Tim Burton’s film, Sleepy Hollow, seems based more on the short 1958 Disney cartoon than on the original, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, by Washington Irving, a short story from 1819, itself drawn from German folklore.
Irving’s story created two memorable images: a headless horseman, the ghost of a German mercenary beheaded in battle, and Ichabod Crane, a gawky schoolteacher ("some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield") who fervently believes in witchcraft. Both change significantly in the transition to Burton’s film. The horseman appears but once in Irving’s story and he carries his head in his hand. Burton has the horseman rampaging about the countryside, slicing heads off of the living right and left, in search of his own head that he might return peaceably – and whole – to the grave. But the horseman, in Burton’s telling, is merely being manipulated by another character in the story (which is as close to a spoiler as will happen here) and becomes ancillary to a completely unrelated plotline, one that is absent from (and unrelated to) the original work.
Burton transforms Ichabod Crane from a comical and superstitious schoolteacher to a comely and supposedly rationally scientific police inspector (Johnny Depp). The idea, suggested in an early scene, was to create dramatic tension in the conflict between reason and superstition, but little is made of it; Crane’s scientific bent is quickly overpowered by the supernatural powers at hand. Further, modern audiences would not likely accept a love interest between a "scarecrow" Crane and the beauteous Katrina Van Tassel (Christina Ricci).
So much for any thought that Sleepy Hollow has even a hint of literary connection to Irving. What has Burton wrought here? Sleepy Hollow is a beautifully and skillfully made film that seems like a cartoon rendered with real-life actors. The multiple beheadings are sufficiently realistic to frighten young children, but not realistic enough to frighten anyone more sophisticated than that. As in most cartoons, the characters are caricatures and in a few of those, Burton has hit a ringing satirical note: the foursome of the judge, the notary, the doctor, and the minister. Variously self-important, pompous, or just plain weird, they are a source of some fun ("Seeing is believing," asserts the one-eyed notary.).
But Crane and Katrina never become more than caricatures, either, so we are left with a plot-driven (rather than character-driven) story, a plot sufficiently twisty to confuse younger viewers and not original or interesting enough to become more than a big ho hum for the adults. The script attempts to develop some depth in Crane with a series of dreams which, though sometimes offering great imagery (a game of blind man’s buff played in a shower of falling flower petals), turn out ot be little more than visual psychobabble. Suggestions of Christian parable (e.g., stigmata on Crane’s hands) are red herrings; they remain without basis or meaningful development in the script.
Burton is reported to have picked up on this assignment after long and fruitless work on another property that didn’t work out. He has directed some interesting films in the past (Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands). Perhaps next time around he’ll wait for a worthy script with a genuine idea or two to which he can apply his undeniable powers of imagination.