Tim Burton's 1999 film adaptation of Washington Irving's 1819 short story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is hardly a faithful or literal adaptation. R.B. Palmer, in his introduction to Nineteenth-Century American Literature on Screen, is rather chilly in his dismissal of Burton's adaptation; he claims that a simple survey of Hollywood adaptations overall reveals that a number of major figures, most prominently Washington Irving…had never or rarely (and then generally unsatisfactorily) been adapted for the screen. Because it has been so dedicated to marketing modernity, broadly conceived, Hollywood production offers only a narrow view of nineteenth-century literature. Hollywood's most extensive engagement with nineteenth-century politics and culture is in fact through an essentially twentieth-century form: the western…(Palmer 6).
Of course, Irving's original tale makes a very poor western, despite Irving's own note that the town of Sleepy Hollow was once "infested with…cow-boys" (Irving 288). But in order to refashion "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" into a Hollywood film, Burton makes such broad and sweeping changes to the original tale that it is left almost unrecognizable save for a handful of names. This does not mean that Burton's film is unintelligent, or badly made; it means only that Johnny Depp's Ichabod Crane bears little resemblance to the spindly Puritan schoolmaster of the original. But I would like to examine the chief differences between the two versions of Ichabod Crane, and I will attempt to explain how Burton's characterization is possibly influenced by later nineteenth-century American fiction. I hope to show that Palmer's notion of "marketing modernity" is perhaps the guiding principle whereby we may assess the changes: Tim Burton de-historicizes and modernizes Washington Irving, while still maintaining some sense of a historic, less modern mythical past.
We must recall the initial portrayal of Ichabod Crane in Irving's story, which is careful to set him in historical context. At the outset, Irving uses the archaism "wight" to describe Ichabod. Although a taste for archaism was certainly popular in the period -- John Keats will use "wight" in the same year that "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" was published, in the revised "La Belle Dame sans Merci" -- Irving is trying to signal that we are discussing the historical past:
In this by place of nature there abode, in a remote period of American history, that is to say, some thirty years since, a worthy wight of the name of Ichabod Crane, who sojourned, or, as he expressed it, "tarried," in Sleepy Hollow, for the purpose of instructing the children of the vicinity. He was a native of Connecticut, a State which supplies the Union with pioneers for the mind as well as for the forest, and sends forth yearly its legions of frontier woodmen and country schoolmasters. The cognomen of Crane was not inapplicable to his person. He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together. His head was small, and flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weather-cock perched upon his spindle neck to tell which way the wind blew. To see him striding along the profile of a hill on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him, one might have mistaken him for the genius of famine descending upon the earth, or some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield. (Irving 274).
Of course from the start of Burton's film we can see that very little of this original conception has been retained. Irving's Ichabod Crane is laughable and comic; Johnny Depp is cool and remote. Perhaps the only visual element which is used at all are Ichabod's "large green glassy eyes" -- Depp's Ichabod Crane is defined by his curious eyeglasses, which are presented as being a highly modern artifact designed by himself. Whereas Irving has a symbolic intent when he brings back Ichabod's "green eyes" at a crucial moment of the story:
As the enraptured Ichabod fancied all this, and as he rolled his great green eyes over the fat meadow lands, the rich fields of wheat, of rye, of buckwheat, and Indian corn, and the orchards burdened with ruddy fruit, which surrounded the warm tenement of Van Tassel, his heart yearned after the damsel who was to inherit these domains, and his imagination expanded with the idea, how they might be readily turned into cash, and the money invested in immense tracts of wild land, and shingle palaces in the wilderness. (Irving 279-80).
Irving emphasizes the "green eyes" presumably to conjure up a hint of covetousness and meanness of spirit, like Shakespeare's famous description of jealousy as "the green-eyed monster" in Othello. The text amply bears out the claim made by Gregg Crane (presumably no relation) in the Cambridge Introduction to the Nineteenth-Century American Novel that "By marrying Katrina Van Tassel, Ichabod hopes to be able to use her father's considerable farm lands as a basis for future real estate speculation… The Yankee schoolmaster heralds the coming wave of development in the east and expansion to the west" (Crane 30). But the latter portion of this observation is what is crucial to Irving -- Ichabod Crane represents an interloper of sorts, as an identifiable New England puritan in the Dutch-settled Hudson valley. The Burton adaptation maintains the sense of Ichabod as an outsider, but he becomes an outsider of an altogether different sort: he is presented as a New York city police detective sent off to investigate a series of murders. Ichabod's outsiderness no longer becomes ethnicized in any way; although the differing Dutch and English names (and the Hessian character of the Horseman) are retained, Irving's sense of small ethnically-homogenous communities on the verge of being swept away by the tide of immigration is hardly maintained.
Irving published "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" in 1819, so the "thirty years since" would take the tale back to 1789, the year of the French Revolution. Tim Burton maintains the same general period -- he sets it in 1799, two hundred years before the release of his film -- but it is arguable that by changing the date of Irving's story so that it sits on the turn of the (nineteenth) century, Burton is inviting us to see Johnny Depp's scientifically-minded police detective as a harbinger of the future -- indeed, he often sounds like Sherlock Holmes transposed a century earlier, with frustrated statements like "Why am I the only one who can see that to solve crimes, we must use our brains, assisted by reason, using up-to-date scientific techniques?" (Burton 1999). Nothing could be further from Irving's original protagonist, who is stuck in the Puritain past, and is hardly scientifically-minded:
He was, moreover, esteemed by the women as a man of great erudition, for he had read several books quite through, and was a perfect master of Cotton Mather's "History of New England Witchcraft," in which, by the way, he most firmly and potently believed. He was, in fact, an odd mixture of small shrewdness and simple credulity. (Irving 276-7).
To transform Ichabod Crane from a rustic schoolmaster who believes in witches into the 1799 version of a "C.S.I." franchise, as Burton and Depp do, is to change the dynamic of the character entirely. Crane is no longer a comic figure, and moreover this removes Irving's implication that the horseman was nothing more than Brom van Bones ("observed to look exceedingly knowing whenever the story of Ichabod was related") playing a practical joke, so that he could scare Ichabod away from Katrina Van Tassel and marry her himself.
Franklin notes that Irving's story deliberately sets up a gothic tale about the return of the historical past, only to reveal it ultimately as a comic tale about credulity: "the true cause of the New England schoolmaster's fright is his super-heated Yankee imagination rather than the resurgence of the revolutionary past in the person -- or rather ghost -- of Major John Andre ?. It is 'Cotton Mather's History of Witchcraft' that has guided his response to the scene, not one of the many contemporary accounts of Andre ? And his American partner in treason, Benedict Arnold." (Franklin 416). Of course Tim Burton makes the Headless Horseman an actual revenant from the historical past, controlled remotely by Katrina's mother (as it is revealed). The ultimate effect is to transform Ichabod Crane from a gull taken in by his own panic, into a moody Sherlockian intellectual detective confronted with the unexpected emergence of the actual supernatural. In an interview with Mark Salisbury at the time of the film's initial release, Burton claimed that it was precisely the intellectual character of the screenplay's revised Ichabod Crane that attracted him -- Burton jokingly sums up the contrast as a protagonist who "lives in his head vs. A character with no head" (Salisbury, 1999). Yet this is far from…