Our Legend of Sleepy Hollow
“I think people over here, they’re far too down on American history: ‘Oh, well, we have no history because we’re such a young country.’ But that’s not true at all. It’s such a rich history that you guys have. And now we’re utterly bastardizing it.” – Tom Mison, actor, Sleepy Hollow
In between the new season of Walking Dead and the amazing formerly-lost-forever Doctor Who episodes, I’ve been taking a look at some of the new TV shows that premiered this fall. One of them is Fox’s Sleepy Hollow. The show is pretty astounding, mainly in its ability to unabashedly borrow from so many iconic TV series and still attempt to be unique and new. It has the believer/skeptic dynamic of The X-Files’ Mulder and Scully front and center (with Orlando Jones standing in for Mitch Pileggi’s Walter Skinner). It has a Holmes/Watson vibe going on, complete with Tom Mison as a low-rent Benedict Cumberbatch clone. It trots out the same “Book of Revelations Is Actually Happening” storyline we saw in Season 5 of Supernatural. And so on. The storyline about Abbie and Jenny, two sisters who are traumatized at a young age by experiencing a supernatural event and wind up on completely different life paths as a result, and then come back together as adults to chase/face their demons, is in many ways a cooler setup for a show than the time-displaced Ichabod Crane, and I kinda wish I could watch that show instead. Wait, I already do, but it’s about two brothers named Winchester…
But none of those things are the thing that really bugs me about Sleepy Hollow.* Here’s the thing that really bugs me: Ichabod Crane.
Crane is, in this incarnation of the tale, a man who was born in England in the 18th century, educated at Oxford and part of George Washington’s Colonial army – specifically, the “fighting supernatural baddies” part of Washington’s army. And I understand why the show’s creators needed him to be something other than the slightly conceited, fraidy-cat small-town schoolteacher from Washington Irving’s short story, because that guy would never have been able to be the heroic center of a supernatural adventure show set in the 21st century. It’s that first bit that gives me pause: Born. In. England. In Irving’s story, Ichabod Crane was a native of Connecticut. Born after the Revolutionary War, so he’s American, whereas even if Tom Mison’s quarter-century-older Crane had been born in America he would’ve been a British citizen.
Why is this a big deal? I hear you cry.
It’s a big deal because of the place “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” holds in the history of the United States of America. Irving wrote his tale at a time when the USA was a very young country, which had yet to be taken entirely seriously by the superpowers of the time (whether we’re taken entirely seriously now is a discussion outside the scope of this post). In terms of art, music, and literature, countries like England, France and Spain were decades or centuries ahead of us. The U.S. had no literary canon, no folkloric tradition; in 1819 we hadn’t had much time to develop any. Washington Irving was the guy who gave Americans our first taste of having a national mythology and authors we could call our own. As such, it’s probably no accident that Ichabod Crane was an American by birth – he was, after all, one of the nation’s very first fictional protagonists. Why in the world would you make him French, or German, or – heaven forfend – English?
People argue about whether Batman should be played by a Welshman, or whether they should ever cast an American to play James Bond. This is different. This is like rewriting Bond as a CIA agent, born in Louisville, Kentucky, or better yet, making King Arthur a Saxon.
I don’t think that would go over so well.
Note: my complaint is concerned with literary tradition. It starts and ends there. It’s not about nationalism or politics. Please keep those aspects out of any comments you decide to post, and please do not attempt to ascribe any political motivations to me or my little essay. Thank you.
*Though the fact that we’re what, five episodes in and Ichabod is still wearing 18th century clothes kinda drives me up a wall. Abbie even told him to start wearing contemporary clothes. Come on!