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New Hulu film 'Shirley' isn't a Shirley Jackson biopic. But it might be better this way.

Although “Shirley” may not be an accurate portrait of the writer's life, it does seem exactly like the kind of story the real Shirley Jackson might write.
Image: Elisabeth Moss, Odessa Young
Elizabeth Moss, left, and Odesdsa Young in "Shirley."Courtesy Neon

Shirley Jackson is most famous for writing stories that unsettle and unnerve. In both her most famous short story, “The Lottery,” and her most famous novel, “The Haunting of Hill House,” the feeling she leaves readers with is more disturbing than the scenes she describes. In one of the most frightening moments in “The Haunting of Hill House,” the protagonist, Eleanor Vance, huddles in bed with her fellow Hill House dweller Theodora, holding hands in the dark to comfort one another. When the lights come on, Eleanor realizes she is alone in the bed, causing her to ask aloud whose hand she was holding.

Shirley,” a new film from Josephine Decker and starring Elisabeth Moss as Jackson, captures the chills-down-your-spine feeling that Jackson’s writing so skillfully masters. The camera twists and juts in unnatural ways, while the fantasy world inside a character’s mind drips seamlessly into the world they walk through. (The film premieres on Hulu on Friday.)

“Shirley,” a new film from Josephine Decker and starring Elisabeth Moss as Jackson, captures the chills-down-your-spine feeling that Jackson’s writing so skillfully masters.

Based on a novel written by Susan Scarf Merrel, and not a biography, the film is not a faithful recounting of Jackson’s life (or death — she died young in 1965). Indeed, while many of the characters are real, most of Merrel’s book is fictional, which may confuse the casual film-watcher. But although “Shirley” may not be an official biopic, it does seem exactly like the kind of story the real Shirley Jackson might write.

“Shirley” focuses on two couples living together on the Bennington campus; Shirley Jackson and her husband Stanley Edgar Hyman (Hyman did indeed teach at Bennington), and a young couple Fred and Rose Nemser (who are totally fictional) living with them while Fred teaches and Rose, against her wishes, takes care of the house. Shirley and Rose form a seemingly unlikely bond, becoming influenced by one another as they stay trapped day after day in the house, while their professor husbands court the local college girls. Both Shirley and Rose become physical symbols of an oppressive domestic environment that leads to female decay, a thread familiar to readers of Jackson’s work.

The quandary of fictionalizing a real life is not new, and it remains an ethically muddy endeavor. The list of real people who have been fictionalized for our entertainment is long. There are likely plenty of people who saw “Shakespeare in Love” and now believe William Shakespeare to have been a Joseph Fiennes look-alike with a blond-haired love interest; or saw “The End of the Tour” and now think they understand something about the inner workings of David Foster Wallace, even as Wallace’s friends have said that the character on screen doesn’t resemble their friend at all. One of this spring’s most anticipated novels is a re-imagining of Hillary Clinton’s life had she never married Bill.

There is endless space for fictionalizing and re-imagining real lives in art, but the shadow of doubt creeps in at the edges when fiction begins to subsume real life, particularly in the case of a person whose life is not all that well known, like Shirley Jackson. After watching “Shirley” there may be people who think Shirley Jackson was vicious, childless and incapable of keeping herself bathed and fed. And that is unfortunate.

There are many similarities between the real-life Shirley Jackson and the version portrayed by Moss, Hollywood’s current go-to actress for creepy. Both Shirleys are writers, both suffer from agoraphobia, both drink and take pills, both have philandering husbands, both dabble (or say they dabble) in witchcraft. The Shirley of the film, though, is depicted as childless, and pointedly so; the Shirley Jackson of real life had four children who she raised while simultaneously minding her home and excelling in her career. The Shirley of the film is slyly implicated in a possible murder that her book “Hangsaman” is loosely based on; the real Shirley certainly wrote “Hangsaman” but there’s no hint of her being involved with the missing girl who inspired the book. In his review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott writes that “Shirley” will never be mistaken for a biopic,” but I’m writing these sentences because I worry that, for some, it could.

What “Shirley” does do, which is worthy of praise, is turn Moss’ character, and the world she inhabits, into one that could have been written by Shirley Jackson herself. The Shirley of the film is at once pitiable and terrifying, a genius writer who is sometimes too drunk or angry or frightened to get out of bed, and so wholly defined by a barely tamped down rage that she always seems like water on the verge of boiling.

There is a sense that anything could happen in the world Decker creates, that no space is safe, that every seemingly mundane visage of daily life is off-kilter and cause for discomfort; sensations Jackson’s work routinely renders well. The unsettling score never allows us any sense of ease, and the camera work, which rarely lands on a solid angle, floats in and out of consciousness and reality and imagination without warning.

There are two well-known biographies about Shirley Jackson’s life that this film could have been based on, but perhaps basing “Shirley” on the real woman would have been less interesting for Decker’s purposes. Rather than biopic, the film is a melodrama about interiority and one that blends fact and fiction in much the way Jackson’s own work does. That does nothing to answer the question of whether it’s fair to rewrite a writer’s life — why not just create an entirely new character? But the reality is, and Jackson knew this to be true, a story is scarier when we can believe it was real.