When I first heard that Tim Burton was making a movie version of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,", I had that same sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that one gets upon hearing Regis Philbin say "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" Don't get me wrong--Tim Burton is a good director, one of the great visual stylists working today. I love Washington Irving’s original story, and I still have the Disney Records version, which scared the crap out of me as a child, what with the foreboding music and Thurl Ravenscroft’s narration. But if there’s one thing more difficult to do than translate a novel or play to the big screen, it’s transferring a short story. Not only do you have all the regular problems of translation, but you also have to deal with the fact that you just don’t have two hours of material provided, you have a lot of gaps to fill in.
By way of example, if you look at Benchley’s Jaws, you see that what screenwriter Carl Gottlieb mainly did was trim away a LOT of superfluous material—Hooper’s affair with Ellen Brody, and the mayor’s links to organized crime—leaving nothing but the shark. Because, when you get right down to it, that’s all anyone was interested in anyway. Result? Masterpiece. At the other extreme, How the Grinch Stole Christmas clocks in at about eight minutes, if you’re a slow reader. Chuck Jones had to add about fourteen minutes of material to fill out a 22 minute cartoon. Jones pulled it off with a wondrous sequence of comic moments, most of them involving Max, and, of course, the song, "You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" (sung by Thurl Ravenscroft, in case you were wondering just how I managed to leap from Sleepy Hollow to Whoville).
But when you’re trying to flesh out a short story to two hours, that’s a whole lot of time you have to flesh out. And when you get right down to it, there’s not a particularly good track record for short story adaptations. The closest might be The Haunting, based on Henry James’ "The Turn of the Screw," but that work is closer to novella length than a short story. You want to know how had it is to create a full-length movie from a short story? Four words: Stephen King’s The Mangler. A pretty creepy story, but on film it teeters on the edge of ludicrousness, then plunges headlong into the abyss. Another analogy might be the parade of marginally entertaining Saturday Night Live sketches that implode when turned into a full-length movie--some stories simply cannot support a movie of that length. (And yes, I am more than just a little apprehensive about Jim Carrey's impending turn in a live version of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas.")
Unfortunately, when taken as a whole, Sleepy Hollow just doesn't fulfill its promise, though it does come close at times. While the movie's look enthralled me--the opening scene with the uncredited Martin Landau being stalked and murdered by the horseman was breathtaking--by the time the end credits had rolled the plot had me pounding my head against the wall. Most critics have placed the blame on the last act--and I'll certainly agree that the last act borders on the painful. But the seeds for that pain get sown relatively early on in the movie.
I had just about finished this essay when I came across a script on the internet that purports to be the original shooting script. While I cannot vouch for the script's provenance, it certainly looks authentic. In many respects, the original script--if that is, indeed what it is--is much more effective on a number of levels--one possible interpretation is that Burton modified the script to fulfill his own vision. Regardless of who made the changes, though, the movie suffered as a result. I'll document some of the more important changes during the course of the my analysis.
Taking my cue from the basic lesson from above, this installment will be substantially shorter than most. Three key things I want to look at: The attempted transformation of Ichabod Crane, the Characterization of the Headless Horseman, and the basic plot behind the plot. I may toss in a brief discussion of the other characters, but then again, maybe not.