoming novels.

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