You’ve probably heard of The Woman In Black, no doubt thanks to the film starring Daniel Radcliffe. That’s how I heard of it. I saw a trailer for it that looked scary and cool. But mostly scary. So I decided to go see it. But before I could, I heard that the book was excellent. And that, if I enjoyed that, I should really go and see the play too. So that’s what I did. I resolved to read the book, then see the play, and only then would I watch the film. What I found was that they all form a triptych of stories, each with a similar core but also very different due to the medium itself.
For I see that then I was still all in a state of innocence, but that innocence, once lost, is lost forever.
I started with the book (because you should always start with a book). And I should start my review of it by saying the perfect ghost story is Henry James’ Turn of the Screw (for reasons I briefly mentioned here). Susan Hill has obviously read the book because her story displays nearly all it’s best qualities: it’s short, tense, filled with emotion. The pace is almost perfect. While a plot summary might sound dry or even slow, I was frenetically turning the pages. Sometimes it was obvious what was coming next but, in the best tradition of horror, the dread of waiting for it and the hope it wouldn’t come were kept alive in equal measure.
I was also pleased that the story wasn’t set in the modern age. We’re just too sceptical these days for a ghost story to have the same impact, whereas characters who can believe in ghosts give the reader permission to do so as well. Hill also made it easy to empathise with the titular Woman and that made her all the more believable.
If I were to recommend a ghost story, The Turn of the Screw would be it. But The Woman in Black would be right behind it.
The play came next as it did in life. I was surprised to learn the cast had only three members: Arthur Kipps (the protagonist), The Actor and The Woman. Interestingly, The Actor plays Arthur in the narrative and Arthur himself plays the supporting characters; the play adds to the story the premise that Arthur has hired The Actor to help him tell his story. It makes the play rather meta – it’s a play about putting on a play – and it intrudes a little on the narrative at the beginning, making the play slow to start. But once it gets out of the way, this gimmick allows the play a small cast, which lends a more intimate air to the play. Perfect for a ghost story!
Like all good plays a lot is left to the imagination. This area was easier for me because I’d already read the book; I went in with images in my head. But my girlfriend, who hadn’t read it, confirmed that the play evoked the necessary imagery with both words and effects. The latter, mostly restricted to lighting, smoke and the occasional yet still heart-stopping scream, were kept to a minimum and so more effective for it.
Far more effective, though, was when the Woman silently swept past me as she headed down the aisle to the stage. I’m not too proud to say I jumped!
The best thing to say about the play, though, is that it retained the tension of the book. That’s what makes it worth seeing. If you get a chance to go, don’t hesitate!
And so to the film. Last and, unfortunately, least. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a terrible film. It tells the core story with a few interesting changes, most notably that Arthur’s wife is dead, a haunting woman in white to contrast the darker, physical haunting. And the film explores more of the Woman in Black’s rage; you get a real feeling of the force of emotion that keeps this Woman’s spirit tied to this world.
Unfortunately Radcliffe couldn’t properly convey the age required by the role, leaving Arthur seeming a boy in a man’s clothes. And the film itself was more visceral than the book or play; we were treated to some of the typical ghost story tropes. Bodies rising out of pools of blood. Shadows flitting over doorways. Lights going out in a hallway. And so on. Some of them succeeded in making me jump. But Woman in Black was about the sort of fear that grows in your mind and then festers once the story is done. Moments that make you jump induce the sort of fear that is gone moments later. It’s not the same at all.
The film also added a malevolence to the Woman by making her directly responsible for children’s deaths and then trapping their spirits with her in a sort of grey limbo. This adds a quest element to the story that wasn’t there before with Arthur and supporting character Daley trying to pacify the Woman and free the children. Which is all well and good but it wasn’t in the original story and it isn’t needed. It also alters the ending dramatically and not for the better.
But, as I said, it’s not a terrible film. It’s very watchable. But this experiment has proven the hypothesis that we all knew to be true: the film adaptation is almost never as good as the original book. Despite being a solid film, it sits at the bottom of an ascending list of quality, in which the play sits in the middle and the book sits triumphant at the top.
So that’s it! Super review over. But now I want to know what you think. Did you like the book? The film? Have you seen the play? And what do you think of plans to make a sequel to the film? Leave a comment and let me know.