November 11, 2012

She will haunt me to the grave: How ‘The Woman in Black’ compares from book to film

The best compliment that I could think to give The Woman in Black, Susan Hill’s chilling 1998 novel, is that it in a number of ways reminds me of my favourite novel – Wuthering Heights.

As the novel opens, the protagonist and narrator Arthur Kipps is an middle-aged, remarried widower, living happily with his wife in a remote, Bronte-esque homestead, bordered by rough scrub, rivers, patches of wilderness and farm country.

As in Wuthering Heights, the story is told retrospectively. All of the significant events have already taken place and, unlike those that have passed, Arthur has the luxury of being able to reflect on the details of his time at Crythin Grifford more than 25 years later, and on his “own foolish independence and blockheadedness in ignoring all the hints and veiled warnings” about Eel Marsh House.

Also like Wuthering Heights, the inclement weather is a precursor to all of the story’s gloomy and paranormal happenings. A “chilling rain and a mist… lay low about the house and over the countryside” and Arthur is “cast down in gloom and lethargy” as he begins to recount his story.

Now with the plot firmly planted in the past, the reader is presented with 23-year-old Arthur in the prime of his life. His career as a lawyer looks set to prosper; he has met the woman that he will marry; and he is content and happy before being sent to arrange the affairs of the recently departed Mrs Alice Drablow.

Young Arthur Kipps is a real, pleasant and likable character – he is rational, curious and sensibly cynical. He is aware of his own flaws and follies and does not attempt to paint himself in a positive light.

The Drablow residence, Eel Marsh House, is “a tall, gaunt house of grey stone with a slate roof, that now gleamed steelily in the light.” Arthur also describes is as “isolated, uncompromising… [and] handsome.”

In adapting the book’s two main characters – Arthur, and Eel Marsh House – the filmmakers take many liberties. They are, of course, making a haunted house horror movie, and must incorporate all of the stereotypes and hyperbole that have come to be expected from this genre.

While the young Arthur Kipps of the book is innocent, optimistic, unencumbered and naïve, the Arthur Kipps played by Daniel Radcliffe is already forlorn, grief-stricken and accustomed to life’s tragedies. The handsome old house is similarly transformed into an eerie, dilapidated mansion, complete with antler chandeliers, overgrown vines, cobwebs and mildew, sheets over the disused furniture, and ominous crows cawing.

Susan Hill writes with concise simplicity and with a rhythmic pace. No word seems superfluous as she beautifully and elegantly describes the house, the landscape and the people who inhabit it. There is no need for shock tactics, as Hill builds the suspense slowly – giving just enough clues so that the reader is enticed to continue, all the while anticipating the inevitable:

“If I had been afraid at what had happened in this house so far, when I reached the end of the short corridor and saw what I did see now, my fear reached a new height.”

In the 2012 film, the horror is much more overt. From the opening scene, where three young girls suddenly plunge to their deaths from a high hotel window, it is clear that the eerie impact of the Woman in Black will be more than just an old ghost story – it will be real and tangible.

In the book, Arthur is greeted in Crythin Grifford by a mixture of quiet, evasive and sympathetic townsfolk – in the film, they are openly terrified and hysterical, and soon descend into an angry mob.

The haunting of Eel Marsh House is also much, much more obvious. In the book, Arthur was always trying to rationalise the creaking rocking chair and the cries from the marsh – wondering if they were part of his own imagination. In the film, the paranormal is much more forthcoming – from the scores of dead children in the grounds of Eel Marsh House, to the violent appearances of the Woman in Black herself.

In the book, the thrill is in what you cannot see – the anticipation, the unknowing – in the film, where the visual is everything, what you see is much more important.

The sequence of events of the novel have also been significantly altered in the film:

  • No longer a retrospective tale, the story unfolds in the present – Arthur’s wife is already dead when story begins, and he has enlisted the help of a nanny to care for his young son.

  • Kipps is told of the death of Alice Drawblow’s son before he visits Eel Marsh House, and he finds the death certificate immediately following his arrival. That, with the cross in the marshland, makes the back-story of the house immediately clear.

  • Kipps doesn’t attend Alice Drablow’s funeral in the film – the first time he sees the Woman in Black is from a distance at Eel Marsh House.

In a book, it is completely acceptable for an ending to be unresolved or negative, but filmmakers always tend to try to put a positive twist on things. In Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, Arthur Kipps never fought back against the curse of Eel Marsh House; his bravery extended only as far as staying true to his task of finding Alice Drablow’s documents despite his fear of the house. In the film, Arthur gallantly attempts to solve the mystery, banish the town of its ghost, and save his own fate.

Although the two tales end very differently, but the impact on the viewer is the same – it leaves you with a chill, a shudder, and a pounding heart.

The verdict:

Book or Big Screen? Book

The film is:  4. A fine adaptation that maintains the original’s exceptional qualities

What's coming next? A review of Breaking Dawn Part II

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