The Woman in Black – book versus film

My oldest son has recently been studying gothic literature in school, so I decided to help him out a bit by reading him Susan Hill’s classic ghost story The Woman in Black, and also showing him the 2012 film. This led to an interesting comparison of film versus book, particularly with regard to the finale.

The text of the book is quite brilliant, with Hill’s prose generating a subtle, gnawing unease from the very start. The sinister atmosphere drips off the page in a singular way that somehow demands to be taken completely seriously. Possibly a key element of her genius is the way she opens the story with the older Arthur Kipps listening to his family telling absurd and clichéd ghost stories, whilst quietly feeling increasingly ill at ease because he knows the reality of a true haunting and the curse he has suffered that has blighted his life.

By contrast the film inevitably lacks the subtlety of the book, piling on jump scares and extra deaths that were merely referred to in passing in the text. That said, despite the miscasting of Daniel Radcliffe, the film is efficiently chilling, atmospheric and macabre as the curse of the woman in black unleashes havoc. The film reveals this curse very early on, whereas in the novel it is only discovered in the closing stages. What works on page will not necessarily work on film so I don’t necessarily take issue with the way the film opts for a more obviously lurid assault on the senses.

(SPOILERS AHEAD)

The woman in black’s curse comes into play most memorably in the finale, in both film and book. However the film is actually, on balance, somewhat softened by the fact that Kipps’s wife is already dead. Therefore, having Kipps die attempting to save his son from the oncoming train (which his son has stood in front of due to a trance induced by the vengeful ghost) leads to the scene with them all happily reunited in the afterlife. This undercuts the horror considerably.

By contrast, in the book, the stark, blunt, merciless way Kipps’s wife and child are dispatched by a different spectrally induced accident is far, far more horrifying because Kipps has to live with the agony of losing them. There is no reunion in the afterlife, and instead, due to the flashback structure of the story, the reader already knows that he has spent decades recovering from this anguish. The book therefore ends on the bleakest note imaginable, and Hill’s deliberately abrupt, brilliantly terse prose reflects this as Kipps muses that the ghost has had her revenge.

“They have asked for my story. I have told it. Enough.”

To an extent, I can understand why the filmmakers altered the ending, since if shot exactly as it is on page, the scene would not have been as powerful. A film cannot get inside the head of the main character in quite the same way, and it would have been difficult to convey the full impact of the ensuing decades of grief. That said, had the filmmakers killed Kipps’s son and not Kipps in that final scene, the film could perhaps have got a bit further towards the full horror of what Hill wrote, thus remaining truer to the essence of the original.

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