A worm-that-turned story of revenge in a remote English community, this harrowing snow-bound thriller has been filmed twice as Straw Dogs – and greatly altered, much to novelist Gordon Williams’ displeasure. The frustration felt by the author is easy to understand given just how much the movie has eclipsed the book in popular memory – but how do they compare?
I offer the following review as part of the 2013 Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey blog – for links to other participants’ reviews, click here; and Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott at her Pattinase blog – you should head over there right away.
“In the same year that Man first flew to the Moon and the last American soldier left Vietnam there were still corners of England where lived men and women who had never travelled more than fifteen miles from their own homes”
It’s the tail end of the Swinging Sixties, but for centuries little has changed in Dando Monachorum, a remote rural enclave in southern England. American academic George Magruder has come here – together with his wife Louise and their eight-year-old daughter Karen – to find some peace and quiet while he tries to finish his book on the (fictitious) 18th century British diarist Branksheer. It soon becomes clear that he’s in the wrong place as the picturesque retreat soon turns into a hotbed of animosity and violence. The locals resent the outsiders (though at least Louise is British), knowing that they could never afford the rent on Trencher’s Farm even though George thinks it’s actually pretty cheap. Jealousy and resentment also dominates the Magruder’s home life – right from the very beginning Louise seems to spend all her time criticising her husband, blaming him for everything not least just for being an American. He adopts a somewhat distant air to rise above the constant baiting, which makes him pretty hard to like. It soon emerges that George and Louise’s marriage has been on the rocks for quite a while and the she had an affair with an Irish poet and fantasises about running away with him. Not yet in their forties, the couple seem prematurely middle-aged after less than ten years of marriage, endlessly bickering and sniping. She has come to resent his professorial demeanor and straight-laced ways and their sex life seems to be pretty much over (he seems to be the culprit here – we have no idea if his impotence is the result of a physiological or psychological dysfunction).
“Oh, for heaven’s sake! Can’t you behave like a normal father and forget that damned book of yours!”
Louise had picked the spot for their English retreat but has come to resent the fact that he didn’t take charge of this relocation. A sinister touch is also introduced early when a cat is found strangled on their front door (George squeals and refuses to touch it, leaving Louise to do the dirty work). Bit by bit we come to see this is story of frustration and also of masculinity in crisis. The dirt-poor farmers and labourers are stuck in entrenched roles that they can’t break out of (conformity is the only way to survive), with all their frustration eventually unloading violently on anyone who steps out of line. Things are brought to a head the night of the Christmas Party organised by the local parish. Snow has ben falling hard and an ambulance carrying a prisoner from a mental home has crashed. Ten years earlier Harry Niles was convicted of the murder of several children but found to have the mental age of an eight-year-old so was locked away in an asylum. Now he is alone and wandering about in the storm. This coincides with a disappearance of a mentally handicapped young girl from the party – are the two events connected? George drives there to pick up his wife and daughter and take them home, which as usual leads to a torrent of abuse from Louise. During this George hits someone with his car – they take the man to their home and realise that it is Niles. When some of the locals at the pub hear that Niles is at the farm they head over demand he be handed over. George, a conscientious Liberal who also has something to prove in defending his own home, insists that they wait for the police and a doctor. The men initially turn back, but then the missing girl’s father turns up with a shotgun. The local doctor tries to stop them and is battered for his trouble – when another tries to take the gun, he is killed. It is now, at the halfway mark, that the eponymous siege begins and the book starts to pay off the various references to the Western genre and American frontier life that have been regularly popping up until now.
“This wasn’t how those wives behaved, those pioneering women. They stood by their men, through thick and thin”
Louise’s instant reaction, after once again finding the time to scold her husband, something she knows she is now doing unthinkingly and unreasonably but which she seems powerless to stop, is just to hand Niles over. George rightly refuses, knowing that Niles will be killed and that on this occasion, given the circumstances, the man can’t be guilty as he was too far away from the disappearance of the girl. With the danger level mounting, Louise eventually gives George an ultimatum – either they let the men have Niles or she will leave him. For a second he considers giving the man up, but it quickly becomes clear that after the shooting, the men now have nothing to lose and will kill the Magruders to keep their secret, patterning the crime after a similar event half a century earlier at the so-called ‘Soldier’s Field’. On that occasion, after the death fo achild, the apparent attacker was murdered and covered up. With the farm cut off by bad weather, the group of five men start the ‘home invasion’ in earnest. At this point there is a third of the book to go and Williams has set up a tortured family dynamic, created a dark and forbidding environment that is literally and figurative in-bred as events repeat themselves in a seemingly inevitable cycle, and set up many suspenseful questions: has Niles really hurt the missing girl, and if not, where is she? Will the Magruders give him up? Will they be able to fend off the drunken (and armed) locals? And will the Magruder’s marriage survive?
“Don’t be silly. This isn’t a bloody film!”
Williams is skilled writer and the various skirmishes inside and outside the farm are very well handled, as are the equally bruising battles between the warring couple, which are presented with blistering success even if the attempts at psychology are clearly too rudimentary and unsophisticated to really convince. Equally, while it is clear that the author has some social comments to make (and being a Scotsman brings a useful, semi-outsider’s perspective), at heart this never feels like a substantial enough work to warrant really serious consideration as anything other than a proficient potboiler. But then, it was apparently written in only three weeks – and the extended action climax was recognised as potential film fodder very quickly. In less than a year in fact it was being filmed by Hollywood as Straw Dogs, and I’ll be reviewing that notorious film here very shortly.