The biggest manhunt in British history occurred in the Yorkshire region of northern England, where from 1975 through 1980 the Yorkshire Ripper murdered at least 13 women. The case haunted public and private life, and it's been the subject of many TV programs and books, including four novels by writer David Peace — novels that have now been adapted into three films collectively called The Red Riding Trilogy.
Set in a place of fierce regional identity, the trilogy portrays a world where brute force is the quickest problem-solver, and where even the police are a source of terror. A scene from the first film shows the extent of Yorkshire police corruption: Two members of the local constabulary declare, "This is the North. We do what we want," before tossing an interfering young reporter out of a speeding van.
Peace emphasizes that while the books are fiction, the stories echo reported incidents of British police misconduct at the time. His obsessively detailed evocation of Yorkshire in the '70s and '80s — a time of rising poverty and unemployment, as Britain's industrial infrastructure stood rotting and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher dismantled the welfare state — features the voices of everyone from serial murderers and their victims to corrupt land developers and the police in league with them. But surprisingly enough, the books weren't actually written in Yorkshire.
Instead Peace worked from his home in Tokyo, where he immersed himself in the music, literature and cinema of the years in which his novels take place.
"I was writing to re-create [characters from] 1974 in West Yorkshire," he says. "The problem with writing them, had I been in West Yorkshire, is that I think that the present would have intruded. I was really trying most of all to recapture the voices of the past."
Three Films, Three Directors, One Intricate Story
Adapting the trilogy was a daunting task for screenwriter Tony Grisoni — who relied on giant wall charts to trace the interconnected stories and characters, the twisting flashbacks, the fact intertwined with fiction. And when even the charts failed him, he would turn to Peace for answers.
"I would ask him very specific things," Grisoni says. "I would ask something [about] a particular turn of phrase. Or I would ask him a question, like 'Why does Bob Frasier behave like this? Why does he do this?' — and very often David couldn't remember. And sometimes there was no answer and we'd have to make one up."
Grisoni's diligence proved critical.
"That's why the films have coherence across the trilogy," says James Marsh, director of the second installment. "There is one author who is creating images that rhyme with each other across the three films."
Marsh says that because all three pictures were shot at the same time, his shooting schedule often overlapped with those of the other two directors, Julian Jarrold and Anand Tucker.
"Within one day, an actor could be doing a piece in each of the three films," Marsh says.
If that created logistical complications for the film makers, it's not exactly an easy ride for the audience. But critic and historian David Thomson says that the way the stories double back to pick up on past events — some of which are never fully explained — is actually one of Red Riding's strengths. In real life, he points out, we don't always get the whole story. And our governments, he says — citing the attempted Christmas Day bombing of that flight from Amsterdam to Detroit — sometimes can't or won't give us a big-picture view.
"There was a lot of information around, and we can't actually be precise about how it did or didn't get through," Thomson says. "There's an example of a potentially terrifying situation where we are left in the dark; we are judged not fit to know exactly what happened."
Situations like that, he says, arise even in the most democratic nations, and Thomson sees Red Riding as a reminder that even in a supposedly enlightened society, "we know that there's darkness at every corner."
"This show says, 'Don't trust authority.' It's not an easy, comfortable, reassuring show. I think if you see the whole thing, however, you will never forget it."