Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Countdown to Halloween: The Sleepy Hollow Variations

Norman Rockwell's "Ichabod Crane"
It's not often that this blog syncs so neatly with contemporary popular culture (obviously, anyway). But on Wednesday October 9th, Sleepy Hollow, a new ongoing series based (oh so loosely) on Washington Irving's 1820 story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow", premieres on Universal UK. It looks delightfully gonzo: the character of Ichabod Crane (now a Revolutionary War hero, it seems) wakes up in the twenty-first century (Rip Van Winkle style - see what they did there?) to battle the headless horseman. Great television premise or the greatest television premise? I can't wait. It seems like an intriguing off-shoot of the contemporary vogue for revisiting nineteenth century moments - Hell on Wheels and Copper on the small screen, Django, Lincoln, The Lone Ranger on the big, off the top of my head. I'm sure there are more. What goes around comes around, of course - but why now, I wonder?

Regardless, this seemed like a good enough prompt to finally rope "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" into this Halloween countdown, and think a little bit about its persistence in American culture - like Norman Rockwell's great depiction of Ichabod, left. If you've never read it, here it is in an 1821 John Murray edition.

But what's that you say - does "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" really qualify as a Halloween story? Not exactly, but I feel that it's been embraced in that way, over the years. And there are a couple of good reasons - beyond the comic Gothic of the story itself - for that association. After all, the climax of the story begins on "a fine autumnal day", and a pumpkin has a starring role. So why shouldn't it be October 31st when Ichabod sets out at the "witching hour", never to return? Let's say it is.

Either way, Irving's story, and his superstitious protagonist in particular, have had a long and varied life in American popular culture. Its emergence at a peculiarly formative moment in American literary history and its immediate Transatlantic appeal (early adopters: Scott and Byron) might have something to do with its persistence - not to mention Irving's canny use of imported faux-folklore. While this new rendition of Ichabod Crane fighting evil in the 21st century might seem a peculiarly modern conceit, he had already floated free from Irving's story and was being put to other uses even in the nineteenth century. In an example I've written about here, the great, forgotten actor-dramatist Nathaniel Harrington Bannister used the character of Ichabod Crane in a play called Murrell, The Land Pirate in the 1840s, which was apparently popular throughout America. So there's a good provenance for this sort of curiosity.

Undoubtedly, this latest transfiguration of Irving's story seems to take many of its cues from Tim Burton's 1999 adaptation, also called simply Sleepy Hollow. But there are plenty of others to choose from if you're looking for some Halloween viewing. There's the 1949 Disney adaptation - available in full below - that was originally released along with an accompanying Wind in the Willows short (who signed off on that package?):

And then there's this silent 1922 version - The Headless Horseman - starring none other than Will Rogers as Ichabod - also available in full:

So whatever else this latest Sleepy Hollow turns out to be, it's certainly tapping into a rich vein in American popular culture. Here's the official trailer:


Caffeinated Joe said...

I like Rockwell's version. What do you think of the Ichabod in the new Sleepy Hollow television show?

Thomas Ruys Smith said...

I love the Rockwell too - captures something of the essence of the character very nicely! Will reserve judgement on Sleepy Hollow until I've seen it, but I'm always intrigued by adaptations that make him an attractive and appealing romantic lead, because that's so out of keeping with the original story. We'll see!

Nerd Out With Me said...

I always enjoyed the Disney version as a kid. It would play once a year the day before Halloween. Something about it sparked my imagination. Now I'm watching the Sleepy Hollow show you spoke of. It's fun. A good balance of mystery and tongue in cheek wit. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it doesn't lose its way.

Thomas Ruys Smith said...

Agreed! I'm enjoying it. Think I might have to turn the Disney version into a tradition too!