The Woman in Black: comparing the film, the book and the play

The book and the play have enjoyed great success – does the Daniel Radcliffe film do the story justice?

In the last week, I’ve seen The Woman in Black at the theatre, watched the movie and read Susan Hill’s spine-chilling ghost story, the book on which the film and play are based. So: what did I learn? (Apart from the fact that I now need a course of counselling.)


Well, I learned a lot about the power of imagination. Despite my love of visual entertainment (theatre, TV, film), I’m something of a purist. Surely nothing can beat immersing yourself in a story, I thought, filtering a writer’s words through your mind and scaring your own self silly?

And it’s true that Hill’s book sweeps you up in its strong descriptive passages, creating a gnawing sense of terror as chilling and clinging as any sea fret.

Anyone who’s familiar with The Woman in Black (in whatever form) will know how important sea frets are to the tale. The core story (the film takes some liberties with other details and completely refashions the ending) follows young solicitor Arthur Kipps as he travels to the remote Eel Marsh House to sift through the documents of late client Alice Drablow. But the few terrifying days he spends there will haunt his memory – and change his life – for ever…

If you see the stage play, Kipps’s experiences will haunt your memory, too. There’s a reason the show is still running in London’s West End 23 years on: it’s an eerily effective chiller.

Clever use of lighting casts creepy shadows on the stage, making you dart nervous glances at nooks and crannies. The woman in black puts in some heart-stopping appearances herself (frankly, the black-clad usher materialising silently at my elbow at one point scared the wits out of me). And the sound effects are guaranteed to have the audience screaming.

Of course, being packed into the cramped old Fortune Theatre helps, too. You’re so close to your fellow audience members you can’t help but be infected by their fear.

This was less of a problem at a more-than-half-empty cinema. (I admit, the price of a ticket these days can be as terrifying as a malevolent spirit.) But the film itself more than compensated for anything I lost in atmosphere sensed from those around me.

Horror movie stalwarts will no doubt find this 12A tame, but for my money, it captured the frights of the book far better than I had imagined it could. The vastness of the barren landscape, the choking blanket of mist and the sucking horror of the marsh were brought to life in a way no theatre could ever hope to match – whatever its budget for dry ice.

Eel Marsh House, packed full of trinkets, curios and shabby toys of a bygone age, might do the work of your imagination for you, but when it’s realised as well as this, who’s complaining? And with far fewer laughs than the play, you feel constantly on edge.

Daniel Radcliffe, in his first film outing post-Harry Potter, carries the movie for large chunks on his own. Stuck in this huge, lonely residence with only sound (and special) effects for company, he roamed its floors looking as scared and hyper-alert as I felt watching him.

For me, then, the film makes a worthy addition to the Woman in Black family.


Have you seen The Woman in Black? If you’ve recovered from the experience, let us know what you thought in the comments below!