Washington Irving placed his stories in the New York that he knew well, especially the lush woods and hills along the Hudson River. Any film based upon his 1819 short story Rip Van Winkle, then, would need to include copious footage of this type of landscape. As multiple depictions of Rip Van Winkle have been filmed, or recreated in animation, any student contemplating the appropriate settings for another depiction of Irving’s story would do well to consult one or more of these previous productions for ideas and inspiration, as well as studying photographs of upstate New York and similar regions, such as the densely-forested areas of the Appalachians. A good filmed-version of Rip Van Winkle is that directed by Francis Coppola in 1987 for the Faerie Tale Theatre series produced by actress Shelley Duvall (best known for her portrayal of the wife in Stanley Kubrick’s version of Stephen King’s horror novel The Shining).
Once the location scouting has been done, the next task is to design and construct era-appropriate structures, such as houses, churches, saloons, and so on. In today’s computer-generated-imagery world, all of this, of course, can be done artificially, but set design and construction still occurs and would make for a more realistic depiction. Irving stories reflect the Dutch heritage prevalent in much of the region, and any portrayal of the time and place described in Rip Van Winkle should similarly display that heritage. Irving assisted in this regard by providing the following description of the village in which his story takes place:
“It is a little village, of great antiquity, having been founded by some of the Dutch colonists, in the early times of the province, just about the beginning of the government of the good Peter Stuyvesant, (may he rest in peace!) and there were some of the houses of the original settlers standing within a few years, built of small yellow bricks brought from Holland, having latticed windows and gable fronts, surmounted with weathercocks.”
In addition, then, to capturing the natural geographic beauty of the region, the opening scenes should include the noticeably Dutch-inspired architecture that would have been prevalent.
The physical setting thus established, one would now focus on the story’s principal protagonist, the titular character of Rip Van Winkle. Irving’s story is a commentary on culture in which he was raised and on the dynamics that develop between and among communities and families. Rip, the author notes, is a descendant of a great family that has, through time and intermarriage, been constitutionally diluted. Note, for example, the description of Rip in the following passage from the story:
“In that same village, and in one of these very houses (which, to tell the precise truth, was sadly time-worn and weather-beaten), there lived many years since, while the country was yet a province of Great Britain, a simple good-natured fellow, of the name of Rip Van Winkle. He was a descendant of the Van Winkles who figured so gallantly in the chivalrous days of Peter Stuyvesant, and accompanied him to the siege of Fort Christina. He inherited, however, but little of the martial character of his ancestors. I have observed that he was a simple good-natured man; he was, moreover, a kind neighbor, and an obedient hen-pecked husband. Indeed, to the latter circumstance might be owing that meekness of spirit which gained him such universal popularity; for those men are most apt to be obsequious and conciliating abroad, who are under the discipline of shrews at home.”
So, we now have the physical setting that would dominate the opening scene, possibly accompanied by opening credits, and an introduction to the main protagonist. Rip would be seen as a simple-minded man dominated by an overbearing wife. He is kind to everybody, but will clearly leave no discernable mark on this earth—at least until the heretofore unseen events to follow take place. The Van Winkle home and surrounding property, modest though it would be given Rip’s lack of worth ethic, would reflect his disdain for hard work and all-around laziness. In other words, the property would be a mess (“it was the worst-conditioned farm in the neighborhood”). The Van Winkle children, similarly, would reflect Rip’s cavalier attitude towards good order and discipline (“His children, too, were as ragged and wild as if they belonged to nobody”).
The student’s question did not specify how far into Irving’s story he or she wished depicted. Like any good story-teller, though, and Irving was a very good story teller, Rip Van Winkle does not lack descriptive narrative to aid in designing the settings in which the story occurs.