Thursday, 23 February 2012

Woman in Black: Book vs Film vs Play

In 1983, The Woman in Black by Susan Hill was first published. The horror fiction novel saw Solicitor Arthur Kipps sent to the northern village of Crythin Gifford to settle the estate of the recently deceased Alice Drablow. The book is Kipps's retelling of this particular story after his step-children ask him to tell them a ghost story. He is overcome with an unbearable feeling of fear and realises that he has surpressed an event in the deep recesses of his mind and never properly dealt with it. He decides to write down his story in order to finally deal with his demons and in doing so, shares his tale with the reader of that trip to Crythin Gifford, the deserted funeral for Mrs Drablow and the creepy goings-on at her estate Eel Marsh House. 

An eerie ghost story with a suitably creepy setting, the book managed to scare readers so much that within six years of its publication it had been adapted into a stage play and a TV movie. The narrative style is incredibly evocative and has very little dialogue, so lending itself to interpretation.

Best of Theatre
The stage play of The Woman in Black moved to London in 1989 and still runs today. It is spectacular in its simplicity, acted entirely by two men. One, Kipps, hires an actor to reenact the account he has written, feeling that if he can get it all spoken out loud, he can finally lay the ghost to rest. There are a few terrifying glimpses of the woman herself but the actress is not even mentioned in the production's programme. 

It also does what only the greatest adaptations do - it makes changes that not only stay faithful to the original story but somehow manage to really hone in what works in the new medium that wouldn't have worked in the original. The brilliant twist in the play only works in the theatre setting and enhances the true horror of the story.

This month saw the release of the new film adaptation starring Daniel Radcliffe as Kipps. It really makes the most of what the cinematic medium has that stage and literature doesn't - special effects. There is so much silent tension in the film that when she does appear it is horrifying to the point of screaming out in fright. If you like watching horror films that have you cowering in your seat, jumping and screaming in shock and hiding your face behind your hands because you can just sense that something is coming, then this delivers. Radcliffe handles the role brilliantly, looking suitably distraught and sympathetic to the woman's plight. Sadly though, all the elements that made the film brilliant were let down slightly because the filmmakers decided it needed a touch of Hollywood and changed the ending to one that was annoyingly neat and tidy. 

There are a fair few changes made in each adaptation, largely the point at which Kipps starts his story. In the book, he is a widow recently remarried. In the play he has a wife and son at home and in the film his wife died in childbirth so it's just him and his son. The woman in black herself also differs in each. Often she just stands in the distance immobile. But for the rare occasions when she moves, the film and play use it to their full advantage. She also appears much more in the book and is reserved in the film and play for moments of sheer terror. But these are all trivial points and the fundamentals of the story remain intact. 

I saw the play, then the film, then read the book. Whether or not this order affects the way I viewed each version I cannot say. But overall, the play - the first thing I saw - is easily my favourite because the effects of it are still with me today years after seeing it in action. The film turned me into a nervous wreck but lost me with the ending and the book was brilliantly written but over-described everything thanks to its narrative style - to the point of not just calming down its subject, but its reader too. In the book, the fear subsides quickly because Kipps seems to have the ability to talk himself out of being scared. In the film, every time he walked back into Eel Marsh House, I shrunk into my chair a little more. But the play. The play had me screaming in fright in a packed auditorium, paralysed with fear as often as I leapt a clear foot off my seat in shock and shaking with a mixture of awe, terror and excitement when it had finished.

So really, the adaptations are all very well done and suited to their respective mediums. It's just a question of what you like. If you want to read a great ghost story - go for the book. If you want to be scared at the cinema but relaxed by the time you leave - check out the film. But if you enjoy being scared to your very core and frightened to the point of an irrational fear of rocking chairs - then you simply must see the stage production. Just don't say I didn't warn you...

Book - 3.5/5 FOBLES
Film - 3.5/5 FOBLES
Play - 5/5 FOBLES


  1. While I might be easily (lazily) sucked into watching the movie, now I am rooting to have the play mounted in the Toronto GTA. Excellent since I do loVe a good ghost story and haven't seen much since Tales to Tremble By. Perhaps I can convince my book club to read the book next season. *Quiver*

    1. Ooooh I don't know Tales to Tremble By... intrigued :)

  2. I defer to you on the play and the book because I haven't seen the play or read the book. The film though I wouldn't rate as really frightening more a series of things that make you jump. I know I was surrounded by kids when I saw it which didn't help me suspend disbelief but it didn't pull me in. I thought Daniel Radclife made a good fist of it but he's still fighting to shake of Harry Potter in my opinion. It really reminded me of the old Hammer Horror movies ok for making you jump but not really scarey

    1. Agreed, it's horror in its simplest form - not really any gore. It's all tension and things that make you jump. And Babs you are not the first to say their experience was ruined by screaming teens. You need the quiet tension for it to work.