Writers seem to share an almost universal disdain for film adaptations, even ones that have been critically acclaimed. In the Jaipur Literature Festival in India during January 2015, Paul Theroux and Hanif Kureishi both casually dismissed ‘Gone Girl’ as a terrible movie, leaving most of the audience, well those who liked the film anyway (judging from the IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes rating – a substantial chunk of them), either looking down sheepishly for daring to go against the opinion of these esteemed personages, or defiantly shaking their head.
This isn’t just the writers though. Most readers would agree that adaptations can’t capture the essence of a book, and every time one is announced, there’s a loud section of the population complaining about how they’ll spoil an idea, a story or a character forever. However, writers are quick to sell movie rights and readers are even quicker to buy a ticket, which is why Hollywood is increasingly churning them out.
I usually find the whole idea of a movie ruining a book irrational, despite being an avid reader myself, for various reasons. My reasoning always ended with a dismissive shake of the head and the smug liberal retort, “You don’t have to watch it, you know”. But the case of Washington Irving has made me reconsider.
Let’s be an honest, how many of us have even heard of Washington Irving? We did an informal survey among 100 readers who had read more than 100 books, spread across the three largest English-book markets in the world, i.e., U.S.A, Britain and India. It turned out that only a quarter of them had, and most of them were from the U.S.A, where Washington Irving is better known because he was the first America man-of-letters, and a precursor to the likes of Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville.
A much higher percentage, however know about ‘Sleepy Hollow’ and ‘The Headless Horseman’. The idea owes its fame primarily to Tim Burton, Johnny Depp and the cable channels that have played the movie frequently since the turn of the millennium.
Writers, as is well-known, are extremely attached to their creations. One of the best-ways of pissing off an author is misrepresenting his work, or misunderstanding it. I imagine Washington Irving must be pretty annoyed right now, because Tim Burton has unknowingly done just that.
Tim Burton isn’t really to blame, after all, films are a different medium from books altogether, and the directors need to re-imagine the book cinematically, a process that will sometimes completely change the whole work of art, like with Jonathan Glazer’s adaptation of the novel ‘Under the Skin’ by Michael Faber. Something similar happened with ‘Sleepy Hollow’. Tim Burton changed the poetically written, humorous tale of a school-master who was scared off from a village into a darkly comic horror story in his signature style. For a generation of readers who grew up more than one and a half centuries after Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville and others rendered the original American short story writer to relative obscurity; much has been lost in translation.
The highlight of ‘Sleepy Hollow’ was Irving’s ability to infuse elegantly written sentences with a subtle touch of humor. For instance, here’s a sentence describing the main protagonist Ichabold Crane-
“His head was small, and flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weather-cock perched upon his spindle neck to tell which way the wind blew.”
Indeed, the story displays Irving’s own unique style of body descriptions. Here’s another example:
“The animal he bestrode was a broken-down plow-horse, that had outlived almost everything but its viciousness. He was gaunt and shagged, with a ewe neck, and a head like a hammer; his rusty mane and tail were tangled and knotted with burs; one eye had lost its pupil, and was glaring and spectral, but the other had the gleam of a genuine devil in it. Still he must have had fire and mettle in his day, if we may judge from the name he bore of Gunpowder. He had, in fact, been a favorite steed of his master’s, the choleric Van Ripper, who was a furious rider, and had infused, very probably, some of his own spirit into the animal; for, old and broken-down as he looked, there was more of the lurking devil in him than in any young filly in the country.”
Reading such passages is a purely literary delight; there is no way to transmit the same artistic moment across to the silver screen. The movie is generally acknowledged to be quite good, but it probably dissuades the viewers to read the story, as it comes across as extremely plot-heavy, when it is only a very loose adaptation of the short story with a completely different narrative arc. While authors usually welcome movie adaptations as a necessary evil, bringing in much-needed money and fame, they do inevitably distort their work in the public’s mind. For Washington Irving, ‘Sleepy Hollow’ brought no money and little fame, but changed public perception of the entire concept forever.