Sunday, October 23, 2011

Response to Washington Irving's Short Stories

The two most famous short stories by American author Washington Irving are The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow has inspired many adaptions, two of which are compared below. Rip Van Winkle has also provided a story for adaptations, but it seems to be an adaptation itself of a German folktale.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, published in 1820, tells of Mr. Ichabod Crane, a traveling schoolteacher, who comes to a small town in New York called Sleepy Hollow. He lives there for some time as the teacher and chorusmaster of the town, and falls in love with the wealthy farmer's daughter, Katrina Van Tassel. He attends a party hosted by Katrina's father, where the guests tell of the legends surrounding the town. Ichabod's rival for Katrina's affections, called Brom Bones, recounts the story of the headless horseman, a specter who is said to haunt the town. After the party, Ichabod confesses his love for Katrina, and seems to be rebuffed. On his way home, he is haunted by Brom's tale of the headless horseman, and spooks at every noise in the dark. Suddenly, he sees the horseman behind him, and races to the bridge, which, according to the legend, the horseman cannot cross. As he crosses the bridge, the horseman throws what Ichabod believes to he his head at the terrified schoolteacher, who promptly faints. The next morning, the only trace of either Ichabod or the horseman to be found is Ichabod's hat, and next to it, a shattered pumpkin. In a postscript, the narrator implicates Brom as pretending to be the horseman, and admits to not believing much of the story himself.

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad
© Disney Pictures 1949
I have seen two adaptations of this story, each of which focuses on a different element of the story. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad,  released by Disney in 1949, follows the plot of the story very closely, but, as a cartoon, makes light of it, rather than keeping with the spooky feel of the short story. Ichabod's character is comically exaggerated, yet follows the descriptions in the Irving story very well. In fact, many times throughout the short film, the narration incorporates quotes from the text of the story. The Disney animators, however, obviously went to great lengths to make the film appealing to children. Although the scene when Ichabod is chased by the horseman is quite scary for younger children, all in all, there is far less to scare in the Disney adaptation than the original. Ichabod is portrayed as a kind, if ungainly teacher, Katrina as a flirtatious and flighty coquette, and Brom as a man who, through no fault of his own, is made a buffoon by Ichabod, and tries to get back at his rival by scaring him away from Katrina and Sleepy Hollow altogether. In addition, several songs have been added, sung by Bing Crosby, who also contributes the narration. Overall, although the mood has been lightened considerably, the Disney version stays true to the original story and is overall a fun and enchanting adaptation.

(Note: The Mr. Toad portion refers to an adaptation of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, on the same disc as but not combined with The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.)

Poster for Sleepy Hollow
© Paramount Pictures 1999
Sleepy Hollow, released by Paramount Pictures in 1999, focuses more on the mood of the story rather than the plot. Other than the character of the headless horseman, who has few similarities to the horseman of Irving's story, the Tim Burton adaptation of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is nearly unrecognizable. Ichabod Crane, no longer a schoolteacher but a detective from New York City, comes to investigate several suspicious beheadings in the town of Sleepy Hollow. As people in the town are killed by the headless horseman, Ichabod slowly unravels the plot, and has several close encounters with the horseman himself. One eventually finds out that the horseman is not merely a legend, but a being called from the grave by a magic practitioner in the town, who uses the horseman to kill those who have found out her secrets and plans of revenge.

The Tim Burton adaptation of the story, unlike the Disney version, does not shy away from the scarier elements of the story. In fact, the film is rated R for "graphic horror violence and gore, and for a scene of sexuality." In the Burton film, Ichabod is no longer the ungainly schoolmaster described in the original and Disney versions, but played by Johnny Depp, who is nether "tall, [and] exceedingly lank" nor has a "head... small, and flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose" (see comparison below), and no longer travels as a schoolteacher "tarrying" in Sleepy Hollow but is a detective investigating murders. Of interest is Katrina, who rejects Ichabod's affections in the original story, falls for the character in the Burton adaptation. Another notable difference between the Burton film and the original story can be found with Brom, who wins Katrina in the Irving story, and is a very minor character in the adaptation. Brom, rather than pretending to be the horseman, is killed by him. In the Burton adaptation there is the addition of Katrina's stepmother, who masterminds the plot and is eventually defeated by Ichabod and Katrina. Burton also adds a backstory for Ichabod which does not at all fit with the sense one gets from the original. Overall, I prefer the Disney adaptation over the Tim Burton adaptation because it stays true to the original story in plot in characterization rather than focusing on the scariness of the tale.

Ichabod Crane and Katrina Van Tassel
From the Tim Burton film Sleepy Hollow
© Paramount Pictures 1999
Ichabod Crane
From the Disney movie The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad
© Disney Pictures 1949
Rip Van Winkle, Irving's other well-known story, published in 1918, tells of a man, easygoing and happy, who goes into the mountains one afternoon to hunt and get away from his sharp-tempered wife, and comes across a small man calling his name. The man asks Rip to help him carry his load. Rip complies, and follows the man up the mountain until they come across a crack in a wall of boulders. When they squeeze through, they find a group of odd looking people stoically playing ninepins (similar to bowling). Rip is ordered to serve wine to the beings, and eventually, he takes a sip, then two from the wine himself. He soon becomes very drunk, and falls asleep. He wakes on a mountainside, and finding his gun rusted and dog gone, makes his way back to the rock face. He finds that the crack is gone, as if it had never been there at all. Returning home, he finds no one who he recognizes, and no one seems to recognize him. He talks with several of the townspeople, to find that somehow there has been a revolution in his absence (the American Revolution), and that all of his friends are dead. Finally, he asks a young woman who she is, and when she responds, who her father was. She tells him that her father was Rip Van Winkle, who had gone missing 20 years earlier and was presumed dead. Rip finds out that his wife is dead, and joins his son and daughter, living out his life to the end and telling everyone of his strange adventure.

This story may seem familiar to those acquainted with the Grimm Brothers' tale of Karl Katz. In fact, the story is nearly identical. Karl Katz comes across dwarf rather than a "small man," pours the wine for unearthly beings rather than strangely dressed people, and there is no mention of the American revolution, as Karl Katz is a German folktale.

No comments:

Post a Comment