The Woman in Black, by Susan Hill (novella, 1983)
The Woman in Black, TV movie, dir. Herbert Wise (1989)
The Woman in Black, feature film, dir. James Watkins (2012)
I went on a bit of a goth-lit kick recently, prompted by our unexpected viewing of the 2012 Daniel Radcliffe version of The Woman in Black. That film, despite my expectations, was surprisingly not terrible–and I sort of expected a certain degree of terrible. I was in Ireland in 2012 when the film was being promoted, and it seemed like every damn bus in Dublin had a giant picture of Daniel Radcliffe’s less-charming-when-not-Harry-Potter face plastered to its side.
So when the movie wasn’t awful, I promptly watched the 1989 TV version, and then read the original novella. Then I got to thinking, “Gee, I am chronically lazy. I should review these, but I am far too lazy to write individual reviews. Also I’m tired from all that thinking. Time for a nap.” So, you know. Here’s all of them together, I guess.
Susan Hill’s original novella is an interesting thing. It’s a study in Gothic weird fiction, very much in the vein of Frankenstein and other ponderous, overly verbose prose of that era. But of course, it was written in the ’80s, so it seems to be as much a commentary on the weird conventions of Gothic fiction as it is an exercise in Gothic fiction. Then again, I don’t know what I’m talking about. (Note to the reader: some whiskey may or may not have been involved in the writing of this review.)
At any rate, the original story is (I assume) deliberately overwrought, full of needlessly flowery prose that tells you more about the narrator’s emotional state than it does about the supernatural events through which he’s suffering. On this level, it’s great, and it’s also terrible. It’s great in that Hill really nails the form, delivering a perfect copy of any number turn-of-the-century weird tales. (And the core narrative is, in fairness, a pretty good one.) But it’s terrible in that, holy god, nobody speaks or thinks like this, and they never did, despite what Shelley and her contemporaries scribbled in their notebooks at their posh ghost story parties.
Despite the weirdnesses of the prose, The Woman in Black is in fact a great ghost story, far more concerned with atmosphere, with the careful uncovering of a hidden narrative and a lingering sense of supernatural malice, than it is with overt violence or “horror” in the contemporary sense. The basic story, of course, is simple enough: Arthur Kipps, a young London lawyer, is sent by his employer to sort out the affairs of the recently-deceased Alice Drablow. Mrs. Drablow was an eccentric old coot living in a rambling mansion in the wilderness outside the fictional town of Crythin Gifford. She passed away in solitude, and now Arthur has to sort her papers and figure out why the townsfolk are all terrified of the Drablow legacy and the unfortunately-named Eel Marsh House.
As everyone likely knows by now, of course, they’re terrified because the angry ghost of Mrs. Drablow’s sister, Jennett, haunts the area around Eel Marsh House, causing the deaths of children as an obscure form of ghostly revenge for the loss of her own child. The story follows Arthur as the hapless solicitor pieces together Jennett’s story, and like any good Gothic tale, it focuses far more on place–primarily Eel Marsh House itself–than it does on trivial details like “things happening.” It’s a study in creepy places, and if you like that kind of thing–as I do–you can’t go wrong with the original.
Having said that, 1989’s television movie adaptation is probably the strongest version of the story. The casting is excellent, and the crawling pace of the novella is mitigated somewhat by the fact that it’s a film and in film you can’t have twelve pages of description of a fainting spell (I may be exaggerrating a touch) (OH LORD I HAVE THE VAPORS). Also this:
In the one scene wherein the eponymous woman in black actually sort of attacks Arthur, she kind of hovers over his bed and makes a shrill half-screaming, half-meowing noise that is simultaneously hilarious and terrifying. The whole film is sort of like this: overwrought, as is the novella, but somehow better for it. It’s all silly, and it’s great because it’s silly. In all, it’s a good movie, and although the ending differs from the original, the work as a whole is a fitting adaptation of Hill’s story.
Daniel Radcliffe’s turn as Arthur was, as I mentioned above, not horrible. The 2012 version is very different from the others, with a predictably CGIed ghost who is slightly more active/visible and, accordingly, less frightening. On the bright side, the casting is again pretty rock-solid, with the awesome Ciarán Hinds as the affable, rich Sam Daily, and Daniel Radcliffe himself doing respectably as the protagonist. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this version is good. The only complaints are the aforementioned CGI, which really does detract from what was before a subtle, understated ghost story, and the ending, which diverges hugely and inexplicably from the original.
Differences aside, all three versions of The Woman in Black suffer from some pacing issues. While understandable in terms of the story’s Gothic aspirations, it doesn’t translate all that well into contemporary media. But all are surprisingly competent offerings in a genre which usually degenerates into predictable jump scares. Any would be a good way to spend a cold Halloween night.
The Woman in Black by Susan Hill (1983)
*BONUS MINI-REVIEW: The Woman in Black: Angel of Death*