Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” Recycled and the Phenomenon of Intertextuality Represented through Its Adaptations in American Popular Culture

September 10, 2022 by Essay Writer

Washington Irving lived throughout the late 18th – early 19th century and was an American short story writer, essayist, historian, and diplomat. His piece of work, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” can be considered as a classic in today’s American popular culture. The story of Ichabod Crane and the character of the Headless Horseman itself is still circulated around. Several depictions prevail about the image of the headless horseman even 200 years later. The movie titled Sleepy Hollow (1999) and the series from 2013 are also important adaptations to consider when analyzing how the original story is recycled through these.

Irving is connected to American folklore as well, as he represents his characters in folk tales and local settings while also expressing American values (Hoffman). Nowadays mass culture suppresses folk culture in a way, as mass culture is popular culture that is created for the masses of consumers (Strinati 9). However, from my point of view, mass and folk ­– even high – cultures are connected as originality and the roots of a community that originates from folk culture can facilitate attractiveness for different segments of culture (Strinati 10). Considering “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, the importance of folklore cannot be hidden as part of the short story itself can be associated with European origins and it was created as a folk tale.

The story of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is set in a constructed German setting, in a rural valley near Tarry town. The short story was published in 1820. It is one of the most widely-known gothic stories of American fiction. The protagonist is the outsider intellectual, Ichabod Crane who arrives to Sleepy Hollow to become the schoolmaster of the village. The atmosphere of the village is peculiar, almost dream-like, as if the entire town and the people in it were enchanted. The most exciting phenomenon is the ghost of the Headless Horseman who comes back from time to time to ride his horse by the church where he was buried. He is said to be a Hessian soldier who died during the revolutionary war. The Horseman is searching for his head and haunts the people of the village as well.

However, it is not just the figure of the Headless Horseman that prevails, but also the atmosphere and the setting of the short story. In Irving’s hometown, in Sleepy Hollow, New York, for example, the school mascot is the Headless Horseman, one of the fire trucks is orange and black and you can buy souvenirs connected to the mysterious figure and atmosphere of Sleepy Hollow throughout the whole town (Goldberg). Besides Tarry town, video games, Halloween costumes and other small products, there is the question of adaptations. These adaptations – like the movie from 1999 or the series titled Sleepy Hollow – keep the mysterious figure and superstition alive while recreating the setting itself as well. Another reason for movies as adaptations being so popular is the fact that they can help to understand the original message of the written book or short story. Not to mention that perceiving a story in the 21st century is a lot different than doing it in the era it came out. The purpose of recycling can be to guide, to entertain the audiences, or even to reinforce the original piece and athmosphere that is diverted into something new. Recycled materials are based on other texts while also changing the core and the basic values of them.

Moreover, intertextuality – not strictly in a literal meaning – also comes into the picture when considering the secondary and tertiary texts connected to the original short story itself (Fiske, Reading the Popular 115). Besides the primary text, advertisements and different products also appear for people, as mentioned above. These can be different forms of art, like paintings representing the Horseman or candles, even video games. In this way, people can obtain these products that become the tertiary parts of intertextuality. From this point of view, the movie adaptation from 1999, Sleepy Hollow is crucial, as it is also part of this intertextuality, representing and formulating the original story in the form of an on-screen piece of art. Intertextuality is originally seen as the interrelatedness of texts, in this essay it, however, refers to a broader category in popular culture, incorporating film adaptations as well (Olney 166). The way it is used is that movie adaptations translate the original piece of work to the screen. This statement however presumes that there is an original piece of work to which the given adaptation is indebted. In today’s world it is no surprise that most films are sequels and remakes, music is full with cover versions, and fashion is also recycled according to past styles. This broader interpretation appears in the case of the movie and the series called Sleepy Hollow.

From one point of view, intertextuality is based on texts. However, as it was mentioned before, with the development of technology and with the making of adaptations, it is perceived in a broader sense in today’s world. Thus, intertextuality is vital in the film industry and becomes more and more important in consumer society and advertising, too. In the 21st century a lot of texts, products, and media created objects compete for the audiences’ attention, so the recycling of already widely known or even liked texts can keep these productions and adaptations alive and give them success. So, intertextuality can attract people, especially if the given classics are still relevant and can be connected to contemporary life and audiences.

The film that is analyzed in this paper came out in 1999 and portrayed the settings, characters and main happenings of the plot similarly to those of the short story. When comparing the short story itself to the movie adaptation, differences can also be noticed. For example, the main character, Ichabod Crane himself. In the short story, Ichabod is self-assured who knows what he is doing. However, in the film, he appears as an obscure, hesitant character who is not sure about what he is doing. Not to mention that in the short story, he is the schoolmaster, however, in the film he arrives to investigate the mysterious murder cases of the village. His presence is needed as he is the one who is capable of examining the bodies, and as a result, solving the murderous cases. Katrina’s character also differs, as in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” she is the student of Ichabod. Another significant difference is the ending. In “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” Katrina did not end up choosing Ichabod. In fact, Ichabod disappears after facing the Headless Horseman. Before he disappears, he sees the Headless Horseman hurl his detached head at him. He falls off of his horse and the next day the horse returns to the village but Ichabod does not. While, in Sleepy Hollow (1999), Ichabod and Katrina end up together and move to New York. Ichabod’s future is therefore figurable. A happy ending in the movie, whereas disappearance and rumors about where he went and what he had become in the short story. The above mentioned characteristic features of the short story and others specified in the movie portray that adaptations can – and often do – differ from the original text.

More recently, another adaptation was created in the form of a series that was titled Sleepy Hollow as well. It has to be mentioned that with this adaptation the creators achieved to satisfy the audience’s needs in the 21st century. To confirm this statement, Laura Prudom’s article offers convincing arguments. The most important ones are race and gender. The topic itself occurs in the original short story as well and can be interpreted as the questioning of the typical gender roles in that era, as Ichabod’s character did not fulfil the norms and requirements. According to Prudom, the cast in the series is the most diverse one from the recently made American series: “two of its four series regulars are African-American” (Prudom). Other people of color also appear next to African-Americans. Thus, the series has a huge impact on people’s attitude towards race, for example. The series started in 2013 and remains loyal to the gothic and mysterious atmosphere of the original story, still it modernizes. It is based on a storyline where Ichabod resurrects 250 years after his death. Along with him comes the Headless Horseman, too. The popularity of the series depends on these aspects and on the fact that classics still move people’s imagination and fantasy, so that adaptations are widely welcomed. Of course, it also has to be addressed that there is not much connection to the original tale apart from the characters and the town. This is a feature that shows how adaptations can differ and still bring the original mentality and intellectual appeal with them. In this way, the process of recycling classics have moved beyond being familiar with the most recent versions or adaptations, as those require some background and previous knowledge about the original piece. Of course, there will be differences when comparing the old piece to the new versions, in manner, representation, modern elements and so on.

The remarkability of Irving’s story is the following:

Irving intentionally constructed it as folklore rooted in the country’s history and traditions. Thus, it survives not only as a wonderfully written tale, but also — particularly through the immortal characters of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horsemen — as part of American popular culture and legend. (Grossman qtd. in Charles)

American popular culture incorporates adaptations and it is also based on representing originally written artworks on screen and in everyday products. However, adaptations have both positive and negative features. Obviously, just like in the case of Sleepy Hollow (1999), entertainment is important. The film reaches that goal with its creepy atmosphere that is portrayed just like it was written in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”. The film also broadens the temporal and spatial range of transferring the literary text to the screen (Olney 167). But the other side of the coin is also present, that is having an interest in profit and creating movies based on our own tastes, therefore departing from the original work. This departing can be percieved in the series, as except for the characters and the village, almost everything else is different. According to Olney, “film adaptations are often no longer based on books at all” (Olney 167). From the adaptation’s point of view, fidelity is another question worth analyzing. Being faithful to the source text is crucial, however, nowadays that view is also changing. Adaptations do not only translate the texts into images but sometimes also offer a different approach and a unique fusion of these two elements (Olney 169). According to these, originality is – though partly represented – endangered in adaptations and in secondary or tertiary texts, too. This is the case as adaptations mostly focus on the audience by whom they are perceived in society and try to satisfy their expectations while also suit to their tastes. It can be related to the chosen genres, to what similarities are kept when considering the original text, to the differences made, or even to the visual aids that are used.

Recycling classics like “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and also producing secondary or tertiary texts can be connected to the phenomena of popular discrimination in 21st century’s American popular culture as people choose certain products that they like and reject others (Fiske, Understanding Popular Culture 129). This is where fan culture appears, too. With the help of social media, adaptations, secondary and tertiary texts become easily accessible. People rely on capitalism and merchandise different products for the fan base, like souvenirs, T-shirts, mugs or even candles representing the Headless Horseman, for example. In this way, capitalism and consumerism relies on likeability and popularity. Obviously, this is connected to individual taste as well. It can be also stated that reusing classics have become widely used and enjoyed by today. The popularity of this particular movie adaptation (from 1999) could be considered to be based on the image of the Headless Horseman, the mysterious and fearful story, or the entire atmosphere of the initial text incorporated. Just like in the case of the series, as in that not just bits and pieces of the original story were transformed, but the roots as well. This is part of the question of relevance and of mass culture, too where the aim is the satisfaction of the consumer. Intertextuality and recycling the classics in modern popular culture’s art pieces also play a huge role here. In this way, these phenomena – popular discrimination, intertextuality and recycling classics – are intertwined.

Classics are becoming more and more popular in today’s consumer society. This phenomenon is not straightforward to analyze and understand. Considerable reasons are for example, that characteristic features of the people are in many ways the same as they were two hundred years ago; the themes of these classics are still easy to relate to – love, death, searching for answers in life etc. Humor, fear and other emotions are expressed in a manner that is still enjoyable for the reader. A connection to their personal and daily life can also be present in this way, for example by drawing meanings to their own life through these classics or how classics appear in modernized versions. Their quality and writing style are expressive enough to be the ground of different productions, adaptations, or interpretations. Of course, it all depends on personal taste and the will of being interested and opened for perception by the masses. So, the audiences’ response is also a crucial factor. One of the most welcomed feature is that even though adaptations use the original material, they create new content and modernize the stories, so that it is easier to understand and more enjoyable for this generation. This is where relevance comes into the picture. In this way, it is actually possible that people are interested in the particular adaptation itself to see how that represents the original setting and values of the story, and later on they can form their opinion about it. In the series titled Sleepy Hollow, the formation and diversity of the characters also play a huge rule for popularity.

The recycling of classics occur more broadly as culture does not just invite and accept the phenomenon of intertextuality but requires it to become a form of art in today’s popular culture. According to this, it could be stated that there is a need to recycle past popular culture. Based on the above mentioned, the recycling of classics, intertextuality, popular discrimination, and consumerism overlap. Audiences have the ability to rely on newer sources when choosing what to like or reject and they contribute to a market where their choice, taste and money determines production. Recycling can be interpreted as cultural recycling in a sense, as it is connected to a little nostalgia that usually attract audiences. In the case of the adaptations connected to Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” American folklore and people’s associations towards that given tale comes forward. Therefore, recycling remains a dominant stylistic and constructive asset.

Works Cited

Charles, Ron. “The Remarkable Persistence of ‘Sleepy Hollow’.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 15 Nov. 2013, www.washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2013/11/15/the-remarkable-persistence-of-sleepy-hollow/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.130ee0532a56. Web. Accessed 04 January, 2019.

Fiske, John. “Chapter 5: Popular Texts.” Reading the Popular. 1989. London & New York: Routledge, 2003. 1-12.

Fiske, John. “Chapter 6: Popular Discrimination.” Understanding Popular Culture. 1989. London & New York: Routledge, 1994. 129-158.

Goldberg, Susan L.M. “Think Pop Culture Doesn’t Matter? Visit Sleepy Hollow, New York.” Video, PJ Media, pjmedia.com/lifestyle/2014/10/31/think-pop-culture-doesnt-matter-visit-sleepy-hollow-new-york/. Web. Accessed 18 December, 2018.

Hoffman, Daniel G. “Irving’s Use of American Folklore in ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.’” PMLA, vol. 68, no. 3, 1953, pp. 425–435. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/459863. Web. Accessed 18 December, 2018.

Olney, Ian. “Texts, Technologies, and Intertextualities: Film Adaptation in a Postmodern World.” Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 38, no. 3, 2010, pp. 166–170. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43797653. Web. Accessed 18 December, 2018.

Prudom, Laura. “What Every TV Show Can Learn from Sleepy Hollow.” The Week – All You Need to Know about Everything That Matters, The Week, 3 Dec. 2013, theweek.com/articles/455254/what-every-tv-show-learn-from-sleepy-hollow. Web. Accessed 04 January, 2019.

Pulver, Andrew. “Adaptation of the Week No. 45 Sleepy Hollow (1999).” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 12 Feb. 2005, www.theguardian.com/books/2005/feb/12/featuresreviews.guardianreview10. Web. Accessed 18 December, 2018.

Strinati, Dominic. “Chapter 1: Mass Culture and Popular Culture.” An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture. 2nd ed. London & New York: Routledge, 2005. 1-45.

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