BOOK and MOVIE: The Woman in Black (Book by Susan Hill (1983), Movie (2012))

When I first saw the trailer for this film a few months ago, the plot sounded awfully familiar.  I went online to dig around a bit and found that, sure enough, it’s based on a novel of the same name that I read about a bazillion years ago in high school.  It’d been so long, though, that I barely remembered anything about it — time to pick up a copy of the book, I decided, and dive in anew while waiting for the film to be released.

Now as any book and film lover knows, it can be hard to tell what to do when there’s both a movie and a book version of the same story available.  In some cases, reading the book first is best; in others, seeing the movie first is the way to go.  In thinking about this quandary lately, I’ve come to the decision that making that choice almost always boils down to which one is better — you want to experience the better one first.  The film for Let the Right One In, for example, was absolutely stunning — beautiful and strange and moving.  The book, on the other hand, was less mesmerizing, but had a lot more stuff about the characters to offer, adding a little more depth to the story I had experienced in the film.  Perfect.

When it comes to The Woman in Black, I have now discovered, the book is vastly superior to the movie.  Luckily, I did it right instinctively.  And now you can do it right instructively.  YOU’RE WELCOME.

Though both the book and the film share the same basic story, the way that story gets told is radically different.  In both cases, a young lawyer, Arthur Kipps (Harry Potter), who recently lost his wife and has been falling down on the job ever since, is given one last assignment by his boss — fail to complete it, and he’s fired.  Kipps, grateful for the second chance, takes on the task.  He’s sent to a small village in England called Crippin Gifford, where he is to review all the personal papers of the late Mrs. Drablow, a hermitish old woman whose house is known as “Eel Marsh House” because, wonder of wonders, it’s surrounded by Eel Marsh, a series of deep, deadly bogs.   Kipps soon discovers there’s something else considered deadly at Eel Marsh House — the ghost that haunts it.  Despite frequent warnings from the locals, he ends up staying in the house overnight, eager as he is to finish his task and prove to his boss he’s worth keeping, and, well, you can probably imagine how well THAT goes.

The problem with the movie is that, really, this is a fairly predictable ghost story, as most ghost stories tend to be — the plot moves along just as you expect it to (maybe the end could be considered a bit twisty, but I sure saw it coming a mile away while reading the book), and the characters do all the things characters in these movies always do (that is, they go in all sorts of places they SHOULD NOT GO, WHAT ARE YOU DOING, DO NOT GO IN THERE, ARE YOU CRAZY MY GOD!).  To make the movie more exciting, and ostensibly to make it appeal more to today’s fans of splashy violence and gore, the filmmakers threw in a lot of extra horror stuff that isn’t in the book — images of a woman hanging herself, scary ghost faces that suddenly appear out of nowhere, lots of BOO! moments punctuated by overly dramatic music, etc.

The book, on the other hand, doesn’t bother with this kind of crap; the scary parts are way more subtle.  The first time Kipps sees the ghost, for example, is vastly different in the book and ten times creepier too (partly because it lasts longer, that scene, and takes place in a church, the one place it’s assumed you’re safe from evil).  There’s also a long scene in the book in which Kipps wakes in the middle of the night in the house to hear a strange thumping sound coming from outside his room.  He goes to investigate and finds it’s coming from a room at the end of the hall.  His dog is going berserk.  The next page starts with just the words, “THUMP THUMP THUMP,” which, for three words in a terribly short sentence with no nouns, sure scared the bejesus out of me.  THAT scene is scary — a noise with no identifiable source, a man you’ve come to like very much standing extremely close to the origin of that noise and sure to go even closer.  Oh my god, I can’t read on.  I can’t take it!  Don’t go in there! Go in there!  Don’t go in there!  Go in there!

This kind of suspense is completely missing from the film (in the movie version of this scene, it’s all over in seconds and is ruined by the source of the sound way, way overacting).  This leads me to believe the filmmakers assumed audiences no longer have patience for slow-moving suspense-builders.  We don’t want a scene in which a man stands outside of a door and wrestles with himself about what to do next (don’t go in there, go in there, i.e.).  We want a scene where he bursts in and is immediately confronted with the worst of his imaginations.  Except, do we?  Because the thing is, the scene in the book is SCARY.  The scene in the film is YAWN.  It’s the things you DON’T see that are frightening, if you ask me (and Shakespeare, who is known for this sort of trick).  It’s the things that can’t be explained.  The things that make you wonder if maybe you’re crazy.  And the movie just wrecks all this — it’s obvious the house is haunted, there are no deeper questions to be asked.

That’s just . . . not that interesting.

The one change in the film I DID like, though, was the increased role of Ciaran Hinds’ character Daily (who may have had a different name in the book — I can’t remember now).  He’s a wealthy local man in Crippin Gifford who meets Arthur on the train and takes him under his wing, loaning him his dog when Kipps says he’s staying in the house overnight, and coming to check on him periodically.  I love Ciaran Hinds, so I’m always glad when he has a lot to do in a movie.  Unfortunately, the also-increased role of his wife in the film kind of undoes all the good parts of Hinds’ work — she’s over the top, and she her character merely added to the film’s overall “tell don’t show” feeling.

Overall, I did enjoy the film.  I’m glad I watched it.  I might watch it again some day.  Harry Potter does a good job with his role and the scenery is lovely.  And while I probably would’ve enjoyed it even more had I not read the book first, not knowing, then, how simplified they’d made the story, I also probably wouldn’t have bothered with the book after seeing the movie.  And I’m telling you, if you like scary ghost stories, this is a book to pick up.  It’s not the most original story in the world, but it’s well-written and engaging, and far more successful at creating an eerie, “Don’t turn off the light!” kind of mood.

Book: recommended!  Movie:  whatever!

Book: Buy from an Indie Bookstore | Buy from Amazon | Browse more book reviews | Search book reviews

Movie:  Prequeue at Netflix | View trailer
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Ciarán Hinds, Janet McTeer, Shaun Dooley, Roger Allam

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5 Responses to “BOOK and MOVIE: The Woman in Black (Book by Susan Hill (1983), Movie (2012))”

  1. RogerBW Says:

    Stephen King says something similar about suggestion and concealment – when you reveal the seven-foot monster, some part of the audience will be thinking “phew, at least it wasn’t a seventy-foot monster”.

    I’m not generally a fan of adaptations; part of that is because of the density of material. There’s far more in a novel than can possibly make it onto screen, so stuff will always be cut out, which is no fun if you expect it; a short story to film conversion needs to add material, which gives the filmmaker a chance to do something vaguely original. (But then you may end up with The Lorax. Oh dear.)

  2. alisaj29 Says:

    Now in this case I’ll probably watch the movie first, then read the book. In cases such as this, since I haven’t read the book I want to watch the movie without knowing how it ends.

  3. megwood Says:

    Alisa, that makes no sense! The end of the movie is ridiculous and cheesy. The end of the book is startling and devastating. Shouldn’t you want to not ruin the end of the GOOD version?

  4. Liz Says:

    But it does sort of make sense, if you want to get the most out of the movie. My opinion about which should go first is that the original version (book, movie, or play) almost always should. I’ve found that original versions are almost always best (“The Help” may be the exception that proves the rule), and if I like the original enough, AND if the adaptation is good enough, I’m more likely to enjoy the second version. It worked for me with the “LotR” trilogy, but not as well for some of the “Harry Potter” (NOT this actor guy) movies – there was some disappointment there.

  5. Mike Says:

    But hold on…. the original film (1989) is classic! Totally worth seeing. The Harry Potter equivalent is paltry in comparison. Seek out the 1989 original. Made for TV but beautifully adapted and true to Susan Hill’s book.

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