Spangler’s From Sentence to Screen: Sleepy Hollow

Sleepy Hollow is a 1999 gothic supernatural horror film directed by Tim Burton starring Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci, with Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, and Casper Van Dien in supporting roles. It is a film adaptation loosely based on Washington Irving’s 1820 short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” The movie is set in 1799 and follows New York City police constable Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) as he is sent to the small Dutch Hamlet of Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of murders that have plagued the town. He is given very little information regarding the town or its victims, besides the fact that they all had their heads cut off. When he arrives, Ichabod is told by the town’s leaders that not only were the victims beheaded, but the murderer also took their heads after he killed them. The townspeople believe the murders to be committed by the apparition of a headless Hessian mercenary from the American Revolutionary War who is looking for his own missing head. Ichabod is skeptical about the paranormal elements of the story and takes a more scientific approach to his investigation. Slowly he unravels a conspiracy against the leading families in the town and also comes face to face with supernatural forces which seem to be trying to drive him away from Sleepy Hollow, if not kill him. While at the same time being forced to confront his childhood trauma and developing feelings for Katrina Van Tassel (Christina Ricci), the daughter of one of the town elders. In this blog post, I will look at how the film expanded on the original story and how the character of Ichabod Crane changed between the two mediums. 

Many of the events from the original short story were included in the movie, but they are quickly moved past to expand the story to a feature length film. When Burton’s film opens instead of Ichabod Crane being in Sleepy Hollow already, he is placed in New York City. So right from the start there is already a change from the original story, which took place entirely in Sleepy Hollow. Where the similarities between the two become evident is in two scenes after Ichabod comes to Sleepy Hollow. The first being that of a party thrown at the Van Tassel house, which in the film is where Ichabod first meets Katrina.  Ichabod accidentally walks into a game in which she is blindfolded and most catch one of the men in the circle around her, but instead finds him. When Katrina is trying to guess who he is, Crane explains he is just a traveler but she still kisses him on the cheek which seems to deeply effect him. After Katrina takes off the blindfold it appears she is taken with Ichabod as well. Noticing this, a man Katrina is romantically involved with, Brom Van Brunt (Casper Van Dien), threatens Crane. Ichabod quickly explains his purpose for coming to the hamlet, and Katrina’s father (Michael Gambon) gives him lodgings at the Van Tassel house as he conducts his investigation into the murders being committed. The fact that Ichabod is going to be staying at Katrina’s home clearly aggravates Brom. This leads to the scene where Crane is chased down on horseback by Brom dressed as the Headless Horseman either the night after the party or two nights after (it isn’t quite clear in the movie because of how the lighting between two scenes shift in a way that could be analyzed as the passing of a full day or just the lightning of the sky as clouds dispersed in the same day). The disguised Brom throws a jack-o-lantern with a lit candle inside it at Ichabod, which hits him in the head and knocks him off his horse. At first Ichabod believes the attack to have truly been by the Headless Horseman, but while he is still on the ground catching his breath, he hears laughing down the road. Revealing to Ichabod that it was a prank being pulled on him by Brom and his friends, most likely in retaliation for his clear attraction to Katrina.         

These two scenes both happen in the short story, though in slightly different ways as they are the conflict and climax of Irving’s work, while in the film they are merely a starting off point for the characters. The short story’s Ichabod lived in the Sleepy Hollow and was already known to Brom and Katrina, who he had been unsuccessfully trying to court for sometime when the events of the story took place. Brom is again a rival for Katrina’s affection, but the tension between the three characters slowly escalates until the night of a harvest party at the Van Tassels, where Ichabod happens to listen to a story  Brom tells about a run in he had with the Headless Horseman. During the party, Crane attempts to propose to Katrina but she rejects him, the narrator implying she never really took his courtship seriously. He leaves the party embarrassed and on his way home is chased down by the Headless Horseman until the ghost throws his decapitated head at Ichabod and knocks him down. The next day Ichabod is nowhere to be seen with the only things left from that night being found are his horse, a trampled saddle, his discarded hat, and a scattered pumpkin. Ichabod is never seen or heard from again by the people of Sleepy Hollow, leaving Katrina to marry Brom who seemed to always have a knowing look whenever Ichabod and the Headless Horseman are mentioned. Some in the town believe him to be killed by the ghost, though the narrator of the story says there was talk that after the rejection from Katrina and fright from Brom’s prank, Ichabod simply left down and thrived elsewhere. The film version of these events is quite similar to the original tale, but adapted in a way that allows for the story to continue, while also definitely telling the audience the attack on Ichabod by the Headless Horseman was just Brom playing a prank even though the ghost haunting Sleepy Hollow is still real.                                                             

Since the story was expanded, the character of Ichabod also needed to be expanded and even changed to fit the overall conflict of the film. In the short story, Crane is a teacher for the students of Sleepy Hollow and is a fairly well liked member of the community. Besides this and his affection for Katrina, not much is known about the character. Also unlike Irving’s story, which takes place entirely in Sleepy Hollow, the beginning has Ichabod living in New York City as a police constable and then is sent to the superstitious town. This makes the main character a stranger in Sleepy Hollow, where he at first isn’t aware of the legend surrounding the ghost and is seen by some as untrustworthy; making it harder for the character as he attempts to conduct his investigation. The film also gives Ichabod a backstory that helps him figure out how to defeat the Headless Horseman, involving his mother being a witch and how he had suppressed those memories from his childhood. Leading to Crane favoring science and investigation over magic and superstition, two things he comes face to face with in Sleepy Hollow. The inclusion of the backstory with his mother makes a lot of sense as it gives the character some bearing in the new environment he is in, even if he doesn’t realize it at first. It also plays well into Ichabod’s characterization as he attempts to present himself as very disciplined and stoic when he is actually quite easy to spook, something that is also shown in Irving’s story if the reader interprets the ending as Ichabod running away after he was attacked. I don’t necessarily believe the change in his job was needed though, as I have seen an adaption of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” where Ichabod was still an educator and ended up taking on an investigation type situation regarding the Headless Horseman. For Burton’s movie, they could have possibly made him a professor of some kind from New York City, if they wanted him to be seen as the “other” in town, and have been sent there to look at the bodies or something similar. Besides the change in profession, I think the way the character of Ichabod Crane adapted for Burton’s film made a lot of sense and allowed for the story to be expanded. 

The short story leaves its ending ambiguous so it can be a “legend” and more like a ghost story, while the film makes everything explicitly clear so the exclusion of legend in the title makes sense. Burton’s film also leans much more into the aspects of the horror genre which gives it a more urgent feeling to the story and keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat. This change in genre between the mediums also makes the supernatural elements blatantly obvious and leans into it, which is something that many adaptations of the last few decades have chosen instead of the more logical explanation for the events in Irving’s story. An effect of the supernatural components is that the audience’s attention is more quickly drawn into the story, and then uses the horror elements to keep them there; which is something that I didn’t really find when reading the short story. Given the right setting and circumstance though, like telling ghost stories around a campfire, Irving’s tale could have an oddly eerie effect. That being said, Washington Irving’s tale is a classic for a reason as it allows for a sense of mysticism with its ambiguous ending; whereas Burton’s film left me a bit underwhelmed by the end of it with everything tied up so nicely in a happy ending. This cult classic movie is perfect for the spooky season and one that I highly recommend for its horror elements and the classic Tim Burton ecstatic; though it isn’t the most family friendly, so for my next blog post I will be looking at the 2020 supernatural comedy film The Witches directed by Robert Zemeckis based on the 1983 children’s novel of the same name by Roald Dahl.

-Jo Spangler, Blogger.


Jo Spangler — Film Blogger: Jo Spangler graduated Summa Cum Laude from Lewis University, majoring in English Literature and Language with minors in Creative Writing and Film Studies. They currently work as a Customer Services Associate at the Naperville Public Library and at Barnes & Noble as a Bookseller. In their free time, Jo enjoys reading, listening to music, and taking walks with their dog, Dublin. One of Jo’s favorite book series is The All Souls Trilogy, by Deborah Harkness, because of how she mixes the supernatural with history and the focus on character development. In the future, they plan to become a children’s librarian. 


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