The Wicker Man novel

Until this week, novelisations of films are something that I’ve managed to avoid since the 1970s. I might have a copy of John Pidgeon’s Slade in Flame lying around somewhere but I’ve never felt the need to re-read it. That was the only one I know that significantly differed from its source material. It was much darker than the film, which was already considered by many too dark for young Slade fans.

As Allan Brown points out in his 2006 introduction to Robin Hardy and Anthony Shaffer’s The Wicker Man novel: ‘More often than not these are hack jobs, souvenirs, vestigial remnants of the days before videotape allowed enthusiasts to possess their own personal copies of films.’

We’re all familiar with comments on adaptations from literary sources along the lines of ‘It wasn’t as good as the book’, but I doubt that anybody has ever claimed a novelisation was better than the film it was based on.

Novelisations tended to come out in time to accompany the release of the film that they are based on, or just afterwards. Never before, as that would have given away too much of the plot. The Wicker Man was exceptional in that it wasn’t published until the summer of 1978, over four years after the initial release of the movie.

This was an ideal time for it to come out, though.

Late in 1977, Cinemafantastique magazine had dedicated the bulk of an entire issue to the film. And as it reported, earlier that year Rod Stewart, by then dating Britt Ekland, had offered a six-figure sum to buy what it called the ‘nudie movie’ and destroy it, in an attempt to keep his girlfriend’s nude scenes from being seen by audiences. This publicity was no doubt welcome for the film, even if the story bore little or no relation to the truth. The National Enquirer has never enjoyed a reputation as a bastion of truth-telling. Stewart totally denied the rumour later.

Around this time, Hardy and Christopher Lee both travelled over to America on a promotional tour . The movie began picking up a number of very good reviews as it made its way across the country. At Boston’s Orson Welles Theater – a cinema renowned for helping break non-mainstream movies – it proved a big box office success. The word was spreading. Deservedly so.

Robin Hardy in 2011

The novel starts with Sergeant Neil Howie of the West Highland Constabulary birdwatching with his schoolteacher fiancée Mary Bannock on the fictional Ben Sluie. Despite their shared passion for ornithology, this is no romantic afternoon for the couple outwith their working hours. He’s on the job, having been tipped off that someone wants to steal some rare golden eagle’s eggs. He catches the thief, rather courageously too.

Afterwards, he’s given a letter from a fellow officer sent from a concerned ‘child lover on Summerisle’ reporting the mysterious disappearance of a twelve year old girl Rowan Morrison, together with a photo of her. He agrees to investigate.

That same night, he spends further time with Mary. We learn about his religious beliefs. He is a strict Episcopalian, with a respect for other (established) faiths. He doesn’t hesitate in going out of his way to help a visiting Jewish couple from America find a good hotel serving as an example of this.

Engaged for three years already, Howie has never yet out any pressure on Mary to have sex. She is Presbyterian but less devout. Although far from any kind of feminist firebrand, she has read authors like Germaine Greer (then considered highly anti-establishment). Whether Howie would approve of this remains unsaid but I’m guessing he’d disapprove. Strongly.

She’s secretly assumed for some time that there will be no marriage between them until she converts to his brand of Christianity but that night he asks her to marry him with no question of any switch of denomination. She says yes and they agree to be wed in two week’s time.

As he walks home from Mary’s place, he decides to enter the Bull’s Head pub in his home town of Portlochie. But not for a celebratory drink. As it’s still open after closing time, the dutiful cop feels the need to make sure no more booze is served. This is a very Howie way to behave.

Summerisle is the ‘most distant isle in his precinct’, a place he has never visited before. Warmed by the Gulf Stream and picturesque, he feels as if ‘he had flown off the edge of his known world to some enchanted Arcadia’ as he gets ready to land in his police seaplane.

Not that he approves of privately owned islands, believing they encourage a laxness in their communities with regard to law abiding. On his arrival, this theory is soon reinforced.

They’re an uncooperative lot. He disapproves of their attitudes too, finding them course and far too fond of revelling in the local bar. As a man who strives to observe what he refers to as ‘God’s good teaching’, he’s shocked to come across a group of a dozen or so young couples having some houghmagandie outside the Green Man.

Howie even imagines that God has possibly led him here and ‘shown him these terrible but exciting images to test him.’ He considers arresting them all and charging them with indecent exposure in a public place but as he watches on, he also fantasises about giving Mary an orgasm like the ones some of the girls are experiencing.

Not surprisingly, once in Summerisle the novel closely follows the plot of Anthony Shaffer’s screenplay. Howie visits May Morrison’s shop with its chocolate hares that he thinks are rabbits. He quizzes the local schoolchildren over the disappearance of Rowan and is met with blank faces. And just like the film, he discovers too late in the day that an appointment with the Wicker Man has been made on his behalf.

The Wicker Man novel 1978

Is it worth a read?

If you’re a fan of the movie, yes, although even then it’s far from essential.

Obviously, it’s impossible for anybody like me – who’s seen the film multiple times – to read this without conjuring up visions of Edward Woodward’s portrayal of Neil Howie throughout. Whenever the name Lord Summerisle appears, I think of Christopher Lee. And when Howie hears Willow thumping the wall that divided her room from his and then slapping her own body as she sings, guess who I’m thinking of?

Answer: Britt Ekland and Britt Ekland’s body double.

Just as in the film, it’s easy to find Howie’s puritanism annoying. He’s a virgin and his knowledge of sex has been gained mainly from reading The Young Christian’s Guide to Sanctified Bliss in Marriage. Not a book I’ve
got round to reading yet myself.

He gives off an air of moral superiority but when quizzing Willow about the whereabouts of Rowan, the idea of ‘inflicting pain on her, to gain the information he so desperately needed, crossed his mind.’ The idea excited him.

This isn’t the only time he comes over as a hypocrite but on the page, Howie often comes across more favourably than he does on celluloid, even if he is still a hard man to like.

His love of birds certainly makes him more a more sympathetic character. This is shown from the very beginning with him seeking to protect the eagle and her eggs. And at the climax, while engulfed by flames and knowing he is about to die a painful death, he still manages to free some caged birds imprisoned in the giant wicker structure, ensuring they aren’t sacrificed along with him.

As novelisations go, I’d guess that this is one of the better examples, albeit I should point out that 1973’s The Wicker Man film is arguably a very loose adaptation of David Pinner’s 1967 novel Ritual. Confusingly, the 2006 American remake of The Wicker Man even credited Ritual as the original basis for the Shaffer screenplay on which it was based.

Not that I’ve ever felt the need to watch that one.

To further add to the confusion, Hardy claimed to have started writing the novel before Shaffer had finished his screenplay, although Shaffer always denied this. Whatever the truth of the matter, this is primarily the work of Robin Hardy and the co-authorship is down to him recycling much of Shaffer’s script’s dialogue verbatim.

Cowboys for Christ by Robin Hardy

Hardy returned to similiar territory in 2006 with his novel Cowboys for Christ.

Published by Luath Press, this is a spiritual sequel of The Wicker Man, dealing again with the clash between a pagan community and Christian outsiders – in this case two young fundamentalist Texans on a mission to Scotland to preach the gospel to the unGodly. The novel provided the basis for the 2011 film, The Wicker Tree which Hardy also directed.

For more on Cowboys For Christ, click here.