Ritual - The Novel That Inspired The Wicker Man



The burning wicker man in…wait for it…The Wicker Man


Languishing in obscurity for decades, David Pinner's novel Ritual finally has the re-release it deserves. The Fan Can investigates the the similarities and the differences between the novel and the movie it helped birth...


The Novel 'Ritual' by David Pinner

1967 was, for those of a psychedelic mindset, a bit of a classic year.


Look at some of the records released across those 12 months: Pink Floyd's The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, Love's Forever Changes, Surrealistic Pillow by Jefferson Airplane. Then there was an album by a little-known Liverpudlian four-piece: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.


This writer was a good 13 years away from existence at that point, so can only hazard a guess at what it was really like to be young and alive back then. But it does seem clear that something was up. Drugs. Sex. The old religion, and a re-engagement with nature is all over the art and music of the times.


David Pinner

David Pinner's first novel, Ritual, positively hums with all of these things. Out of print for decades, it was reissued for the first time this year by cult record label, Finders Keepers. "All very well", you may say, "but so what?" But Ritual is especially fascinating for the legacy it left behind. It's the book that partially inspired The Wicker Man. And if you don't like The Wicker Man… well, what the hell's wrong with you?


That said, The Wicker Man is not a direct adaptation of Ritual. The two are very different beasts. And, indeed, the three prime movers on the film disagree on how much the book impacted on the movie, with only writer Anthony Shaffer giving it any acknowledgement at all. Even so, it's an intriguing novel in its own right and there are fascinating parallels between the two.





Sergeant Howie in The Wicker Man

Depending on which version you watch, The Wicker Man either starts with gruff Sergeant Howie giving a fellow copper grief over a spot of graffiti, or with his plane soaring over Summerisle.


Not so Ritual. In an opening that's as picturesque as it is disturbing, we find the body of young Dian Spark, propped against a tree, decorated with a monkey's head and wild garlic. The residents of the village are shocked, but willing to write it off as an accident.


Enter Detective Inspector David Hanlin, a policeman with all of Howie's fanaticism, but none of his concern or likeability. Hanlin is the focal point of the book. He's a man of wild mood swings, at times gentle and quiet, at others a monstrous brute.


Sergeant Howie talks to the pub regulars In The Wicker Man

He's a fanatic, obsessed with rooting out witchcraft. Thorn is one of several villages in recent months that he has identified as being tainted with evil – though, notably, he has so far entirely failed to find any actual evidence.


He's our viewpoint character, but it would be stretching it to say that he's someone you can empathise with. A collection of ticks and neuroses, he is forced to wear sunglasses at all times because of a negative reaction to sunlight. He's a habitual wood whittler, homosexually repressed and has identified a predilection for sexual violence in himself, but contains it. Amusingly, if they ever made a faithful adaptation of Ritual, Nic Cage in his Bad Lieutenant persona, would be a perfect fit for him.




Britt Ekland and her 'Father' talk to the sergeant in The Wicker Man

That said, Hanlin is not alone in being a bit eccentric. The children of the village are uniformly malevolent, constantly tormenting each other in a variety of cruel ways.


Pastor White is seemingly unable to answer a question in less than three sentences ("The slender arm of Christ cuts through the villagers' nightmares now. I have firmly printed a cross on their hearts. Occasionally a little fever breaks out in the lower order towards Midsummer, but Communion skins the naughtiness off their groins – if you follow my accurate but doubtful metaphor.") and that's before you get to Lawrence Cready.


Britt Ekland in The Wicker Man

A former actor, he's creepy, flamboyantly interested in the occult and perhaps, it's suggested, a paedophile. He's a clear influence on the character of Alder MacGreagor in The Wicker Man, both in his overt campness and in the way that he messes with Hanlin's mind.


Anna Spark, meanwhile, is Britt Ekland's unforgettable Willow in all but name – flirty, big of bust and up for a quickie with pretty much anyone. While she's very much a two-dimensional character, she's also the most likeable person here. She may have a one-track mind (it's literally all about the shagging with Anna) but at least she's recognisably human.




The villagers in The Wicker Man

After Hanlin's arrival, the book follows a similar path to The Wicker Man. The detective harangues the locals, constantly running up against dead ends and uncooperative villagers. The big difference is that Hanlin is actively looking for pagan crime, rather than discovering it as Howie does. There is undoubtedly weirdness afoot, but it's clear that Hanlin's righteous fervour is affecting those around him. But more of that later...


Pinner writes with both humour and a magnifying glass eye for the detail of village life. Ritual is every bit as atmospheric and claustrophobic as its filmic cousin. Thorn feels like another world, cut off from our reality – though the conversations we overhear between Hanlin and his Chief Inspector suggest that everyone in Pinner's world is a wee bit mental.




The villagers get heated in The Wicker Man

Seriously, if you have any intention of reading Ritual DO NOT read this paragraph. I'll wave you goodbye now.


Your last warning...


Of course, we all know how The Wicker Man ends. And, indeed, for a long time Ritual looks like it's heading to a similar conclusion. Hanlin identifies the villains, but finds himself chased down and badly wounded. But the ending is actually very different.


Hanlin convinces his colleague to come and support him. He works out whodunnit and leaves the village, planning to retire and become an Under Librarian on the Isles of Scilly.




The sergeant carries a cross in The Wicker Man

Anna Spark is also found murdered – killed, it turns out, by Hanlin. As we rapidly discover, he was the killer all along. You can add schizophrenia to his list of personality quirks.


Cue a lot of groans.


Yes, it's a clichéd twist now, but it works well here and makes sense given what we know of Hanlin's brutal methods and obsessive nature. Sure, it's not as iconic as Edward Woodward on a bonfire being pissed on by a goat, but it's a fitting way to finish an alluring, intriguing and definitively weird novel.


Dickie Mincham



Click here for the trailer for Robin Hardy's sort-of-but-not-much Wicker Man sequel, The Wicker Tree, coming January next year:



Ritual - The Novel That Inspired The Wicker Man
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