strange_complex: (Wicker Man sunset)
I didn't have great expectations of high literature when I bought this book, as I had already read the novelisation of The Wicker Man, which was written up by Robin Hardy in the late '70s. Robin Hardy may be a great director (well - actually even that's up for debate), but he's not a great writer - the true genius behind both story and dialogue in The Wicker Man is Anthony Shaffer, whose original scripts were used as a basis for Hardy's novelisation.

In Cowboys for Christ, Hardy doesn't even have Shaffer to give him a leg-up, and it shows. While Shaffer's Wicker Man script is a masterpiece of structure and symbolism, in which every individual scene is a key element building towards a subtle and complex whole, Hardy's Cowboys for Christ is just - kind of random. Stuff happens, and then some more stuff happens, and it's all happening to the same people in the same places, and indeed effect follows cause and there is a perfectly clear plot-line running through it all. But somehow the sense of overall design and purpose, of meaning to the work, is absent. There are even whole characters - particularly the policeman, Orlando - who are developed and fleshed out and given an internal life of their own, only to be completely dropped from the plot to the extent that they really never needed to be there in the first place. Why? Maybe it was conceived by Hardy as a clever play on readers' expectations based on prior knowledge of Sergeant Howie? But it didn't really work.

The writing itself is competent, but not inspired, and in particular falls foul of that basic tenet of creative writing classes everywhere: don't tell, show. The first few chapters were pretty heavy going, because they were just an endless onslaught of character back-stories - all of which could so easily have been allowed to emerge bit by bit via actions and interactions, instead of hammered out baldly and uninspiredly as they were. It's actually a great strength in the film of The Wicker Man that each character obviously has their own back-story, even if it doesn't emerge on screen. So, for example, if you pause the film while Sergeant Howie is flicking through the register in Miss Rose's school-room, you will find that each child in that room not only has her own name, but also a date of birth and a specific home address. Maybe Hardy was responsible for creating some of that when he directed the film, and indeed one of the main reasons for reading his novelisation is that it reveals more about the backgrounds of characters you're already invested in from the film. But if that same material had been made explicit in the film in the first place, it really wouldn't have improved it. The real genius is that it's there for the finding, but it isn't shoved in your face.

It was also painfully obvious that Hardy was trying to make his novel as 'accessible' as possible to a wide range of different readers, who might not all be familiar with the settings he was using. So, we were treated to sections like the following - and, remember, I am not making this up:
"Lachlan finished his brief conference and then headed for what is sometimes called Scotland's Second City, after Edinburgh - but which Glaswegians claim to be the first in both commerce and enterprise. Recently, encouraged by its nomination by Brussels as a European City of Culture, some have called it 'the Paris of the North'." (p. 21)
I mean - WT-everliving-F? Whole paragraphs sometimes sounded like they had been culled from Wikipedia, and it all reminded me rather of the recent Cassie Edwards plagiarism case.

Anyway, all that said, the book rollicked along at a fairly decent pace once it got going, and managed to arouse my sympathies for at least some of the characters - particularly the Christian evangelists, Beth and Steve, and the fiery and passionate stable-mistress, Lolly. I don't regret reading it, not least because it finally seems like the film version of the same story is actually about to move into production at last (after about five years of languishing around on IMDb as an obvious non-starter), and I will definitely want to see that. But then, I am a huge Wicker Man fanatic, and probably prepared to go to greater lengths for its sake than most would bother to. If you're the same, you'll want to read this book. But if not, don't bother.

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