First of all, by source material, I am referring to the 1983 book by Susan Hill. I appreciate that there is a very successful stage play that is probably more famous than the original text, but I am going to stick with the book as that is the origin of the story. And I haven’t seen the play.
Screenwriter Jane Goldman has made some quite substantial changes from the book, and I was very sceptical having been a big fan of the structure and pacing of the text. The two biggest changes come at the outset and conclusion of the film and, unfortunately, these are the changes that don’t really work when compared to the book.
In the film, protagonist Arthur has recently lost his wife during childbirth and is a broken man, completely detached from life, and on the verge of being sacked from his job as a solicitor. He is already a shell of a man, and so it wouldn’t take much to believe he could be easily affected by Jennet’s demonic spirit.
In the book, however, Arthur is not married and has no children when he makes the trip to Crythin Gifford to sort out the papers of the recently deceased Alice Drablow. He comes across as a rationally thinking and strong minded young man who has no particular sense of weakness about him. This is what makes The Woman in Black, the text, that bit more chilling. The fact that, in the book, Arthur becomes so overwhelmingly distressed and traumatised by the events at Eel Marsh House, despite being of strong character to start with, shows just how shocking his experiences were. It’s almost as if Arthur’s journey in the film completely reverses that of the book and, to me, the book’s way of doing things works much better.
It’s important for a protagonist to go on an emotional journey, but in the film, it’s difficult to see Arthur growing as a person and breaking free from his previous traumas. Granted, he does start to take control when he goes about reuniting Jennet with her son, but even after that he doesn’t come across as any stronger in character. Whether this is down to the screenplay or Daniel Radcliffe’s acting, is unclear. Arthur does find his happiness at the end, to a point, but that brings me to the other major change – the ending.
I hate the term ‘Hollywood ending’, and I feel many films get labelled with it unjustly, but it fits the ending of The Woman in Black perfectly. The book’s dénouement is one that really sticks in the mind because it doesn’t adhere to the usual happy ending formula, whereas the film foregoes this to a certain extent in favour of giving Arthur the happiness he craves.
The film sticks to the text in some respect, in that the WIB continues to take the life of children, this time Joseph, Arthur’s little boy. However, Arthur is also killed in trying to save his son, and we see that he is reunited with his dead wife (his Woman in White). Despite Arthur and his son dying, the film finishes on a high note, but I feel it would have so much more resonance with audiences if it had stuck closer to the book’s finale and either have Arthur witness his son’s death, or them both die and the film finish on Sam’s ashen face at the train station. It’s a strange ending that could leave the viewer wondering how to feel when the lights come up.
There’s also debate as to why the WIB decided to kill Joseph (or rather have Joseph kill himself). The view that I prefer to take is the rather morbid one that Jennet’s vengeful spirit will never stop haunting the village and killing children in her quest for revenge, and that she is angry that Arthur is now at peace with his wife and child. However, it could be argued that she is rewarding Arthur for bringing her and her child back together by doing the same for Arthur and his wife, although this, again, would stray away from the book’s assertion that she is so overcome with grief and anger that she’ll never cease her evil doings.
The WIB herself is a topic I took slight issue with in the film. In the book, Arthur sees her no more than half a dozen times, if that, whereas in the film, she seems to be in every other scene at times. This diluted her shock value somewhat towards the end of the film as she too often had a physical presence rather than a spiritual one. What was so effective about the book was that you always felt as if she was there in some form if not a physical one, just watching Arthur and turning him slowly insane.
So far, I’ve spent the vast majority of this blog explaining why the film is inferior to the book, but there are things that the film does very well, and even does better than the book. Having the WIB make the children kill themselves is a very creepy inclusion compared to the book’s simpler ‘a child dies whenever she’s seen’, and actually seeing the children die is another disturbing addition.
Although the pacing of the book was excellent, having watched the film, it seems evident there’s a good chance it would not have transferred quite so well onto the screen and could have seemed a little slow. The film introduces some new scenes, such as Jennet’s son crawling out of the marsh that he drowned in, that contribute well to the story and keep the scare factor high throughout.
Overall, the film works well and is a decent adaptation of the source material. However, at times it seems unable to decide if it wants to embrace the original text or move away from it. This is not necessarily a bad thing; it very much depends on your expectations of the film. Don’t go expecting a totally faithful adaptation or you will likely be disappointed. Instead, just watch it as its own entity and you’ll find a compelling, tense and sometimes terrifying horror film.
Words: Chris Thomson