Book Review: 'Straw Dogs' Retains The Controversy & Thematic Pull Without The Sleaze

by Kevin Jagernauth
August 15, 2011 4:46 AM
2 Comments
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It has been 40 years since Sam Peckinpah released "Straw Dogs," and four decades on, the film still remains a powerful and sometimes hard to watch piece of work. Starring Dustin Hoffman and Susan George, the film centers on David (Hoffman), a American mathematician who moves with his new bride Amy (George) to her hometown of Wakely, Cornwall in England. Some locals are hired on to do some repairs on David and Amy's farmhouse and they immediately take a disliking to the brainy David, and in an act of intimidation, they strangle their cat, leaving it hanging from a light inside the home. Things are then taken up a notch when David, lured into a distant area in the woods on a hunting trip with those same workmen in an effort to bond with him, his wife is raped by their ringleader, Amy's former lover Charlie Venner, and then again, by another man. The temperature is raised even more when David accidentally hits Niles the village idiot -- and pedophile who unbeknownst to him has just killed a local girl -- with his car driving home late one night in the fog, takes him home and reports the accident. Finding out that David has Niles, a crew of local men come to his house looking for the body pitching David in a final fight to save his home in a battle that will restore his crumbling masculinity in wake of the rape of his wife of the taunts of the workers at his home.

With Rod Lurie's remake coming up, Titan Books have re-issued Gordon Williams' "The Siege of Trencher's Farm" which served as the source material for both films, and the differences between the book and Peckinpah's film are not only astounding, they also reveal a film that takes an almost reductively simple approach to the author's much more nuanced plot and characters. With Lurie's film seemingly more of a remake of Pecikinpah's film than an adaptation of the book, it remains to be seen how his film will address the class and socio-economic underpinnings that are a much larger factor in the thrust of the story.

'Siege' doesn't pick up with a newlywed couple, but instead, finds the long-married George and Louise Macgruder (renamed for the film adaptations) in a rut. Their relationship has been in a state of disrepair for a while, with George's impotence/lack of interest in sex one of the wedges between them, while Louise's brief affair with another man still looms in the background. Further deepening the rift is a continental divide between the two -- David, the American and Louise, the Brit -- with the sort of superficial, stereotypical views of each others' culture cropping up their respective observations of the state of the marriage. But keeping them together is Karen, their young daughter, who has been kept in the dark from the bitter state between her parents.


The sojourn to Wakely, Cornwall serves dual purposes. One, is for Louise to finally return to ancestral home and the other is for George, an American professor and writer, to finish his book on Branksheer, an obscure 18th century English diarist. In fact it's the very purpose of George's stay in Cornwall that first provokes the much more salt of the earth inhabitants of Cornwall, who lineage it is suggested in Williams' book, is not without a strain of inbreeding and savage behaviour. That George can afford to rent the four bedroom "farm" itself causes a minor stir. An intellectual, prosperous American coming into that remote village with means to command one the largest properties only pits the MacGruders further as outsiders.

What Williams draws up here is a man who is not just brainy, but by the very nature of his work and economic stature is perceived -- whether true or not -- to be arriving with air of superiority. But this is also a man whose masculinity isn't just tested, it already arrives in a weakened state. With this sexual prowess and intimacy on the decline with Louise, it only enhances the pretentiousness and somewhat effete nature of his reason for being there -- to complete a book out a writer/artist no one has heard of. It's this kind of luxuriousness that the locals of Wakely just don't understand, with the sort of extravagance of George's prosperous lifestyle seeming odious to a region where the men work with their hands (when they can). Which brings us to the key difference between 'Siege' and both "Straw Dogs" films -- while George's call to action comes as a (twisted) defense of one his highest moral ideals (more on that in second) in both films, there is no rape in Williams' book.

Of all the differences between the book and films, this one is the most key and unsurprisingly, the most contentious, but after reading Williams' book, Peckinpah and Lurie's approach seems almost too easy and somewhat troubling. By using not just one -- but two rapes -- to not just thematically but physically emasculate David, it turns Amy into a pawn in the story, diminishing her character. In the book, there is slight threat of sexual assault from one of the men that descend on 'Trencher's Farm' but it never gets closet to being acted on and in turn it allows Louise to remain a complex individual. Someone who has returned to her home and longs to make a connection with her roots -- or at least with some of the townspeople -- only to find herself and her family viewed as foreigners. George's violent defense of his home against a murderous mob cast against his own sexual failings, the affair by his wife and his absurdly precious job is enough to establish the titular siege as a the final showdown to prove his manhood. But this too is bolstered by an additional reason for his stand against the goons desperately trying to break down his door.

In 'Siege' the village idiot that George hits with his car isn't just a simple member of the village, but a notorious pedophile -- with a severely diminished mental capacity -- who has accidentally escaped from prison after the truck carrying him gets into an accident during a terrible snowstorm. George brings the injured man to Trencher's Farm -- unaware initially of who is he is -- to call for help. At the same time, one of the young girls in the village has gone missing and with the men of the village deducing the escaped simpleton committed the heinous crime, they descend on the farm to exact vigilante justice. But George is a steadfast pacifist and in a twisted irony must resort to some rather cruel measures to prevent the men from killing the escaped pedophile for something he didn't do. The siege isn't just physical test but a mental one with George looking to proven himself as a man to his wife and who he is a person to himself. There is simply a greater dynamic at play at here that doesn't require victimizing the sole female character in the story.

And its this depth in Williams' book that allows it to rise from its pulpy premise into a tricky, but no less compelling argument about the animal instincts that beneath the years of civilization still mark the difference between men and women. While it's a little too convenient and pat that at the story's end George's marriage is restored and even his waning libido is recovered, Williams' carefully measured and page-turning plotting, and finely tuned attention to the undercurrents of this story, keep things compelling and all without the need of a salacious centerpiece to sledgehammer the point home. Rod Lurie has a big task ahead him with his upcoming "Straw Dogs." Transplanted to the South in the United States, it's certainly a great location to play up the social/economic/class elements of the story but with harrowing rape sequence again at the center of the story, it appears we're in for a retread rather than expansion of Peckinpah's film. [B]

"The Siege Of Trencher's Farm" hits book stores on August 16th.

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2 Comments

  • Kevin Jagernauth | August 15, 2011 7:35 AMReply

    Ah, yes. My memory is hazy on that as well. Will correct.

  • Fred | August 15, 2011 7:32 AMReply

    "The temperature is raised even more when David accidentally kills the village idiot—and pedophile who unbeknowst to him has just killed a local girl—"
    I have not read the book, but this is not the way that it happens in the 1971 film; David Warner's character is not killed but is taken in more for protection after the accident by Hoffman and survives the film.

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