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Sleepy Hollow: Fictionalizing Fiction, The Movie vs. The Book

Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow is one of the director’s finest works, an old-school piece of Grand Guignol featuring 18 (count ‘em) decapitations and six fainting spells from the film’s star, Johnny Depp. Burton was very much inspired by the old Hammer horror films and the gothic horror films of Mario Bava in the making of this film. What he wasn’t too inspired by, ironically enough, was the story on which it’s based.

Sleepy Hollow bears only a superficial resemblance to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the 1820 short story by Washington Irving on which it’s based (“vaguely inspired by” is probably a more accurate term). Andrew Kevin Walker’s screenplay originally had more similarities with the book, but Burton brought in Tom Stoppard to rewrite and restructure the script to make it a little more… well, Tim Burton-ish, perhaps?

Not that The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is appropriate source material for a feature-length film in and of itself. Any screenwriter should be allowed license to expand the story as needed, as what’s there can barely fill a 30-minute animated special (as Disney did 50 years prior to the release of Burton’s film).

Irving’s story is simple: Ichabod Crane is a lean, lanky, unattractive schoolmaster from Connecticut engaged in a rivalry with the handsome and athletic Abraham Van Brunt, aka Brom Bones, for the romantic affections of Katrina Van Tassel, the 18-year-old daughter of the wealthy landowner, Baltus Van Tassel.

During a party at the Van Tassel home, the guests tell tales of the Headless Horseman, the ghost of a Hessian soldier that fell victim to a cannonball during the American Revolutionary War and now haunts the nearby forest in “nightly quest of his head.”

After the party, Ichabod is pursued through the forest by the Horseman himself and is never heard from again, resulting in Katrina marrying Brom. While the nature of the Horseman is open to interpretation, it is strongly implied that it was actually Brom in disguise, looking to do away with his romantic rival in the most extravagant way possible.

And that’s basically it. It’s a two-act story, and the second act goes by in a flash. Certainly not the stuff of a feature-length Hollywood film, without taking a few liberties. Or a lot, rather.

And Burton certainly took liberties. In Sleepy Hollow, the Van Tassel party is in there, as well as the romantic rivalry between Ichabod and Brom. Brom even dresses up as the Horseman in one scene to scare Ichabod (only to be cut down by the real Horseman shortly thereafter). And that’s where the similarities pretty much end.

There is one major difference from and one major addition to Irving’s story. The major difference is in Ichabod’s profession — Johnny Depp plays an eccentric and excitable constable from New York City, not a meek schoolteacher from Connecticut. Irving’s Ichabod is extremely superstitious, whereas Depp’s Ichabod is a skeptic, believing all seemingly supernatural occurrences can be explained through nature and science. He doesn’t stand by that philosophy for very long, though — he starts believing in “ghosts and goblins” after a few of those six fainting spells.

The major addition is the nature of the Horseman itself. Burton’s Horseman is a ghost, no question about it. And he doesn’t go about chopping off heads all to and fro with no rhyme or reason — there is a method to his madness, all part of a major conspiracy involving one of the most prominent families in Sleepy Hollow. Someone in town is calling the shots — or rather, the decapitations — with the Horseman. In Burton’s film, the Horseman isn’t simply a figure of fear and superstition — he’s the plot itself.

We’re not saying one is better than the other. Both the book and the movie are great. They’re just on completely opposite ends of the room.

Ultimately, though, the movie may have the advantage, because it has Christopher Walken with crazy hair and sharp teeth growling and snarling and yelling “HAAA!!” a lot.

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