Sleepy Hollow debuted on September 16, 2013 to one of Fox network’s biggest Fall audiences, a whopping 10 million viewers. I grew up with the Disney short film adaptation of this story, which portrayed a gangly, big-nosed Ichabod galumphing around on his goofy horse and disappearing at the end. I also am very familiar with the source material: Washington Irving’s 1820 short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” The television show makes many huge plot, character, and stylistic changes, which serve to turn this slightly chilling fable-istic tale into a terrifying and fascinating show.
In the original story, Ichabod is a lonely, awkward school teacher, pining away for the beautiful, unattainable Katrina Van Tassel. His rival for her affections is a brash bully of a man known as Brom Bones. Ichabod thinks he’s getting somewhere with the fair Katrina, and then one evening, after a party at the Van Tassel estate, he is chased into the dark by a strange and menacing headless horseman. He’s never seen in the town again — but the story intimates that, rather than being killed, he might have run off: too embarrassed or too shaken by his experience to show his face again.
Some of the key elements of the famous story are present in the modern adaptation: a headless horseman, Katrina, Ichabod as a schoolteacher. But show creators Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Phillip Iscove, and Len Wiseman have put a twist on the classic: Ichabod is now married to Katrina, who is secretly a witch, and has been separated from her after falling in battle during the Revolutionary War and being flung hundreds of years into the future to awaken in modern-day Sleepy Hollow, New York. Additionally, the infamous headless horseman is now a harbinger of the Apocalypse: Death, the rider on the white horse from the book of Revelations.
Perhaps the biggest (and best) change to the original story is the addition of Abbie Mills, a lieutenant in the Sleepy Hollow police force who is just about to move on to another precinct. But after the death of her partner, the Sheriff, at the hands of the mysterious and very supernatural headless horseman, Abbie joins forces with a newly awakened Ichabod to battle the darkness. Abbie, played by Nicole Beharie, is intelligent, capable, and seems to be the only person in town willing to take Ichabod’s tale of the threat of the Horseman seriously.
In Irving’s story, Ichabod is a fool: he puts on airs, courts a woman seemingly not interested in him, and then is embarrassed publicly by his chief rival in the town (and possibly even run out of town because of that embarrassment). Sleepy Hollow’s Ichabod, played by Tom Mison, is strong, smart, and sassy — blithely accepting his strange out-of-time circumstances and wryly commenting on any oddities he finds. In this adaptation, Ichabod is the brains and Abbie is the brawn, but they both do their part on both ends of the spectrum and it will be wonderful to watch the two characters grow and play off of each other, defying gender and race role expectations at every turn. I am thoroughly looking forward to seeing where the show travels from here!