10 Ways David Pinner’s Ritual May Have Inspired The Wicker Man 1973

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David Pinner’s Ritual, a novel from 1967, to see how it may have inspired horror film classic, The Wicker Man in 1973, says BARRY McCANN

Did David Pinner's Ritual influence the writing of The Wicker Man?
Christopher Lee in The Wicker Man (1973).

David Pinner’s 1967 novel Ritual is a little known tale that has become more famous as the inspiration for The Wicker Man. Or the book that nearly became The Wicker Man depending which version of events is true. The rights to film it were purchased by the consortium of Christopher Lee, Anthony Shaffer and Peter Snell, only then for Shaffer to abandon adapting it in favour of his own storyline on the same theme. But was it entirely discarded?

David Pinner’s Ritual opens in the Cornish village of Thorn where the body of 8 year old Dian Spark is found by an oak tree from which she apparently fell. A monkey’s head and garlic flowers had been pinned to the tree trunk, but disappeared by the time the police arrive. However, she is holding a sprig of garlic which raises the question of a ritual killing.

Detective Inspector David Hanlin is despatched from London to investigate, his eyes almost permanently behind a pair of shades due to sun blindness. Hanlin poses as a University lecturer researching in occult activities and questions Reverend White who insists there are no such cults in the village. However, upon checking the church, the Reverend is outraged when Hanlin finds a monkey’s head and garlic flowers on the altar.

Hanlin explores the wood where the victim was found and is narrowly missed by an arrow shot by local nutter, Gypo. When becoming aware of his police credentials. Gypo takes Hanlin to the oak tree where Dian where the monkey’s head is back, along with two bats pinned alongside it.

We are then introduced to Fat Billy’s gang who are chasing Little Berty, before Billy then chases a butterfly into the sweet shop owned by Mr and Mrs. Spark. He kills it only to be clouted and shouted at by Mr. Spark, while the gang turn on him. Anna Spark, Dian’s elder sister, leads the gang into the woods to bury the butterfly.

Ritual by David Pinner
David Pinner’s Ritual has many similarities with The Wicker Man film.

During a séance to ascertain if his daughter was murdered, Mrs. Spark claims there is witchcraft in the village and some of those present are involved. The accusation stirs up hysteria among the group until the village squire takes control, suggesting the police should be brought in. He then makes Hanlin’s acquaintance when Anna brings the detective back to the house to give him lodging.

Hanlin initially spends his time visiting and getting to know the leading village characters, including Squire Fenn. That evening, Hanlin looks out of his bedroom window to see Gypo on top of a ladder against Anna’s window, declaring “I’ve come for you, Anna! I feel like it tonight.” Anna responds by pushing him away, the ladder falling over.

Anna then tempts Hanlin by undressing and sliding her clothing down the bedroom wall, knowing full well he is on the other side stroking the wallpaper and licking it. He does not go to her room, though – sound familiar?

Next morning, Hanlin visits Lawrence Cready, who had bought the Squire’s mansion when Fenn had become debt ridden. Although Cready does have a witchcraft museum in his manor, he insists it is merely memorabilia. Things start to move when Hanlin finds children practising for an archery contest on the village lawn. Fat Billy rugby tackles Hanlin and a doll falls out of the child’s pocket with a pin stuck through its abdomen and the name Dian written across the back. Billy admits he hated Dian and thinks her mother is a witch, but denies killing her. Later, Hanlin and two police officers find the boy dead under the same oak tree as Dian.

That evening, Hanlin receives an invitation from Cready to a moon worshipping ceremony the villagers are holding. The proceedings end up on the beach at a bonfire flanked by an altar of stones where a white horse is sacrificed. The whole thing becomes hysterical and Hanlin is convinced the moon is possessing him, or that Cready tapping into his mind.

Cready claims he has manipulated Hanlin and the whole performance had been put on to divert him from the murder hunt. Hanlin accuses Mrs. Spark of killing Fat Billy and attempts to arrest her, but finds struggles to get his words out as some force is holding him back. He is shocked out of the trance like state when some present begin pelting him with stones.

Hanlin runs away and finds a phone, reporting Billy’s death to his Inspector. Back at the house, Hanlin loses it completely and physically attacks Anna when accusing her of being the murderess. Mr Spark throws him out.

Hanlin takes refuge in the church for the night, but children invade the following morning and attack him, during which one girl snatches his sunglasses. Temporarily sun blinded, he retrieves the shades and pursues Gypo to arrest him. Gypo denies the killings but did witness Fat Billy’s death, and claims Hanlin knows who the murderer actually is but could not arrest him nor would want to…

And if you want to know who did it, buy the book!

Having concluded David Pinner’s Ritual was unfilmable Anthony Schaffer pursued his own tale on the nature of sacrifice, but the novel’s recognition as blueprint for The Wicker Man is something its author has pursued since. And there is a case considering close comparison reveals several set ups in The Wicker Man that have a déjà vu about them.

The Naked Dance

The most cited example is the sequence where the landlord’s daughter, Willow McGregor, dances naked in the room next to Sergeant Howie’s to tempt him in, as does the landlady’s daughter, Anna Spark, in her temptation of Hanlin. Schaffer did later own up to this cross over, explaining the scene must have “popped up” in his memory. It was not the only one.

The Serenading Scene

Having taken up lodging at Mrs. Spark’s house, Hanlin looks out his bedroom window and sees Gypo trying to persuade Anna to let him up to her room. Having taken up lodging at the Green Man, Howie looks out of his bedroom window and sees Lord Summerisle making similar overtures to Willow on behalf of Ash Buchanan.

The Curriculum Scene

Hanlin witnesses Anna Spark giving local children a lesson in pagan belief and later expresses outrage at her corrupting the youngsters’ minds. Howie is just as outraged with Miss Rose teaching her class about phallic symbols, but doesn’t wait in expressing his anger.

The Walking Talk Scene

Hanlin visits Cready at his Manor and is taken around the herb garden that includes garlic flowers, which pervade Ritual throughout.. During the walk, Cready explains to Hanlin about how the community of Thorn works and what they believe.

Howie visits Summerisle at his Manor and is taken around the orchard, apples pervading The Wicker Man Ritual throughout. During the walk, Summerisle explains to Howie about how the island community works and what they believe.

An Acquired Estate

Cready had bought the manor from Squire Fenn when his fortunes hit on bad times, rather like the first Lord Summerisle bought the island when it hit bad times. Unlike Lord Summerisle, Cready did not manage to get the Squire’s title as well.

The Double Bluff

Before their ritual, Lawrence Cready informs Squire Fenn he wants Hanlin out of the way, saying “The celebration will be ruined with him here.” It later turns out has actually been put on to divert him. Before their ritual, Alder McGregor has a virtually identical exchange with Willow, later turning out they knew Howie was listening and the conversation was a ruse to lure him in.

More Coppers

When Hanlin leaves Mrs. Spark’s house for the last time, he warns them the police would be coming to the village next morning. When Howie attempts to leave Summerisle, he tells the Harbour Master he will be back with more police.

The Climatic Ritual

The ritual ends up on the coast where the villagers are gathered in animal costumes, including two March hares, with their leader as a man/woman. Confronting the mob, Hanlin finally learns the celebration has been put on for him.

Beating up Women

There is the shocking scene where a deranged Hanlin physically assaults Anna. While that does not occur in the Schaffer screenplay it does interestingly surface in the 2006 remake when its protagonist, Edward Malus, lays into Sister Beech and Sister Honey. Perhaps that is why Ritual gets credited in the Hollywood version


Finally, there may not be a big oak tree in The Wicker Man, but there is one hell of a big bloke called Oak. .. Okay that is stretching a point.

The question remains that in writing The Wicker Man did Schaffer recall more from the Pinner novel than he realised, or was it a simple case of fishing from the same pond and landing similar catch? And would Ritual now be worth revisiting as a possible film in itself? Give a copy to Nicholas Cage, someone.

Do you think David Pinner’s Ritual inspired The Wicker Man? Tell us your thoughts in the Comments Section below!


  1. I think there’s little doubt that Shaffer’s ‘memory-store’ retained these significant scenarios in his later screenplay(there’s also a parallel watering-graves-at-night scene). Perhaps he tipped a nod to Pinner indicating: “Good attempt, but here’s how it’s going to work!”.

    • Yes, you could take Shaffer’s script as his critique of Ritual. I can see ways of filming the Pinner novel and would have a go at adapting it myself.

  2. I enjoyed your article. Reading the book again very recently, I was struck by just how much of it found its way into TWM. I like some of the description of the landscape in Ritual, but find the characterisation a bit weak. The latter is not helped by the reader of the 2014 unabridged audiobook – Cready comes over like a cross between a Disneyfied Iago and Kenneth Williams.


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