WARNING: spoilers for The Wicker Man both below and to the left. Cheers to LumberjackTwins for the video.
I'm part of a particular generation of British people who all discovered The Wicker Man in exactly the same way. One Saturday night in the late seventies or early eighties, we all came home legless from the pub and turned on the telly. We stumbled into this strange little British film from 1973, featuring Edward Woodward as a straight-laced copper investigating a possible child abduction on the island of Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), the head of a pagan agricultural community. We watched in astonishment as things got stranger and stranger, and built to an utterly unforgettable climax. And at the end, we all made a mental note to be sure to be sober next time they showed it on TV.
It's possible that a future generation may drunkenly fall in love with Neil LaBute's 2006 remake in the same way, but quite frankly there isn't enough alcohol in the world to make that scenario work.
If you were in the right parts of London this weekend, you could have seen both versions of The Wicker Man in rapid succession at the cinema - and, as a bonus, heard Robin Hardy (director of the original) talking after one of them. Hardy's too much of a gent to condemn the remake outright, but he summarised its problems in one simple sentence: "they appear to have taken out the comedy, the sex, and the music." Which is pretty much spot on, and - if anything - doesn't really go far enough.
Looking at the 1973 version in the light of the new one, I've got more admiration for Edward Woodward's portrayal of Sergeant Howie than ever before. Because, let's face it, he's not the most sympathetic of protagonists. The comedy that Hardy mentioned - not really an element of the film I'd considered up until now - all comes from his extreme discomfort and displeasure at the mounting evidence of paganism on the island. By the time he's face to face with Lord Summerisle's wit and charm ("I trust the sight of the young people refreshes you"), he's become a full-blown figure of fun, and it's to Woodward's credit that in the final scenes he manages to get back his dignity to such an extraordinary degree.
Nicolas Cage's equivalent character in the new film, Edward Malus, is a much more conventional lead: crucially, he doesn't have Howie's strong Christian faith, and is not saving himself until he gets married, nosiree. Presumably no Hollywood actor could even consider the idea of playing a middle-aged virgin these days. Unfortunately, Howie's precious virginity is a major element of the plot of the original: his terror of the island's unbridled sexuality ratchets up the tension even more, and leads to the grim irony that if he'd given in to Britt Ekland's bedroom wall dryhumping, he'd have saved his own life. LaBute needs to find a replacement motivation for Malus' investigation, and he's chosen to go with an idiot cocktail of guilt and bees.
The bee motif, though it leads to some of the most ludicrous imagery in the remake, is key to LaBute's reworking of the plot: because he's made his American Summersisle a matriarchal community, producing honey rather than apples, with Ellen Burstyn heavy-handedly representing the Queen Bee. The dynamics of the central relationship are utterly changed - the detailed, sympathetic depiction of the pagan lifestyle is replaced by a generically creepy closed community whom we're never allowed to side with for a second, as they serve no purpose other than to get in our hero's way. The islanders' folk songs - such a huge part of the original film's atmosphere - have been ditched by LaBute (in interviews, he makes it clear that he simply doesn't understand them) and replaced by a dull orchestral horror score. The result is an utterly conventional fish-out-of-water plot, and the original was much more complex and interesting than that. It's been reduced to another vehicle for LaBute's usual sex war obsessions, and I speak as someone who's previously excused his misogyny as being just one facet of his overall misanthropy. (Funny how watching Malus punch three women in the face at the climax can change your mind on something like that.)
To be honest, it's surprising that the plot of the original had to be changed so much for an American remake. Given the way the US went into psychic meltdown two years ago over the sight of Janet Jackson's tit on TV, you'd have thought that Sergeant Howie's fear of sex would map directly onto an American fundamentalist Christian character without too much effort. Interestingly, Robin Hardy is himself currently working on a pseudo-sequel, based on his novel Cowboys For Christ, which will throw American fundamentalism into the stew of Scottish paganism. However, Hardy doesn't have much of a track record with finishing movies he starts: besides, in the current climate he probably won't find much of an American audience for a film which takes that approach.
Which is why LaBute's Wicker Man is so feeble a copy of the original: the main impression you take away is one of endless compromises to please a mainstream audience, and pissing off the middle American Christian ticketbuying heartland is the last thing he wants to do. Plus, he's also committed himself to a PG-13 rating, which makes for a couple of clumsy ellipses in the plot and one hysterically cackhanded bit of offscreen violence (you'll know it when you hear it). Amusingly, we in the UK appear to be made of stronger stuff, and the equivalent 12A rating the film has here was unsuccessfully appealed against by the distributor: one can only assume they wanted a 15, because they know that we know that a horror film which under-12s can see with their parents is no bloody horror film at all.
So: you can go to your local cinema and see a version of The Wicker Man with all the comedy, sex, music, and religion, and horror taken out of it. Or you can buy the new DVD edition of Robin Hardy's original. Your call.