Monday, July 29, 2002

Ode to the Headless Horseman

I did request to be last in this Consanguinity Lecture Series because I knew that a horror movie at 10am would run everybody off... The idea for this programming came, oddly enough, from an essay of mine that John Sledge published on the Mobile Register's Sunday Bookpage a couple months ago, and, to follow the analepse even further, the idea for that essay was born of a conversation I had about the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? which is supposedly based on the Odyssey. "Loosely based" is I think the operative phrase.

So that begs a question -- Loosely Based -- what should that mean in terms of converting stories in books to stories in movies, and why should it be a good thing? The idea I tried to put across in the article is that Books and Movies are two different types of storytelling, using different languages. Words in books seep into consciousness and memory, they play upon what we've experienced and felt. Movies do the same thing, but the language of icons and images, as opposed to words, is more immediate. With movies, we're given the experience. Now, I'm not saying one form of storytelling is better or more legitimate than the other. (I can be a Snobbish Reader -- I've worked among books for the past twelve years, in bookshops and in libraries. But I love movies too.) After 100+ years, movies have certainly established themselves as an artful form of storytelling. What I'm saying is that it seems to me, because I so often hear the phrase The Book Was Better, that these two essentially different forms of storytelling are being unfairly, if commonly, compared.

So there are two regions of responsibility for avoiding this. One is on the head of the Reader, and one is on the head of the Filmmaker. As Readers, we have to let go of our preconceived notions about the way our favorite stories are told on the page. By proxy, when we read stories, they become ours -- we fill in the holes left by the writer with our own images, the characters look like ourselves or our friends (or -- gasp! -- our favorite actors), the locations are our favorite places, real or imagined. The way the characters are revealed to us, through their own memories and reflections and interior monologues -- all the things that make us feel that we personally know these characters -- these things are impossible with film (unless the filmmaker resorts to a cheesy voice-over narrative, which makes everything sound like it was written by Mickey Spillane).

For their part, the Filmmakers must recognize this and move on with what's best for the Story (with a capital S), no matter what their source material, be it a book or a play or a picture, or even some form of stationary art -- anything that carries a narrative idea. I think it was Marshall McCluhan who said of TV and movies that in their pure form, you should be able to take away dialogue and sound, plug up your ears and still be able to interpret the action and follow the story, which ought to be told in an entirely visual way. But of course, we rely on dialogue and language even in movies, since that's our primary form of communication in daily life, so maybe that's where some of the confusion is so easily brought to bear. At any rate, I think Filmmakers should bear that in mind, and strive to create something new, and not have us expect exactly the same of their films, because in doing so they are doomed to fail. And we are doomed to be disappointed, if we don't allow them to create something new, and to accept the film on it's own terms.

Actually, some of the criticism that I heard and read about Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, which came out last fall, speaks to this argument. Chris Columbus tried too hard to simply mimeograph scenes from the book onto celluloid, and it came out stilted and lifeless. If he'd played with the material more, perhaps he could have avoided that. It's difficult to say. Certainly the Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, which was fairly faithful to the events of the book, in my opinion maintained a lot of drama and passion. I've read those books I-don't-know-how-many times, and yet I was on the edge of my seat. And although it's not a book or a movie for everybody, Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, based on Hunter S. Thompson's well-known book about drug use in the 1970s, managed to capture the manic, chaotic energy even while sticking close to the book. So maybe there is a level of moviemaking skill that transcends this argument, as well.

Okay, that was the gist of my original idea, and my essay for John. Though truth be told, my very original idea for such an essay goes back even farther than the O Brother Where Art Thou? conversation, to the time when this movie, Sleepy Hollow, came out.

I have loved Washington Irving's story for a long time, since I was a kid and so young that I can't tell you exactly when or how I first encountered it. I know I saw the cartoon version on Wonderful World of Disney, one evening near Halloween, but it seems that even then I was already familiar with the "Legend" in some way or other, that the parts making up the story -- the goofy underdog hero, the terrifying Night Journey, and of course the dreaded Headless Horseman -- were already a part of my understanding of the world. They are archetypes, of a sort. (Indeed, the Night Journey has become such an integral part of American Literature, from Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown meeting the Devil in the woods at night, to Poe's Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, up to Oedipa Maas' venture into midnight 1960s San Francisco in Pynchon's postmodern fable The Crying of Lot 49 -- this symbolic rendition of a Dark Night of the Soul is surely so much more than a foppish schoolteacher spurring a donkey through a darkened dell, trying to outrun a hellish, headless revenant. Surely it's more than that... There's some reason we're all secretly afraid of the dark, right? There's some truth to this Legend, right?...)

Irving is considered our first successful American writer -- that is, he was the first to make a living at it. (Others wrote before him, obviously, like novelist Charles Brockden Brown.) The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is the last story, or chapter, in a book called The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, published semi-anonymously by Irving in 1819 and 1820. In the main it is a kind of diary or journeybook kept by an anonymous traveler, leaving America and revisiting the Old Country. But embedded within these earnest and true-to-life sketches and impressions are three short stories, planted like red herrings. The other two are The Specter Bridegroom and Rip Van Winkle, and all the stories are told as if they are true, just as true as the other things described throughout the book, such as the English customs of Christmas Eve. Not that I've done any real digging in the interest of research, but I wonder what some of the man-on-the-street reaction was to these tales, at the time of publication. It amuses me to think, and it's not an entirely ridiculous notion, that some folks might have been rightfully confused by this context -- much as were many people several years ago, when the movie The Blair Witch Project appeared. That movie supposes itself a documentary about some vague, spooky manifestations in the New England woods, and all the commercial hype surrounding it played the story as "true." There were "making of" specials on TV to promote the movie, and these too were done as serious documentaries. Many were fooled, including a couple of my own friends, by this angle. In this day and age, this ostensible Information Age, if it's that easy to hoax someone with a movie, surely in 1820, a lot of people took the Headless Horseman as fact... as did I, at the tender age of eight.

At that age, I was even taken in by that key word in the title: the Legend. Sleepy Hollow sounds like a real enough place to me. And a Legend, isn't that like an old story, a true story, passed down through time? At that age I was also scared easily, and I watched what I could of this affable, harmless-enough cartoon through fingers I held up in front of my face. So my comprehension of the story, filtered through fear and the resulting inability to watch, was a little iffy. (I saw it not long ago, and you can't imagine a more docile horror story -- I mean, it's narrated by Bing Crosby, after all.) So for a long time I "understood" the story of the Horseman to be describing some event, distorted perhaps but still an event which really happened...

Imagine my disappointment, then, when I finally read the story in 8th grade, still too young to appreciate all the intricacies, all the details, the careful structure, and most especially Irving's distinctly ironic, American humor that makes it, still, one of the best short stories ever written. I was only irritated to discover: Dammit! There's no actual Headless Horseman! It's just Brom Bones acting like a jackass to run Ichabod Crane out of the country, so that he can have the full attention of Katrina Van Tassel. And let's face it: none of these characters are really very likable. Brom is a sulking bully, Ichabod is a blustering coward who is most interested in marrying into the family that will feed him best, and Katrina is feckless, attaching herself to whichever man is still around at the end of the day. They need a headless horseman to come along and keep them in line.

So I was pretty happy when Tim Burton came along with his version of events, Sleepy Hollow. I don't know much about Burton personally, but I like his movies, which are typically dark, atmospheric, and contain huge doses of comic irony. His first big movie was a surreal look into the afterlife called Beetlejuice, then he directed the first two Batman movies, ten years ago; Mars Attacks makes fun of the 1950s alien invasion movies; Edward Scissorhands, also with Johnny Depp, is one of the strangest romantic comedies you'll ever see; and Ed Wood is about the man who made some of the worst low-budget movies in Hollywood history (Martin Landau won an Oscar for playing Bela Lugosi in that movie).

Sleepy Hollow takes the characters and premise of Irving's story, tosses everything into a kind of blender, along with other tropes cribbed from the Gothic Novel, popular in the early 1800s. And for my money, for as much as I've learned to appreciate Washington Irving, this version is a little closer to what the kid in me expected, those decades ago. Here you will find an actual ghastly Headless Horseman galloping across the countryside, chopping off heads of the citizenry. So it becomes a murder mystery, and a bit of a campy one, with a supernatural twist. (And it doesn't spoil any of the major plot when I tell you here that, at last, Brom Bones gets what he deserves.)

In approaching this movie, I don't doubt that Burton recognized the need to shuck the original story and concoct something new using only the essential elements. And he's done it so wildly, viewers have no choice but to accept or reject this movie on its own terms. It's a moot point to say that Irving's story is better than Burton's movie. But consider this: I think Washington Irving would have appreciated what Tim Burton did. Irving, for his day, was a pretty experimental writer, and he loved toying with the conventions of storytelling. Looking back on his canon of short stories -- and following these successful experiments showcased in the Sketch Book, Irving for a while dabbled very seriously in fiction before turning back to nonfiction, such as his biography of his namesake, George Washington -- Irving has left us many templates for the form, and it can be said that, along with writers like Guy de Maupassant, he helped to popularize short-form fiction. I think of a story called The Stout Gentleman, a first person narrative told from the POV of a man staying in a wayside inn, who knows this unnamed Stout Gentleman only by reputation and a few things he's overheard. And the whole story is this narrator, himself unnamed, imagining what this Stout Gentleman might look like, and what his business might be, and what his private life might be like... and all the while the reader is being led to the conclusion that the Stout Gentleman will eventually be revealed. Well, not to ruin it, he isn't, and the story becomes a clever joke on the reader. It's to Irving's credit and charm that the reader isn't simply aggravated by the twist ending to this tale, just as the reader doesn't moan in disgust at the end of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, with all its fops and nitwits. You've been entertained. And at the hands of a master storyteller.

And because many of his short stories were retellings of older folktales from the oral tradition (the same strategy as Chaucer, by the way), I think Irving had a great sense of how yarns spin themselves anew, every so often. And here in Tim Burton's movie, we have a full-tilt homage to Gothic Horror, such as it was in Irving's day, in the novel form rather than the short story. The most famous of these novels are The Castle of Otranto by Walpole, and The Mysteries of Udolpho by Radcliffe, and The Monk by Matthew Lewis, which is a great, late 18th century stew of sexual decadence and political prurience and deals with the Devil, all of which ends horribly; you'd never think those folks back then could be so bad. So in this movie, the ghosts are real, and the characters believe in them to a point nearly of the grotesque, and there's some phantasmagorical... gore thrown in just to make it boil over the top.

A careful viewer will notice lots of elements from Irving's story, including several things that are only mentioned by Irving, but which Burton expounds upon, like local legends about "the great tree where the unfortunate Major Andre was taken," as there's a significant tree in the movie; and "the woman in white, that haunted the dark glen at Raven Rock" also makes an appearance. There are more obvious similarities: Ichabod Crane is still a blustery wuss, though his station in life has changed from schoolmaster to early American detective. The iconic midnight ride is acknowledged, complete with flaming jack-o-lantern, as is the covered bridge, and the churchyard which marks the border of the Horseman's power, though all in a very different light than in Irving's version.

The film is also atmospherically and texturally beautiful, and does a fair job of depicting the dark, dreamy, slightly ominous atmosphere that Irving sets up in his early paragraphs. Burton's ultimate message regards the fact that our technological advances have never really outstripped our capacity for superstition. But mainly he does a brilliant job of evoking Washington Irving's story, without actually copying it. And in that sense, it's entirely successful.

Originally presented at the Fairhope Public Library "Consanguinity" Books-to-Movies Lecture Series, July 29 2002