American Studies, Earlier Posts, History
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Once a Legend, Always a Legend: Modern Interpretations of Sleepy Hollow in Film

[This is a short version of ongoing research on a super fun topic – Irving, Disney, and Burton! What more could you want?]

John Quidor, The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane, 1858, oil, 26 7/8 x 33 7/8 in., Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase made possible in part by the Catherine Walden Myer Endowment, the Julia D. Strong Endowment, and the Director's Discretionary Fund, 1994.120

John Quidor, The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane, 1858, oil, 26 7/8 x 33 7/8 in., Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase made possible in part by the Catherine Walden Myer Endowment, the Julia D. Strong Endowment, and the Director’s Discretionary Fund, 1994.120

Washington Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1819-1820) begins as a posthumous secret, hidden within the collection of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. There is a closeness created between the reader and author due to the confession: “Found among the papers of the late Diedrich Knickerbocker.”  Although now Sleepy Hollow is separated from the original anthology, Americans read and know the text, still feeling a sense of intimacy with the legend. Yet, Legend was not a long-established story at the time of Irving’s publication. He is no Homer. He is not finally transcribing the Odyssey. It is, though, America’s legend. Irving makes it easy on us and states the fact in the title. Why wait for a story to become a legend when one can simply authorize it to be so? Hubris aside, Irving’s short story strikes a chord with multiple generations of American readers and viewers due to the fluidity of meaning and multiple cultural contexts associated with the text.

If a “legend” is a traditional story handed down through generations and believed to have historical roots, then the evolution of Irving’s Sleepy Hollow in popular media meets the requirement. While it may not have been a legend in 1819, it develops legendary status in the current American mind through popular films like Walt Disney’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow”[1] (1949) and Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999). As Klaus Poenicke elucidates, the mnemotope of Washington’s Legend  “evokes oblivion as its major threat,” and thus harkens “back to Homeric Greece and the quest of Odysseus.”[2] Certainly the legend settles comfortably in a lineage of traditional storytelling, but this is not the singular reason for its continued veneration in American popular culture. After the “Disneyfication” of Legend (a cartoon featuring the narrative voice of Bing Crosby) the tale acquired a place in the collective memory of generations of children. The celebrated director Tim Burton, known for his obsession with the lighthearted supernatural in contemporary American culture: Beetlejuice (1988), Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Corpse Bride (2005), seizes Legend in a distinctively modern tone, capturing the American imagination again.

Philipsburg Manor by Shinya Suzuki, 2011

Philipsburg Manor by Shinya Suzuki, 2011

The Disney adaptation stays close to the original narrative, illustrating visuals and characters by Irving’s description. Disney’s Ichabod Crane is a line-by-line creation and portions of the sketch read aloud by Crosby in the film:

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.

While the thirty-minute feature of 1949 is a complete visual representation of the short story, Burton’s Sleepy Hollow only touches on the legend, using Irving’s tale as a framework for a contemporary, visually stimulating film emphasizing supernatural dimensions. Although seemingly a different story, Martin Kevorkian argues its relational connection to the 1819 story, “The filmmakers have not whimsically moved or arbitrarily desecrated Irving’s textual corpus; rather, they have preserved it almost wholly intact, where they found it. But by burying it in the midst of a minutely realized spectacle of the supernatural, they have aggressively subjected the take to a diametrically opposed presentation of a world.”[3] Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane does not look even remotely like Irving’s description and Katrina Van Tassel suddenly has an interest in the supernatural. However, according to Kevorkian, Burton’s removal of the word “legend” from the film title allows for a change in narrative, highlighting an aspect that Irving touched only slightly.[4]

            Both Disney and Burton have ardent cult followings among American youth and both adapted Irving’s text to meet the needs of their time. First, Irving created a “legend” for a young nation looking for cultural history and formed it around emerging ideals of frontier expansion and a rugged national character. Little is written about Disney’s cartoon, but it can be assumed that the nation wished to reaffirm cultural authority and supported a traditionally American tale. Michael Kamman’s analysis of “nostalgia” after World War II notes Disney’s influence upon the “selective presentation of the national past,”[5] evident at Disney World and through films like “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

The popularity of Burton’s adaptation is less clear but presumably rests in both the formal/visual qualities and its dealings with difficult social questions. First, Burton invokes visual interest by utilizing Steampunk, a contemporary science fiction category that emphasizes the steam-powered era. Fashion, environment and visual art fuse to create a cinematic atmosphere. However, the steam punk style in Burton’s film does not reference the actual era in which Irving’s take was written. Second, Sleepy Hollow delivers a greater account of Katrina Van Tassel’s story, along with other matriarchs of the small town. Literature historian David L. G. Arnold argues Burton’s variation of the story re-genders the legend by “reassess[ing] gender relationships on which the story is built.”[6] The reconsideration of gender creates a brand new tale with familiar undertones. It also utilizes a social theme that is on the minds of many young people at the time: the Third Wave feminist movement is in full swing. Modern popular visuals are employed, gender roles are turned upside-down, and the supernatural is emphasized.

As a folkloric element, a legend can morph and change to meet the needs of the culture. Irving designated “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” as such in 1819 and due to revitalizations by two prominent culture-producers, Walt Disney and Tim Burton, the Legend takes new forms. However, a singular message of Americanness remains in the text. Though the purpose changes, multiple generations of young people discover the American tale through popular adaptations: the postwar nostalgic spirit of the late 1940s and the questioning of gender norms and alterations in visual culture of the late 1990s. Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman have many lives ahead of them, I predict, and will change according to the times and within the boundaries of a legend.

Washington Irving Rests in Sleepy Hollow by Tony Fischer, 2007

Washington Irving Rests in Sleepy Hollow by Tony Fischer, 2007


[1] “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Walt Disney Productions in 1949 was originally released as part of the double-feature The Adventures of Mr. Toad and Ichabod: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

[2] Klaus Poenicke, “Engendering Cultural Memory: ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ as Text and Intertext,” Amerikastudien/American Studies, Vol 43, No 1 (1998): 22.

[3] Martin Kevorkian, “ ‘You Must Never Move the Body!’: Burying Irving’s Text in Sleepy Hollow,” Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol 31, Issue 1 (2003): 27.

[4] Ibid., 28.

[5] Michael Kamman, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (New York: Vintage Books, 1991): 534.

[6] David L.G. Arnold, “Fearful Pleasures, or ‘I am Twice the Man’: The Re-Gendering of Ichabod Crane,” Literature/Film Quarterly Vol 31, Issue 1 (2003): 38.

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