Published by Titan Books
I guarantee 90% of you read the title of this book and have no idea what I’m writing about. That same 90% will know exactly what I’m talking about when I say this is the book that Sam Peckinpah’s classic film Straw Dogs is based on.
To coincide with the release of the remake of that film, Titan has re-released the original 1969 novel with a new cover based on the one-sheet for the remake.
This is where I hit my first issue. The new movie isn’t based on the book. It’s based on the first movie. The first movie, while based on the book, takes a number of liberties with the story and becomes an altogether different animal in translation. The new movie, when compared to this book, is like that old children’s game of telephone: By the time you reach the end, what comes out bears little resemblance to the source.
That bit of ill-advised marketing dealt with, let’s move on to the book.
Those who have seen Peckinpah’s film will be familiar with most of the major points here: American college teacher George Macgruder takes his wife, Louise, to her native England with their daughter so he can finish a book and, hopefully, heal their fracturing relationship. Almost immediately his uptight American sensibilities clash with the brutish backwoods locals, ending in a night of violence and transformation for George.
In short, wimp meets bullies, wimp becomes a man in the clash and stops being a wimp.
While Peckinpah’s film tells that basic story, he made several changes to the tale from the book that, when added up, completely change the character of the story. (Note that the following are minor spoilers for both the novel and the original film, although not explicit unless you’ve already seen the film and will understand the differences between the two. At that point, you know the story, so there’s no harm in the spoiling.)
Here, David and Louise have a daughter, 8-year-old Karen. There’s no rape. Louise has no connection to the invaders. Niles is a child murderer, and Janice is a child. The book is also dramatically more bloody than the Peckinpah film, with a high body count by the end.
The result is that while Peckinpah’s film is more direct about what makes a man, this book is something almost quaint by today’s standards: a tale of how intellectual and effeminate Americans are in comparison to their manly, hard-working British counterparts. It’s quaint simply because of how much can change in 40 years.
At the time of the novel the future of America appeared to be the anti-war, college educated man, engaged in relations with forward-thinking, sexually liberated women. Instead we are now regarded as a nation of cowboys, shooting-from-the-hip wild cards, while the Europeans are viewed as effeminate, cultured, educated, and pacifistic.
The clash here, then, is between George’s American sensibilities and Louise’s innate desire to cling to her British roots, while they both are primarily concerned with Karen’s safety. George decides to make a stand based on his pacifist principals that, ironically, force him to engage in a small war. Almost everything that happens is due to tragic misunderstandings and ignorance. Indeed, while so much of the book seems to cast British society as superior to America, the majority of the Britons on display here are ignorant, foolish people given over to their compulsions and ignorance.
What we’re left with is an exciting but frustrating book. Nobody is likable. George is a wimp. Louise is a shrew. The ignorant Britons are criminals, drunkard, and brutes. The educated Britons are well-meaning but sometimes dimwitted and completely ineffective at changing their small town into something more than it is.
Even if you’ve seen both films, if you enjoyed them, you’ll likely enjoy the book. It’s dramatically different enough from them both that there are surprises in store for you. (Above and beyond the mild spoilers above…none of them speaks to the plot itself, just the circumstances surrounding it.)
The inevitable question: Which is better? I haven’t seen the remake, but I’m familiar with the changes in it. I’d say I don’t care for any of them. I appreciate what Peckinpah did with the original film, but I don’t care for the story, the characters, or the outcome. Here it’s much the same but for different reasons. However, unlike the Peckinpah film, I feel the book is very exciting for much of the course of the tale while Peckinpah’s film gets bogged down at times.
2 out of 5