Last night I paid good money to be frightened almost to the point of hysteria. Against our scaredy-cat better judgement, a few of us went along to the local picture house to watch the recent Hammer adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black.
Quite honestly, the fact that the film was produced by Hammer should have been a clue to how we may react, and as women of a certain age having all recently read the book, frankly we should have known better!
There has been a lot of media surrounding this latest adaptation of Susan Hill’s unsettling tale of a vengeful spirit that wanders the halls of a spooky house, wreaking havoc in the local area. Susan Hill has been talking very openly about her thoughts on Jane Goldman’s screenplay, she seems genuinely pleased about the outcome and delighted by the additions and the cast. She has a very pragmatic approach to her novel being adapted – once she gave up the rights to the book, she relinquished the rights to have a say in how it should be presented in other media (how grown up!) It seems to be her fans that have had the most to say about the way the book has been changed to fit cinema. This is not a review of the book or the film, just my thoughts on how they compare and affected me. I have a caveat to add here: I scare easily. (Attention: possible spoilers coming up)
In the book, the main character is an ageing solicitor, Arthur, looking back at an episode in his life that has affected him profoundly. His visit as a young man to Eel Marsh House, a place cut off from the mainland by a causeway flooded by the tide, and his encounter with a ghost there had huge repercussions on his life. He is at a stage where he needs to finally exorcise the demons conceived while working at the house on the paperwork and estate of a recently deceased client. The story then works in flashback as Arthur regurgitates his tale on paper. The encounter he has with the vengeful spirit at the house in the marshes brings his terror back to him, as he attempts to completely rid himself of the memories.
The structure of the film is very different. I guess flashback in film rarely works well, so we see Arthur as a young solicitor, a grieving widower and father, struggling to hold down his job. We experience the haunting with him first hand. In cinema this structure works very well – you get a linear storyline, you know where you are. There is however something quite unnerving about the way that in the book, Arthur’s memories of the original event terrorise him all over again as he tries to erase them.
Stillness, silence and noise create so much of the unsettling atmosphere of the book. Arthur hears noises in the marsh, noises in the house sandwiched between episodes of silence and stillness when, even as a reader you are listening for the next sound and can feel and hear your own heart beating against your ribs in anticipation for what is to come. The film, as you would expect is full of big noises. Firstly there is the soundtrack; suitably spooky. More terrifying are the periods where there is no sound, no music and even more effective, no dialogue. You are lulled into a false sense of security, sucked into the visuals, your ears turn themselves off and then, wham! a big sound, screaming, barking, birds cawing, clock-work toys starting up, doors slamming. I’m not too proud to tell you that it terrified me. The visuals in the film were spooky, but the sounds were very frightening.
There is an underlying theme in the book relating to how the characters and the reader feels about children. This is set up early on in both the book and the film. In the film you see Arthur with his son who despite being only 4 is clearly concerned about his father’s happiness. In the book and film you witness a meeting between Arthur and his boss where they discuss the client whose papers Arthur is due to put in order. Arthur asks whether there were any children. His boss hesitates with his answer, which is different in the film to the book, but still gives you enough of a feeling that something is not quite right.
Whereas in the book the children of the village are alluded to and only seen on a few occasions, they are ever-present in the film. Of course there is also the child that is the source of the ghost’s vengeful activities, always in the background. There is something incredibly spooky about wholesome children in a horror film, if that is not enough to send you over the edge, the plethora of Victorian wind-up toys will send you diving under your cardigan as soon as a cymbal-clashing monkey enters the screen. The dominance of children as a theme in the book and film, sets up the shocking ending very nicely – you can almost feel it coming.
I don’t want to spoil things too much for potential readers of the book or viewers of the film by revealing the endings. They are completely different to each other. My vote definitely goes to the ending of the book. It is much more shocking. Although you are expecting something awful to happen, I didn’t anticipate the events of the book’s final pages. The film is slightly less satisfying. We were left with a few questions as to what the end meant – but I guess chatter of that nature is much more pleasing to a film-maker than punters leaving the screening berating their work and wishing they hadn’t wasted their cash.
I don’t want to talk about the performances of the actors in the film in any great detail. I thought they were all pretty decent actually. Daniel Radcliffe was believable as Arthur – although I think he could do with a voice coach, there are times he sounds still very young. However he admirably managed to convince me of his grief and fear throughout.
I am glad I spent my money being scared stupid last night. There was quite a bit of giggling in the theatre and it was all down to either embarrassment at screaming in public during a film or through genuine hysteria brought on by fear! Which ever way you come to experience The Woman in Black, book or film, it is a good old-fashioned, unsettling, fear-inducing ghost story.
Please check it out, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it as long as you are prepared to be petrified!