Back in January I went to the library to borrow a new book. I had a couple in mind, but then I noticed The Woman in Black by Susan Hill. I could not resist the temptation. Having already seen the film, and seeing that at less than 200 pages it was a relatively short book, I felt it would be a very enlightening read.
The book’s narrator is a retired solicitor called Arthur Kipps, who at the beginning refuses to join his wife Esme and extended family in telling ghost stories to his grandchildren. It reminds him of the tragic events that took place earlier in his life, of which the book is essentially a recount.
You can imagine the old man hurting as he attacks his typewriter, describing the time when he was sent by his law firm to the eerie village of Crythin Gifford to attend the funeral of Ms Alice Drablow, who lived in the dilapidated wreck that was Eel Marsh House.
He sees a ghostly woman dressed all in black at the funeral, of whom all the villagers are wary to speak (makes her sound like Lord Voldemort doesn’t it?). The woman goes on to haunt Arthur throughout his stay at Eel Marsh house as he hears terrifying apparitions as well as the sound of a boy on a pony and trap having a fatal accident on the nearby marshes.
With the help of landowner Samuel Daily and his dog Spider, Arthur inwardly summons the mental toughness and resilience to stay at Eel Marsh House and complete his business of sifting through all of Ms Drablow’s documents, but he is soon forced to save Spider from death on the marshes, and once he gains access to the nursery the tension increases further.
Arthur later uncovers that the boy who died on the marshes was Nathaniel Drablow, who was under the care of Alice, but was really the illegitimate son of Jennet Humfrye, who looked on from the nursery window when the pony and trap sank. Jennet never forgave Alice, and continued to haunt her in Eel Marsh House right until she died.
After all of this Arthur is rather overcome by his experiences, so has his fiancée Stella arrive to accompany him back to London. Some time later Arthur is married to Stella and has a son, and watches on as the two of them are admitted on to a fairground ride. He then sees the Woman in Black, who gains her revenge, fulfilling the prophecy that whenever she is seen, it results in the death of a child.
Arthur then wraps up the story, explaining that this is the reason why he didn’t want to entertain his grandchildren. The book actually comes to quite an abrupt end, as Arthur solemnly summarises the day he lost everything and then closes the book in such a way that he seems to want to be put out of his misery.
The movie version – starring Daniel Radcliffe – came out amid some publicity in 2012, but after reading the novella on which it’s based, the difference between the two is startling. The old Arthur Kipps is not included. The story begins with Arthur leaving his young son with his nanny as he heads to Crythin Gifford, with his wife having already died during childbirth.
Samuel Dailly has much more of a role, and his wife suffers from panic attacks which are linked to the Woman in Black, who causes the deaths of two children in the village in equally shocking circumstances. As Arthur is present at both of their deaths and is known to be searching Eel Marsh House, many of the people blame him and ask him to leave.
When he uncovers the truth about Nathaniel, Arthur enlists the help of Daily to find the boy’s dead body from the depths of the marshes, feeling that reuniting the Woman in Black with her child would make her go away. However, when back at Crythin Gifford railway station as his son, the nanny as Samuel Daily look on, his son sees the Woman in Black on is lured on to the track.
Arthur notices too late as he dashes on to the track and the two of them are hit by an oncoming train. In death, they are then spiritually reunited with Stella.
When I first saw the movie I felt that this was a bad ending, but having read the book and seen its context I can understand where it comes from. It is the most gothic book I have read to date, and is much more focused on narrative than the kind of drama which you see in a movie.
I am the kind of person who believes that films should be faithful to the books on which they are based – this one certainly isn’t, but it still occasionally makes very good use of the source material. In the film there is more of an emphasis on the effects of the Woman in Black across the whole town of Crythin Gifford, and the apparent closure surrounding Nathaniel’s death, and the role of Daily are impressive additions.
All in all, this is a book that must have been difficult to adapt, so the filmmakers did require some creative license to really illustrate the consequences of seeing the Woman in Black. There could have been more scares, and there should be a greater amount of the book’s narrative included on the whole, but generally speaking it is a movie that takes enough from the book to be just about credible.