Woman in Black: Ghost Story Appeal

“The ghost story is a universal genre,” notes The Woman in Black author Susan Hill of this classic genre that dates back to ancient times.  “It exists in every culture and every country.”

Throughout the years, ghost stories have been depicted through various artistic mediums and have permeated folklore and oral storytelling.  Though widely known as a fictional genre, many believe ghost stories are rooted in actual supernatural experiences and sightings.  As such, many ghost stories surround famous historical figures and places.

To what do theorists attribute audiences’ ongoing fascination with ghost stories?  One interesting explanation is illustrated by The Woman in Black director James Watkins in a summarization of a Stanley Kubrick quote- “In an interview he gave on The Shining, Kubrick explained that on one level ghost stories are scary, but on another level they are inherently consoling because they imply an afterlife, they imply that something is still there after death.”  This comforting quality could in part account for their long-lasting popularity but, as Watkins simply states, it could also be that “people just love a good scare.”

Though ghost stories have taken various shapes over the years in literature, the genre has been widely associated with the short story form by contemporary readers.  It was just this fact that prompted Hill to write The Woman in Black.

“I took a break from writing to have my children and, during that time, I read a lot of ghost stories which I’ve always enjoyed,” recalls Hill. “But most ghost stories, apart from one or two very famous ones like The Turn of the Screw, are short stories.  So I decided to try and revive the ghost story and make it full-length again.  I set myself up with a bit of a challenge really.  I wondered, ‘Can you write a full-length ghost story which will keep the atmosphere and the suspense going?’  I sat down and made a list of ingredients rather like baking a cake – a list of what you absolutely need in a ghost story and then I worked from there.  And so The Woman in Black came to be.”

When Susan Hill published The Woman in Black as a novel in 1982, she never imagined it would have a life beyond its original medium. “You don’t, do you?” she says. “You don’t write for other mediums. You just write a book and then other people take it from there.”

But she’s used to people adapting her work, especially The Woman in Black, which has been turned into a TV movie, a radio series, a play and now a feature film. “The point is that the book is still there,” she says. “It’s the art of adaptation – which I could never do. With the play and now the film, each person has taken my book and remained true to the spirit of it, whilst reinterpreting it to suit the new medium.”

This is the first time Hill’s novel – now nearly thirty years old – has been adapted for the big screen. The project first came to producer Richard Jackson, of Talisman Films, in 1997. Following the success of Talisman’s production of Rob Roy, Hill’s agent approached Jackson to explore the possibility of a big screen adaptation of The Woman in Black. “It turned out to be a surprisingly tricky story to adapt,” he confides. “Over the years, we made several attempts with different screenwriters to adapt the story but I was never fully satisfied with the scripts.”

The initial impetus that breathed life into this production came from a meeting with producer and president & CEO of Hammer, Simon Oakes, who was, at the time, in the process of re-launching the historic Hammer brand. “I think it’s fair to say I was cautious about where that would lead, as there’d been other attempts to revitalise Hammer over the years,” reveals Jackson. “But Simon made it clear they were very serious and there was a level of ambition to ensure that we’d make a high-end film respectful of Susan’s narrative voice but at the same time that would appeal to contemporary audiences.”

“Simon was always very clear to me from the outset that his incarnation of Hammer would focus on genre movies that are intelligent,” continues Jackson. “And I knew that would be something Susan would respond to favourably, as well.”

For Oakes, The Woman in Black was one of the first properties of interest to the recently reborn genre label. “One of the things we talked about, as a team, when we first put this new incarnation of Hammer together was that horror is made of many different genres and subgenres but in recent years the tendency has been for body count horror,” he explains. “We wanted to explore something different, and while there’d been a TV movie and a stage play, we recognized a great opportunity in The Woman in Black to combine Susan Hill’s gothic ghost story with a modern sensibility.”

The production sought a screenwriter capable of overcoming the hurdles experienced by those who had taken on the task in previous years. “We identified Jane Goldman as someone we all wanted to work with,” says Jackson. “Luckily, she was excited about the project from the outset and she was able to crack it in terms of overcoming the central problems of how to tell this story for film.”

Says Oakes: “I’d read about Jane and knew her work.  I knew she’d be right for it. Her screenplay made everything fall into place. James Watkins, the director, read it and loved it. Daniel Radcliffe read it right after the last day of Harry Potter and loved it. Jane had a huge part to play in getting the right people involved.”


Kick-Ass screenwriter Goldman had long been a fan of the novel. “It’s a great piece of storytelling.  It has everything you’d want in a ghost story – a spooky house, an interesting protagonist and a terrifying ghost, as well as many additional unpleasant elements,” observes Goldman.

Goldman was concerned that she strike the right balance of tone in writing the screenplay. “It’s a tough one to adapt,” she says. “It was always clear, because it’s a very economically told story, that to work as a film it needed additional layers.”

She continues: “For me it was about introducing The Woman in Black to a cinema-going audience. In a way, I was attempting to do in cinematic language what (playwright) Stephen Mallatratt had done in the theatre.”

One of the key changes made to the novel is the earlier introduction of Kipps’ son who in the novel isn’t born until after Kipps returns to London from the village of Crythin Gifford. In Goldman’s screenplay, he is introduced in the film’s opening scenes.  Kipps’ struggle with being separated from Joseph during his time in Crythin Gifford becomes a key plot point and adds another layer of dread as he learns the secrets of this curious village.

“The novel works beautifully because it’s completely in the style of a classic Victorian ghost story, where you don’t ask the sort of questions that you ask when you watch a film,” explains Goldman, “‘like ‘Why does Arthur not leave the village immediately?’ There are certain cinematic conventions that I think we needed to address. It was important to answer questions about what’s driving his character and why it’s important for him to remain in the village.”

Hill says she was thrilled with the result. “When Jane sent me the script it was for me to look at it and say, ‘Yeah, this is fine, but…’” she notes. “But I just thought it was terrific. I think Jane thought that I might be offended by some of the changes to the story. What would have worried me is if she’d turned it into something like a comedy, but she hadn’t. She’s just so skilled. She’s managed to make it her own while still allowing it to be mine.”

Eden Lake director James Watkins had read a story in the trade press about Goldman writing the screenplay, and asked his agent to inquire about the project. “I’d been working on a ghost story myself, but I couldn’t make it work for me,” Watkins explains. “When I read Jane’s script, it spoke to everything that I wanted to achieve with the other project. It just had that sense that it was scary but it also had an emotional element in it. It really moved me, and as soon as I’d read it I knew I wanted to do it.”

“James is a very, very smart guy,” says Oakes. “He’s a great director who understands both how to tell a story and how to get great scares out of it.”

Working with Watkins, Goldman began a process of refining the script; a process she believes helped maintain the spirit of Hill’s novel. “In early drafts there were a number of flashbacks involving the Woman,” she reveals, “but we were able to work through this process of continually dialling it back. I feel that it grew much stronger because of that – there’s not the back story about how the Woman in Black became the Woman in Black. It’s not Freddy Krueger! It’s about Arthur’s experience of discovering these horrific secrets and our discovering what happened through his eyes.”

Important for producer Jackson, too, was that The Woman in Black be accessible to audiences generally disinclined to enjoy genre cinema. “We hope that people who are looking for a movie will consider The Woman in Black as their first choice because it’s sufficiently well made to engage them,” he says, “regardless of whether they’d normally be interested in a genre film. And that’s Daniel Radcliffe’s attraction as the star – to encourage a much wider audience to buy their tickets and come and enjoy it.”