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The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
by Washington Irving

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow Movie

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow Movie Analysis: From the small page to the big screen.

Want to see your English teacher break out in hives? Mention the works of Tim Burton to him. This gifted filmmaker has a knack for taking literary classics and putting his own spin on them, pushing the phrase "based on the book by" far past its recommended limits. Nowhere can you see this in action more than Sleepy Hollow, a Gothic mystery mash-up loosely based on Washington Irving's short story. And when we say loosely, we mean barely. Burton strays so far from the original text, we hesitate to even call this puppy an adaptation. It's more like a vague homage.

And you know what that means. For all you Shmoopers who think you can get away with not reading the book by just popping in the DVD, well, think again. This movie's a one-way ticket to a big fat F on your next English test.

What's the Same

Oh, nothing. With the exception of the basic characters and situations, very little remains from Irving's short story. Sure, there's Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp), a coward, who pines away for the comely Katrina van Tassel (Christina Ricci). There's the Headless Horseman who holds the village of Sleepy Hollow in his thrall, and there's a Brom Bones (Casper Van Dien) vying with Crane for Katrina's fair hand. We're on track so far. The most basic elements of the story are all there… right before Burton twists them into funny balloon animal shapes.

To be fair, Sleepy Hollow also captures something of the Gothic tone that Irving was going for when describes Sleepy Hollow as a slightly surreal place:

Certain it is, the place still continues under the sway of some witching power, that holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie. They are given to all kinds of marvelous beliefs; are subject to trances and visions; and frequently see strange sights, and hear music and voices in the air. (1.4)

Burton has a great eye for that, filling the silver screen with creepy houses, elaborate costumes and an atmosphere so desaturated he might as well have filmed it in black and white. (Except for the copious beheadings, of course, when the red blood runs like a fire hose.) Nobody can do haunted like Tim Burton, and Crane's bewitched little town makes a perfect subject for him. One look at the trailer, and you'll see what we mean.

And finally, Burton hangs on to just a smidgen of the story's science vs. superstition theme. The author hints very strongly that there wasn't any Headless Horseman—that it was all just fearful stories told in the dead of night. Burton tosses that idea—the Horseman is all-too-real here—but Crane's status as a detective means that he uses science and knowledge to figure out how to stop the ghost. It's not pure Irving, but it at least gets within sniffing distance.

What's Different

Oh, everything. Sleepy Hollow changes so much from the book that it's not quite fair to call it an adaptation at all. It's more like Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow, with a dollop of original Irving here and there just for flavor. While they character names are the same, who they are and the reality they live in is quite different: Ichabod Crane becomes a police inspector here, sent to Sleepy Hollow to solve a series of murders. Turns out, the Horseman's behind it all, but who or what is controlling the Horseman becomes the question of the day.

That's all well and fascinating, but it has absolutely nothing to do with Irving's masterpiece. In fact, it's almost the polar opposite of what Irving was going for. The story is all about the power of tall tales, and how we embrace fiction over the truth since fiction is usually more exciting. That means that one of the central figures of the story—the Headless Horseman—is, in all likelihood, a figment of the town's imagination.

But that won't do for ol' Timmy. Burton tosses all that out in favor of an actual Horseman causing actual mayhem, leaving the whole legend vs. fact theme languishing in book form. In the movie, Ichabod's use of science and forensic evidence feels like a band-aid, making a weak case for "science and understanding," even though there's a full-bore demon running around. Burton can't debate the power of tall tales when his tall tale is actually galloping around, cutting people's heads off.

That also does some damage to the book's other big idea: the love triangle between Ichabod, Katrina, and Brom Bones. In the story, uber-strong Brom Bones runs off Ichabod Crane in an early example of the jocks beating up the nerds. Irving makes a quiet point about America and populism here. We hates us the elites in this country and smart people like Ichabod definitely fall into that category.

But that won't do for Burton, who almost always sides with the persecuted outsider and wants to see them win (Edward Scissorhands, anyone?). Of course that means that poor, jerky Brom Bones winds up iced by the Headless Horseman without much fanfare, which handily clears the way for Ichabod to put the moves on Katrina. Again, it's not bad; but the change completely upends Irving's touching upon the fact that pointy-headed intellectuals always get the shaft.

So many of these deep, thematic changes crop up in Sleepy Hollow that it really can't be considered an adaptation. It's more a jazz-style riff using the basic elements of Irving's story to tell a completely new tall tale.

We even have a term for it: "Burtonesque." If you're watching a flick that's Burtonesque, chances are it's got a misunderstood outsider (Crane), finding his purpose in a community that doesn't understand him (the villagers), and there's usually a heaping helping of ghoulish and gothic imagery (the guy on the horse is missing his head) to boot. Sure, these elements were all there to begin with in Irving's work, which is probably why Burton decided to silver-screenify this little ditty in the first place. He took those elements, amped up their creepiness, and tossed out any parts of the original story that didn't feel sufficiently Burtonesque. The result is a good enough movie, but it's not going to help you ace any pop quizzes anytime soon.

Other Adaptations

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow has been tackled by filmmakers since, well, practically the beginning. In 1922, the late, great Will Rogers played Ichabod Crane in a silent version of the story called The Headless Horseman.

If you're looking for a more faithful adaptation, check out Bing Crosby's 1949 animated version, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Sure, it's animated, but at least they get the plot right.

Then, in 1980, a rather humorous take on the story came out as a T.V. movie starring a young Jeff Goldblum as Crane. We haven't seen it, but it was nominated for an Emmy, so it can't be too shabby.

Five years later, Shelley Duvall tackled the tale in her series Tall Tales and Legends. Her version of the story features the very gawky Ed Begley, Jr. as Ichabod, who opens the story with the most wonderful cowardly shrieks.

Sleepy Hollow came out in 1999 and overshadowed the Hallmark Hall of Fame version of the story, called The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. This flick featured Brent Carver as Ichabod, as well as a real ghost interrupting Brom Bones' prank.

So what do you think, Shmoopers: did Burton's take miss the mark by straying too far? Or did he accurately capture the spooky nature of the story? Shmoop amongst yourselves.

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