What you should know: The Woman in Black is Alice Drablow's sister, Jennet. When Jennet has a child, Nathaniel, out of wedlock--a bad thing back then--Alice adopts him. In exchange for living with the Drablows to be close to her son, Jennet agrees never to reveal to Nathaniel she's his mother. Sadly, Nathaniel drowns in the marsh surrounding the causeway to the house and his body is never recovered. Jennet later dies and becomes The Woman in Black, a nasty ghoul, to say the least. Whenever someone sees her, a child dies shortly after. Once he learns all this the hard way, Arthur leaves Crythin Gifford, traumatized by his numerous experiences with the woman but assured no children have (yet) died because of them. There's a false sense of security for us, the reader, in this. We believe that because The Woman in Black's story has been told, she can finally rest. But a few years later, when Arthur is settled into his first marriage and has a child of his own, he sees The Woman in Black and moments later, his family is in a tragic accident. Both his son and wife die. The end!
END OF SPOILER.
The Woman in Black is a cozy and atmospheric novel. Its charm lies in Hill's writing style, which is both familiar and suspenseful. It carries a wonderful sense of foreboding that makes me feel THIS is what people want when they're looking for a classic ghost story, yet the ending is so startling--in a fantastic and devastating way--that it delivers more than you might be expecting by the time you reach it. I give it all of my thumbs up! You need to read this book, even if I just ruined it for you.
Now let's talk about the 2012 movie.
The film adaptation deviates from the source material right away and never really stops. After a genre-requisite shocker of an opening, if you're easily shocked, we're introduced to Arthur Kipps, a widowed single father (!), so devastated by his wife's death from child birth he's mentally and emotionally checked out. Arthur isn't interested in working his way up in the firm, he's going to Crythin Gifford in a last ditch attempt to save his job so he can continue to support his son. This is what keeps him there, even as the locals urge him to leave and children start to die. Right off the bat, I wasn't sure what to make of Daniel Radcliffe as Arthur Kipps. It's hard to say what he does or doesn't bring to his portrayal when he's not really portraying Kipps as readers know him. I will say Radcliffe's performance is understated but not entirely convincing. I believe he's a young man with some heavy burdens but I had a much, much harder time buying him as a husband and father. He also looks freakishly like a young Richard Armitage throughout, which was distracting. Please tell me I'm not the only one who sees this!
Most of the other characters are stock but I was okay with that. In movies like this, you sometimes expect a character to be defined by their function rather than their depth, like the suspicious, terrified locals who urge Arthur to go away before their children start dying and the local children who look like creepy little dolls before they become creepy little ghosts. The strongest character besides Arthur and the woman herself, is Sam Daily (played by Ciarán Hinds), the wealthiest man in town. As in the book, Sam is hospitable and welcoming of Arthur but unlike the book, Sam's underlying motivations for reaching out and supporting him are slightly shadier, though not ill-intended. The character of Sam Daily's wife was also expanded and paranormalized (this is now a word!) for the purposes of the film and I found I liked what that brought to it, overall.
The Woman in Black is nicely realized visually. I think it captured the dense, eerie atmosphere of the book and that's what I was looking for, mainly, when I watched it. Crythin Gifford is presented as both a grieving and cursed place and Eel Marsh House was spooky inside and out. It was hard not to dread every time Arthur returned to it, knowing each time he did his encounters with the woman would escalate.
So that was pretty great.
But now, let us examine the movie's next major deviation from the book--its ending--which brings us to my second...
In the book, The Woman in Black is evil. That's it. Even after her truth is uncovered and shared by Arthur, she repays him by killing his entire family. She's totally the UK equivalent of Kayako from Ju-On: The Grudge. It doesn't matter if you sympathize with her enough to want to help her--SHE HATES YOU. That is all you need to know.
The Woman in Black's angry unrest carries the movie up until the point Arthur reunites her with her dead son. Then, it seems to get a tad confused. Afterward, Arthur, who is a lot perkier than I would be if I went through what he went through, goes to the train station to meet his child and his child's nanny so they can go back to London as a happy family. But Arthur's little boy sees The Woman in Black and decides to walk in front of an oncoming train instead. Arthur tries to save him and they're both killed as a result. In the seconds that follow, Sam Daily sees the angry apparition of the woman and all the children she's taken on the other side of the platform. It's actually pretty chilling and it would've been nice to know that while Arthur's arc differed from that of the book, it still came to the same kind of horrible end...
If not for the closing scene of Arthur in the afterlife, with his child, being reunited with his dead wife. Who is dressed all in white. Yeah.
What the heck is that! Was it Arthur's love of his wife that kept him and his son out of a grim afterlife with The Woman in Black? Or was it The Woman in White's love for Arthur? Or was The Woman in Black's final act of malevolence actually a final act of mercy? Did she know Arthur and his son would be reunited with his wife and decide, since Arthur reunited her with her son, she'd return the favor? I have no idea, honestly, but I do know that all of these possibilities effectively take the edge off the best part of this story. It's so much scarier and more effective to think of The Woman in Black as never satisfied and always angry, to think of ourselves as doomed from the moment we cross her path, simply because we crossed her path. Love won't save you! If it could, you'd think all those children would have lived! But they didn't.
END OF SPOILER.
So that was a questionable and, in my opinion, unfortunate choice that undermined the story's foundation. The book wasn't afraid to go there, so why was the movie?
Sometimes--not always, but sometimes--there's something extremely satisfying about a horror movie that plays to the tropes or even the cliches of the genre because despite the predictability of those kinds of scares, there's a timelessness about them that can make them quite unnerving. Like the ghost or serial killer POV--that moment we watch the unsuspecting hero or heroine through the very eyes of the thing that's haunting or stalking them--and let's not forget The Classic Mirror Scare, among others. I encounter this stuff a lot as an avid horror movie watcher, but more often than not, I still let it make me jump because of the idea behind it. You are not as alone as you think you are. Something sinister is happening around you that you can't see. Rotten Tomatoes describes The Woman in Black movie as "Traditional to a fault" and I half-agree with that. It's very traditional. But I don't fault it for that because it was exactly what I wanted and when I thought about it at little more, that was exactly why I liked the book; it plays to those ghost story traditions too.
I think screenwriter Jane Goldman understood and respected this about the source material and that's why I can't call The Woman in Black an entirely unsuccessful adaptation. I think it played out exactly the way a ghost story with those established parameters would. But it's not a faithful adaptation and when you take out all those unsettlingly familiar scares that made me genuinely like the film, only the story is left and overall?
I have to say I prefer the book's more.
I give The Woman in Black three stars. It's a serviceable horror film and because of this, I can see myself watching it a lot. But if you're a huge fan of the book, you might find yourself (more than a little) disappointed.
Courtney's new book, the very chilling This is Not a Test, was released this week and is available on Amazon and at other booksellers. Courtney can be found at goodreads, twitter, and her blog.
She has also very graciously offered to give away one copy of This is Not a Test and one copy of The Woman in Black by Susan Hill. The giveaway is open until next week and ends Thursday, June 28th. U.S. and Canada only. Two winners will be randomly selected.