The truth is that although The Wicker Man is clearly a different story from Ritual, the thematic concerns of the two, their overall structures and many of their motifs remain very, very similar indeed. Here are a few of their major points of connection, along with their associated differences:
- A lone policeman arrives in a remote rural community (in Ritual, a Cornish village; in Wicker a Scottish island).
- He is there to investigate the fate of a young girl (in Ritual she's straightforwardly dead, although it takes a while to find out whether this was murder or an accident; in Wicker, a much greater degree of ambiguity about her fate is sustained for 4/5 of the film, and drives much of the plot).
- The locals are pretty weird, and practise paganism (but in Ritual they still have a local priest as well, who turns an indulgent blind eye to it all, whereas in Wicker Christianity has been completely supplanted).
- This involves quite a lot of rampant sexuality (but in Ritual this is concentrated in certain characters at certain times, and is also characterised as distinctly brutal and animalistic, all of which makes quite a contrast with the joyous celebration of fertility that suffuses the entire community in Wicker).
- One young local woman who plays a prominent role in the pagan activities attempts to seduce the policeman by writhing naked against the walls of an adjoining bedroom during the night.
- There is a sweet-shop which sells strange figurines as a well as sweets.
- There is a sacred oak tree, reached through a forest, with ritual offerings hung on it (this isn't in the film of The Wicker Man, but it is prominent in the novelisation by Robin Hardy. He would probably claim it is rooted directly in his and Shaffer's research into Frazer's Golden Bough and the story of the Rex Nemorensis, but I think I now see what tipped them off to look into stories of sacred trees in the first place).
- Events come to a head at a pagan festival (but in Ritual it's Midsummer rather than May Day).
- The policeman is puritanical and unsympathetic (but here the similarities really do become pretty strained, as I'll explain below).
- A wealthy male community leader with a large house situated at a remove from the main village deliberately toys with the policeman, setting red herrings in his path (but in Ritual this man is nouveau-riche, not aristocratic, and again there are other distinct differences between him and Lord Summerisle, just as there are with the policeman).
So, yeah, Shaffer was pretty much lying to himself if he really thought there was no connection at all. There self-evidently is. But as I've said above, they are quite different stories. Factors like the ambiguity around the fate of the young girl in Wicker already give a quite different structure to the story. Indeed, the villagers in Ritual have no particular interest in the policeman coming to investigate them in the first place, whereas it is crucial to the whole story of Wicker that although this appears to be the case there too at first, in fact the people of Summerisle have quite deliberately and knowingly lured Howie to the island for their own nefarious purposes. This very much defines the whole film, giving it the powerful climactic twist which really makes it such a classic.
Also very different is the tone. Another defining characteristic of Wicker is that it's such a joyous film to watch. Summerisle seems like an idyllic community which most of us would rather like to be part of - right up to the point when suddenly it isn't, and it's clear that someone is going to die horribly. That very inversion, of course, shocks and thrills, drawing its power from the contrast with the charm of what has gone before. Meanwhile, Howie may be straight-laced, unimaginative and a little too in love with his own authority, but we are given plenty of reason to sympathise with him too, right from the beginning. After all, he thinks he is trying to save a little girl's life, and puts himself into considerable danger in the attempt. (More danger than he realises, of course...) In any case, we are invited to align ourselves with both sides in the film's dramatic conflict, and that is very much at the root of why it works so well.
In Ritual, by contrast, the tone is dark and unsettling throughout. The fact that we know a young girl has died right from the first page, where she lies broken-necked on the ground beneath the old oak tree, doesn't just mean that a potential plot twist is missing. It also means that we start off face to face with the brutality of death, and a strong likelihood that it was deliberate murder. Then there is the extent of the difference between the policeman, Inspector David Hanlin, and his Wicker equivalent Sergeant Neil Howie. Hanlin's puritanism, we gradually learn, is not merely the result of a traditional religious up-brinding like Howie's, but is his own way of repressing what seem to be rather paedophilic leanings - leanings, which, we also discover, are more celebrated than repressed by his opposite number, Lawrence Cready.
Also, although Ritual does not share Wicker's plot twist, it still has one of its own which involves Hanlin, and which has the effect of utterly destroying any sympathy for his character which we might have managed to scrape up. I won't reveal it, even behind a cut, because it's better to read the novel without knowing about it. But my point is that while at the end of Wicker you can still feel sympathy even for Lord Summerisle, who at least seems to believe that he has no choice but to do what he does, and also clearly knows that his own number may well be up the following year, you cannot end Ritual feeling any real sympathy for any of the characters. Indeed, as a 21st-century reader, I found myself wondering as I ploughed through scenes of outright racism, misogyny and homophobia how much sympathy I could manage to scrape up for the author - although to be fair, since Hanlin is sort of (though not 100% consistently) the point-of-view character throughout the novel, this may have been Pinner's way of characterising his nastiness, rather than reflections of his own attitudes.
A novel full of unlikeable people coming into conflict with other unlikeable people doesn't have to be a bad one, of course. It could be hard-hitting, tense and powerful. But it could also be free of mannered, trying-too-hard writing like this:
Although the final blood of sunset is two hours in the future, already the sky is a glass of honey. A fringe of cloud haunts the skyline of the sea. And the sea is searching out the secrets of the shells on the wet beaches. Seaweed, the clutch of the crab, and the starfish wait for the next wave. With foaming claws, wave crashes on wave. Hear the shingle sing as the wave sucks and plucks, in his salt armour, plucks and sucks the shingles back. The green gauntlets are greedy for stones. They thrust starfish and seaweed home into the starving sea. This happens minute by minute from now until the end.So much of that, at every available opportunity.
This isn't to say I hated the novel in and of itself. It was fine, I guess. OK. But The Wicker Man is well-paced, well-photographed, conceptually-strong and blessed with irresistibly-quotable dialogue, while Ritual just isn't the textual equivalent of any of those things. In my view, what happened in the early '70s was that Anthony Shaffer took Ritual and made it better. Much better. The result now is that although Ritual is very much worth reading if you are a Wicker Man fan, so that you can see the seeds from which the film grew, otherwise it isn't. Thankfully, if you are a Wicker fan, reading Ritual for yourself is now easy, because it has been reissued in a lovely paperback edition quite openly designed to capitalise on its connection with the cult film. I am only grateful to the bookshop at the end of the British Library's Terror and Wonder exhibition for getting in a lovely big pile of copies, and thus bringing the opportunity to my attention.
Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.