THE WOMAN IN BLACK
Quick heads up – this article will be full of spoilers for the novel and both 1989 and 2012 film versions.
The Woman in Black is probably one of the most famous horror novels out there and has even found its way onto GCSE courses and so is being steadily introduced to more and more people. Helped in no small way of course, by the monumental success of the rebooted Hammer Studio film in 2012 and the continuing legacy of the stage play. A perhaps lesser known, but much loved made-for-TV production was also brought to the screen in 1989, meaning that the story has been taken on in a variety of mediums.
Somewhat shamefully, I’d not read Susan Hill’s novel until…well, yesterday, but I really loved it and after a bit of research concerning the television version I’ve come to a conclusion. Screen just really doesn’t ‘get’ what the story is all about or how to come to a suitable ending for it. Whether the ending of the novel is too dark for producers to want to stick with (given the 2012 Woman in Black was most complained about to the BBFC regarding its 12A rating, this is probably fair) or whether they want a more spectacular climactic set piece there is always a crucial part left out and here is your first spoiler for everything: Jennet is not interested in killing whole families, yet at the end of both screen versions the whole of the Kipps/Kidds family is dead.
The reason this doesn’t work and loses sight of the core idea of the novel is that Jennet seeks revenge for her son being taken away from her and given to Alice Drabrow to care for, given that she comes from a far more respectable position within society. She is allowed some contact with her son, provided their connection is not revealed, but things take a turn for the worse when an accident occurs, resulting in the death of her son as she watches from the window of Eel Marsh House. Her malevolence is spurred on by this intense grief and she gradually seems to go mad, but also becomes increasingly ill with a condition that turns her face white and gaunt. This condition also ostracises her from the community and contributes to her death, which is somewhat poetically referred to as ‘heart failure’. Jennet does not seek to kill children because she wants children dead – she does it to tear families apart. Within the confines of the book her haunting of Arthur continues long past his departure from the house as she is able to isolate him by killing his wife and young son, leaving him to deal with the same grief that she endured and thus, continuing a cycle of grief and anger.
Now, I get that the ending of the book is pretty damn traumatic considering it concerns the violent death of a baby after it is thrown from a horse carriage, but surely there must be something between the schmaltzy family-reuniting Hammer version and the whole family dies via tree crushing as both remove that essential element of revenge, which is to have someone live within an unbearable situation. Death ends every part of that story until someone else has to go to Eel Marsh House and pretty soon people are going to avoid it completely so Jennet will have no more revenge. The strategic stripping of everything Arthur has is what continues to disturb his sleep even though he has never returned to the house or even seen the woman in person again. It is even highlighted to some degree in Spider’s close call in the marsh – an indication that Jennet is out to hurt anything that Arthur forms a bond with.
I’ll come out in support of the screen versions in some ways though in that they elevate certain moments in the book. Here I’m mostly referencing the TV version where Jennet appears floating over Arthur’s bed during the night – in the book there’s maybe a sentence given over to him seeing the woman above him. On screen, the moment is turned into a genuinely unsettling, if slightly dated memorable moment. Hammer’s 2012 version too has a few good moments but is dragged down by increasingly loud scares as opposed to anything substantially creepy. However, they also shy away from venturing too far into Jennet’s physical illness that changes her appearance, which I’d consider to be a pretty important element of the story.
What I’d say is key here though in the treatment of the ghost story in film is that ghosts are often treated as lighter, softer fare and more suitable for a few generations to see together. As a result, it becomes increasingly unlikely that a genuinely tragic end can play out given that the 12A and even sometimes 15 shy away from downbeat endings. The lack of violence required in the telling of a ghost story tends to keep it at the lower end of the ratings system whereas things like demons, serial killers and other beasts end up being allowed endings where there is no hope and everything is destroyed. I’m not suggesting that every ghost story should have this level of tragedy at its close, but for The Woman in Black, it seems only right to retain the central point of revenge as a damaging and damning entity stronger than any ghost.
Thanks for reading! As always I’m on Twitter @caitlynmdowns