This article contains major spoilers for both the film and book versions of ‘The woman in black.’
It’s a special kind of anguish you get when something bad befalls you because of things completely beyond your control. And when the bad thing in question is the death of your little son, it’s quite devastating.
This particular sort of anguish- communicated in sparse yet elegant language, in things which are expressed as much in things which aren’t- lies at the core of Susan Hill’s 1983 book, ‘The woman in black.’
A haunted house story, in the book, the young man Arthur Kipps goes to an isolated mansion of sorts which gets cut off from its surroundings during high tides and which is hemmed in by a bleak landscape devoid of much life.
The reason for his visit is work-related, to sort through certain documents belonging to the old woman who lived there on her own for the past three decades and whose death kick starts the story.
The local residents are all scared to even mention the house, yet they give enough hints to indicate to Kipps that that’s not exactly a fun place to be in.
Kipps finds they are right to be scared of the place when he encounters spectral visions and phantasmal screams of drowning children in the nearby marshes. He later learns that there did happen the death of children in those marshes once and the mistress of the house was the sister of those children’s mother.
The latter contracts an emaciating disease soon after her children’s death and she also dies. But she always blamed her sister for her kids’ death- though in reality, it was just an accident caused by mist, and has never forgiven her.
She still haunts the house and the local village, and whenever she is sighted, a child in the village dies of one reason or another.
Even though these are disturbing details, what helps Kipps keep a certain detachment to perform the job he has been sent to do is the fact that the ghost doesn’t have anything against him in person.
So, there was no cause for her to harm him. He even expresses this same sentiment to another character at one point.
But the devastating aspect of Kipps’ story comes at the very end.
After his business at the haunted house is finished- to the best of his abilities- he returns to London where he marries his fiancé. The couple has a child the very next year. One day, while they take the boy to a fair, Kipps sees the woman in black again. She causes an accident which kills his son.
But in the movie version which came out in 2012, Kipps is presented as a young widower with a son, whose wife has passed away in childbirth when he comes to the haunted house.
This makes him feel rather sentimental but then, the verve and belief in rationalism common to an educated young man as he is portrayed in the book is largely missing from the character. In fact, what with the tragedy of his wife’s passing, he comes across as someone who may be psychologically more prone to believe in ghosts or an after-life than anyone.
The fright scenes in the movie come largely come from jump scares. While these are indeed well staged, they nonetheless pale in comparison to the chill of experiencing someone losing their child because of reasons he couldn’t possibly have control over; indeed, of things that happened in the past because of no one’s mistake- as they are rendered in the book.
The story of the haunting is told by Kipps in hindsight in the book- years after the incidents, when he is married to another person and living happily with her and their kids.
Even still, Kipps is unable to outgrow the haunting that eventually claimed the life of his first born, simply because you cannot outgrow something that claims your innocence. You just learn to live with the memories that keep haunting you. That’s how life works, and Kipps in the bookhas come to terms with it as much as he could- and is matured for that reason.
This rich inner palette of Kipps’ soul is missing in the canvas of the movie which is a rather intriguing gothic tale with jump scares and arresting cinematography by Tim Maurice-Jones. Also, Daniel Radcliffe playing his first lead role after the Harry Potter films.(Radcliffe hardly sells himself as a dad and a widower- being a little boyish still.).
And that is the movie’s biggest loss.