Wicker Redux

The Wicker Man (1973) is a cult classic.  If it had had proper distribution and promotion it might’ve become a more mainstream hit when it was released.  Instead it was a slow burn.  Once it reached cult status controversy grew.  The movie doesn’t acknowledge, but was clearly influenced by, the novel Ritual by David Pinner.  I reviewed the novel earlier, and it isn’t particularly great.  The movie changes so much that it maybe was “inspired by” rather than “based on” the novel.  Several years later the director, Robin Hardy, decided to novelize the film.  His The Wicker Man also credits Anthony Shaffer because a good deal of the dialogue is lifted straight from the screenplay Shaffer wrote.  But the novelization also changes things.  That means there really is no novel that gives the full story of the film.

The creative process is never-ending.  Anyone who’s had a story published knows the tinkering that goes on, even after it appears in print.  The last word’s never truly that.  It takes restraint to leave something alone.  So Hardy wrote one of the more important characters out of his novel and wrote in another who seems to have very little connection to the story itself.  I’m still not sure what the point of adding him might have been.  Incidents that seem to be bracing for a sequel are present, and indeed Hardy wrote a spiritual successor that became a less impressive movie some years later.  Sometimes you do get it right the first time around.

Not that the movie is perfect—none are—but it has held up considerably well, growing in stature over the years.  A novelist, however, tends to have a deft touch that seems to be lacking here.  There’s a great deal of telling instead of showing.  Hardy’s Howie almost becomes a Mary Sue.  Tying his love of birds into the plot of the novel would’ve been one such deft touch.  Instead we have here a serviceable novel with much that’s familiar and even some that is strange and provocative.  It does restore some of the famously edited footage from the first cut of the film.  It tries to make Howie’s religious conviction clearer.  Changing parts of a story comes with the territory of those who spin yarns.  Hardy never really rose again to the heights he achieved in directing The Wicker Man.  It’s no wonder, then, that he felt compelled to return to it in literary form.

B Film

October brings horror films to mind.  As soon as the calendar clicks over, discussions of favorite scary movies begins.  As I’ve mentioned many times before, it is the one time of year when those of us who watch horror don’t feel so odd.  It is a little strange, however, to be watching movies related to The Wicker Man at this time of year.  As holiday horror that particular movie is set at the other end of the year, in May.  So I had to see The Wicker Tree, something I’ve avoided doing all these years.  Neither properly a sequel nor a remake, The Wicker Tree is Robin Hardy’s re-envisioning of the story with a larger budget.  There’s no way to prove it, but it seems likely that it was released in response to the unfortunate remake of The Wicker Man in 2006.

There are any number of things that could be said about The Wicker Tree, not least of which is that it’s clear Anthony Shaffer was a far better screenwriter than Robin Hardy.  (Shaffer had written a sequel, more properly conceived, which has not been filmed.)  Robin Hardy was, of course, the director of the original movie.  Plagued by low budget, rushed filming, and lack of production company support, The Wicker Man nevertheless soared.  The Wicker Tree is what is termed a “spiritual successor”—it doesn’t directly carry on the story of the original, but draws its inspiration from it.  It was based on a novel written by Hardy titled Cowboys for Christ.  Two evangelical missionaries are sent to Scotland to convert as many lapsed Christians as they can.  Of course, their invitation to Tressock is a trap so they can be sacrificed on May Day.

Despite the many unanswered questions the film leaves, to someone raised evangelical it seems that Robin Hardy really doesn’t understand what evangelicals are.  Beth and Steve, on their tour through the lowlands, do things evangelicals just wouldn’t do.  They drink, they dance, they swear, they play cards.  The only thing he seemed to get about evangelicals is they like to sing and talk about Jesus and hand out pamphlets.  This is something I often see is movies—those who try to portray evangelicals haven’t actually been evangelical themselves and don’t understand them.  I also find this in my interactions with British colleagues all the time—they don’t really comprehend what evangelicalism is.  That could be a topic for its own post.  In any case, The Wicker Tree has its moments, but it’s convoluted, cynical, and off-the-mark.  It may’ve been intended as a spiritual successor, but its prototype required no re-envisioning.


There is something extremely satisfying about bookends. Bookends are those events that bracket moments of our lives and give them a frame, a perspective they would otherwise lack. If my readers will indulge my recollections of my trip to Britain for a day or so longer, some of this may become apparent in esoteric ways. Our kind hosts in London live in Highgate. Our first bleary-eyed morning in the city we wandered to Highgate Cemetery. This burial ground is divided by Swain’s Lane and that makes it frightfully convenient to charge separate admission fees for the two halves. Both, however, are worth the pounds dropped to gain entrance. Our first visit was via tour group on the western half of the grounds. The ornate—indeed grand—architecture of this necropolis bespoke the mysterious connection between the living and the dead. Tycoons are buried there, as is the non-conformist Michael Faraday, a name that lingers on from my childhood physics classes.

Highgate Cemetery West

Just before leaving to board our flight back to the States, we completed the bookend by visiting the eastern half of the cemetery. Here the most famous residents seek eternal rest. The most famous of the dead on this side is Karl Marx. Visitors speaking Cyrillic or Sinitic languages milled about, but even an American idealist might find some grounds for admiring a man who felt deeply about the plight of the workers in society. Just across the lane lies Herbert Spencer, one of the founders of sociology. Less than two minutes will take you to the grave of Mary Anne Evans, known to the literary world as George Eliot. She is not far from Douglas Adams, inventor of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Across the path from Adams rests Anthony Shaffer, writer of both Sleuth and of the screenplay of The Wicker Man.

Highgate Cemetery East

Perhaps it seems macabre to travel such a distance only to bookend a visit with treks to Highgate Cemetery. Death, however, is the ultimate bookend to life, with each generation shoring up those that come after through its unique perspective on what has brought us here. Not even a visit to Westminster Abbey is complete without paying respects to the most noteworthy of the Brits found both within and without its walls. This trip to England will remain in my memory as the pilgrimage bookended by the solemn parentheses of death. With such august company, however, one might have less to fear from that final veil that all must face.