Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Editing Has Its Virtues

Imagine this scenario. An efficient policeman walks into an isolated rural community to investigate a recent death. The villagers are polite, but evasive. He begins to realize that they are concealing not just the recent crime, but a history of weird behavior that goes back for generations. The story comes to a crunch at an annual fertility festival, where a massive straw figure is destroyed.

Sounds familiar?

I hope so. That’s an outline of my first book Corn Dolls (2006), a conspiracy thriller set in the Fenland area of Eastern England. And, to be frank, it’s also the outline of The Wicker Man (1973), a British horror flick which started out as pitifully obscure and has since built a reputation as one of the most influential films of all time.

Well, it certainly influenced me. I’ve always been fascinated by local religions and customs, especially involving the land. A quick scoot through Britain in the summer will show you all manner of pagan rituals, from men dressed as horses in Cornwall to women chasing cheeses down a hill in Wales, to massed combat between teams of burning barrels on the south coast. What a fun bunch we are. The Wicker Man took that kind of quaint stuff and turned it into a matter of life and death.

It also set off a motif which has since become commonplace, almost clichéd. The idea that the investigator has been lured in, set up and framed, by the people he is investigating is today pretty universal. But I’m not aware of this concept existing before the early 1970s--and I suspect that The Wicker Man was responsible for the innovation. In Corn Dolls, I took advantage of that motif, but tried to bring to the book also some topical concerns: the way in which the British police are concerned with groovy targets and seminars, but still unconsciously governed by atavistic impulses which go back (just like pagan rituals) for hundreds of years.

The Wicker Man did something else for me as a writer, something which the dozens of books that I’ve read on story structure and “editing your novel” have ultimately failed to do. It showed me the great virtue of editing.

Film buffs will know that there are two versions of this film: there’s the original “long” version, and the cut-down version which the studio insisted on, due to commercial pressures. Now, most enthusiasts (including the director, producer, and the majority of the cast) will say that the original, longer version is the better one. I strongly disagree--and if you’re interested in the editing discipline in book or film fiction, I’d suggest getting hold of both versions (there’s a boxed-set DVD) and comparing for yourself.

The differences are striking.

In the shorter version, we get into the conflict immediately; we are left to work out the detective’s motivation for ourselves rather than being told; the story is condensed down by one day; and we lose various beautifully shot but pretty irrelevant scenes, allowing us to grapple with the already enormous question of what the gorblimey is going on in this community. The set pieces are allowed to stand with some economy, the in-and-out pieces are made to earn their keep. To my mind, the shorter version of The Wicker Man is a great example of ruthless but intelligent editing, putting the reader/viewer above the original writer--the kind of approach I try to take with my own work before I even send it to my agent and after that to the publisher. It’s very hard to do that with your own writing, because you can be so impressed by your own elegantly constructed transition scenes or over-long set pieces that the thought of cutting them down (or out) is agony.

The Wicker Man stands as a cult masterpiece for its revolutionary conspiracy concept, its pace, its use of minor characters, and its final 10 minutes of footage. OK, there’s something to do with Britt Ekland as well. But I disagree with Christopher Lee that “the edit ruined our film.” I think it’s a case study in editing that makes a story faster, stronger, and scarier--pagan virtues, indeed.


Bob Randisi said...

The Nicholas Cage remake was just painful. I've always emjoyed the original, ever since I first saw itin Rhode Island at a fantasy con.


wstroby said...

Another good example of that is Jean-Jacques Beineix's BETTY BLUE, a film I love. The director's cut - the only one now available on DVD in the U.S. - is nearly an hour longer than the theatrical version, with much of that time given to an interminable slapstick sequence in which star Jean-Hugues Anglade robs a bank in drag. It derails the film so abruptly that it's painful to watch.

Patrick Lennon said...

A good example again there. By the way, I would strongly recommend 'Story' by Robert McKee for anyone interested in the structure of narratives, whatever the type of fiction you're writing.