This post is brought to you courtesy of my recent revisiting of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black. I reread that novel because of the upcoming Hammer Film adaptation. When I first saw the film’s trailer several weeks ago, I was elated. I love the book, and while I enjoyed the 1989 film version – which I watched before reading Hill’s novel for the first time – I saw that the changes they made in the story pretty much undermined what I felt was the book’s brilliance in its subtle buildup of terror. The following scene, for instance, is and isn’t in the novel. There’s the ghost, there’s Kipps, and they’re in an old, abandoned graveyard; that’s the extent of the similarities between the novel and the film for this scene.
The novel is very much a classic ghost story. You’ve got a haunted house, a tragic back story, a ghost driven by bitter anger and revenge – everything pretty much spells out “cliché” in that sense, but Susan Hill did so for a reason:
In 1982, I decided I wanted to try and write a full length ghost story in the traditional English style. I made a list of ‘ingredients’ – I don`t often write in this very conscious way but it was necessary here.
1. A ghost… not a monster or a thing from outer space but the ghost of a human who was once alive and is known to have died but whose recognisable form re-appears – or occasionally is not seen but heard, or possibly even smelled.
2. The haunted house… usually isolated.
3. Weather… atmospheric weather conditions – fog, mist, snow, and of course moonlit darkness on clear nights.
4. A sceptic. A narrator or central character who begins as a sceptic or plain disbeliever and scoffer but who is gradually converted by what he or she sees and experiences of ghostly presences.
But all this, fun though it might be, was not quite enough for me as I like to have a moral point or purpose in a story.
The point about The Woman In Black is that revenge can never be good, can never succeed ultimately, will never pay. ‘Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord. I will repay.’ Justice is one thing, revenge is very different.
I also believe that after experiencing great distress or grief, a terrible life-experience, a person must eventually – though it may take a long time – leave it to rest and move on. The ghost in THE WOMAN IN BLACK goes on and on wreaking revenge on the innocent for what has happened to her, even after death. She has never let go, can never move on. As she could not in life, so she cannot after life. Read more*
* This quote used to be posted over at Susan Hill’s site, but the page has been taken down.
She set out to write the novel a certain way, and she certainly succeeded. I wrote a brief review of the book over at Goodreads over here. I could’ve written more, but it’s late, and I need to go to bed.
When I first saw the trailer for the new film, I was excited, but now that I’ve just reread the book, I can’t help but feel a little nervous as well. Just from the trailer alone, I can see a number of changes that’ve been made, the most worrisome for me being that message on the wall (“You could have saved him”). Spoiler alert: that’s not in the novel, and the ghost never communicates with Kipps in any way. I can only hope that whatever changes are made to the story, they’ll enhance it in some way or another, not just superficially add to the horror elements through more obvious scare tactics. Hill’s novel is very subtle; the movie doesn’t appear to be so.