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Wattie Goes to Hollywood: Scott, Scotland and Film

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Scott is the most filmic of writers, something which explains why his stories lasted as long as they did, well into the twentieth century. He may be considered difficult to read today, long-winded and meandering by modern standards, but his narratives still come alive when the characters move dramatically in a visual world. Stevenson spotted this sense of energetic action and spectacle in Scott's stories and used it in his own tales, many of which, like Scott's, have been made time and again into films (think of how many versions of Kidnapped and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde you've seen). When cinema came along, it looked around for stories from literature that were tried and tested, safe bets to put its studio's money on, and Scott's famous historical novels, with their sweeping action, grand settings, big themes and clearly delineated characters were obvious candidates. In the early years of cinema he was by far the most adapted of novelists. But his influence doesn't stop there. He invented the historical novel, or drew existing elements together to create it, so that every adaptation of a historical story into film owes something to him.

It's interesting to see the history of adaptations of Sir Walter's books in the twentieth century.5 It shows that from the nineteen thirties the number fell until by the nineteen sixties there were almost none. The decline of Scott's popularity as a novelist is the best-known fact about him today. It was well into the twentieth century that film began to turn its back on him. But the backlash had been going on in literature for a long time before that, starting with MacDiarmid and Muir ("a sham bard of a sham nation") in the early nineteen twenties.6 In both film and literature, new genres such as social realism and the thriller began to replace the historical epic, and wherever a film was made that was based on history from the nineteen sixties onwards, it was often suffused with bitter, anti-establishment values related to contemporary events, such as the western Ulzana's Raid written by Scottish writer Alan Sharpe, which used the atrocities against civilians in Vietnam as its template. There was simply no space for tales of honour and derring-do, and Walter Scott's name and his version of Scotland, attacked in print by so many, ultimately became synonymous with tea-towel kitsch. Just as Scottish writers throughout the twentieth century aimed to subvert the cliché, so Scottish film-makers such as Bill Douglas and Bill Forsyth endeavored to throw off the Romantic mist and seductive Hollywood vapours which had reached their peak in the nineteen fifties with Brigadoon, a Technicolor chocolate box of dancing, singing and Scotch mist, whose producers had famously returned to California after a visit to Scotland in search of locations saying they hadn't found anything particularly Scottish there.7 The film world's hostility to all things Scott-ish culminated in the accusation of Tartanry leveled against the Romantic tradition in the Scotch Reels collection of comment and criticism in 1981.8 It, along with Kailyardism and Clydesideism, was found guilty of misrepresenting 'true' Scottishness, although the contributors to the volume failed to define what that was. It was a judgment that was to last. More recent writers such as Irvine Welsh and Kevin Williamson have carried on the anti-Scott tradition.

Today, one of the most important tasks left in Scottish literary studies and criticism is to reinstate Sir Walter in his true position as one of the western world's most important writers, one whose influence, through his impact in film, is central to the way others see us. This move towards bringing him back to the public memory has already begun. His family home of Abbotsford, where he spent the last years of his life writing his way out of the debts incurred by the crash of 1826, has been given a ten million pound makeover. Its visitors centre will become one of the most popular tourist attractions in Scotland over the next few years, and everyone who goes there will learn something about who 'The Great Unknown' really was, as opposed to the misleading myth he has become. His Romantic impulse, if not his books, came back with a bang in mid-nineteen nineties film with Braveheart and, even more so, with Rob Roy, starring Jessica Lange and Liam Neeson. The film's producer Peter Broughan, who helped develop early versions of the script, has said he never read Scott's book, as if any direct connection with him would taint it, and indeed the film was more based on the partisan biography of Rob Roy by W. H. Murray than anything Scott wrote. But scriptwriter Alan Sharpe, the same who wrote the westerns and also the novel A Green Tree in Gedde in 1966, certainly did read Scott's original, bringing the forces of honour and commercialism into conflict in just the same way Scott did, if to different effects.9 And that film was produced and made in Scotland and distributed through the Hollywood system, so once again the Walter Scott brand of misty mountains and tartan courage was sold to the world. Not so with his books, once on the shelf of every household in Europe, from mighty aristocrat to humble working class family. You can't give them away now. Just a mention of his name is enough to have people walk away.

But if old Wattie was to be given the place he deserved, the one he earned, he should be someone we carry close to our hearts. In fact if history was fair and he was granted the success he deserved, he'd be sitting today in Los Angeles by a swimming pool dressed in shades and a Hawaiian shirt, a little pink drink with an umbrella in it by his side. Because it was in film during the twentieth century that he spread the word. Wattie went to Hollywood and through it the rest of the world saw what being Scottish was, and so did we. He taught us to see ourselves as others see us through the medium of film, even if it isn't the way we are.

David Manderson is a novelist, teacher and academic. His first novel Lost Bodies, a metaphysical thriller, was published in 2011. His second book Best Man was published in 2012. He has also published widely in magazines, journals and online. He once edited Nerve Magazine and ran the Real to Reel short film festival at the Glasgow Film Theatre. He now lectures in Creative Writing and Screenwriting at the University of the West of Scotland.

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5 Richard Butt, 'Literature and the Screen Media since 1908' in Ian Brown, Thomas Clancy, Susan Manning, and Murray Pittock eds. The Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature: Modern Transformations: New Identities (from 1918) (EUP, 2007), p.55.
6 Cairns Craig, 'The Criticism of Scottish Literature: Tradition, Decline and Renovation' in Ian Brown, Thomas Clancy, Susan Manning, and Murray Pittock eds. The Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature: Modern Transformations: New Identities (from 1918) (EUP, 2007), p.44.
7 Forsyth Hardy, Scotland in Film (EUP, 1990), p.2.
8 Colin McArthur ed., Scotch Reels: Scotland in Film and Television (BFI Publishing, 1982).
9 David Manderson, Directed by Michael Caton-Jones: Rob Roy (1995), Scotnotes Study Guides (ASLS, 2009), pp.68-79.