On June 18, 2018, Mark Z. Danielewski quietly posted a link on Twitter and Facebook to a television pilot for his groundbreaking book, “House of Leaves.” Although he has written a number of books since, it is this first novel that has maintained a true cult following.
Excited fans have been buzzing about the pilot all over social media this past month with various opinions and theories. The most common descriptor is “bonkers.” The author himself reminds his Facebook book club that the pilot is only a sketch, and he asks for their feedback. Still, fans tweet suggestions that Hulu or possibly Netflix should pick it up. Others comment that Danielewski wrote this pilot for a streaming service that later demanded all of the rights so he backed out.
For those who have not yet read “House of Leaves,” we offer the most basic of plot summaries, wherein the Navidson family moves into a new house only to discover that the measurements taken on the outside of the house don’t match the measurements taken on the inside of the house. The house is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. Thus begins a frightening adventure into the inner world of the house. But, pan back–The Navidson story is being told by the mysterious blind recluse, Zampano, whose notes are being read by the aptly named Johnny Truant. It is a found footage film within a book draft within a book.
“House of Leaves” starts out with Zampano’s story. As Johnny starts to add his own footnotes and adventures surrounding the mystery, the page becomes a sort of split screen, if you will. Soon vertical footnotes, scientific lists, boxes with notes on architecture and other ephemera are scattered around the page, causing you to manipulate the book, turning it sideways and upside-down so you are fully interacting with it. The unusual formatting of the text also adds to the story. When they are creeping through a narrow tunnel, a single line of script crosses the page. At one point when the characters were lost, at its most exciting moment, I couldn’t find the next paragraph amongst the ephemera. I desperately spun the book around, looking for the thread of that story amongst everything else. Then I realized…I am lost…just like they are.
The pilot is just as riveting as the book, and Danielewski continues to craft moments that can chill the reader right to the marrow. One has to wonder, though, if camera angles can duplicate the effect of the author’s unusual formatting. Although there is a disclaimer in the beginning that “Camera instructions are suggestions…” the suggestions are pure poetry:
Suddenly, we are high above. For sure higher than this apartment’s ceiling would allow. Higher than even that building. And then we’re slowly descending in a wide spiral. High resolution. Vivid color.
Similarly, his description of the title sequence is both beautiful and terrifying:
B&W grainy photos. Color Polaroids. Over saturated 8mm and 16mm clips. Distorted Hi8 tapes. Appallingly clear slomo in the highest definition. And all these bits and clips of one thing. What’s to come. For Johnny. For the Navidsons. For all of them. For all viewers. And for you. Especially you.
Me??? What do I have to do with any of this? Is the author implying that the reader is another layer of the horror story? I am not a layer! Or am I?
The real question is, how does one handle a found film within a book draft within another book within a script? By adding even more layers, of course. Putting the reader aside for the moment, the script is narrated by an older Johnny and various talking head professors and experts. So it still feels similar to the book, or at least Johnny’s point-of-view.
But now, in addition to the double narrations, we have the film-maker, the one shooting this TV show, adding another level to the telling the story. Even as this script takes us one step further from the house, we are now able to see the original footage, bringing us right into the heart of the tale. Then, midway through the episode, we are introduced to the voice of the Editor, who is working on the documentary that Johnny and his filmmaker friend shot. The Editor discusses the spiraling camera shot that appeared to be Danielewski’s own camera directions. How meta.
It is even possible that this is not the script for a pilot at all. Maybe it is just the beginning of another novel, an insanely creative device for retelling and continuing the story of the Navidsons. And who am I but another layer? I’m writing a blog about all of this. And you? You are reading a blog about a television show script about a documentary about a book about a book draft about a found film.
I have no idea where this is all going, but I can’t wait.