I try as best I can, and for the most part I’m successful, to keep books and their cinematic adaptations in separate compartments. They’re drastically different mediums. You can do things in a book that you can’t in a movie; novels have space to spool out and expand, while movies have a more rigid time structure. No movie is ever going to ruin a book, no matter how much it changes. And though I don’t expect that to happen in this instance, I have questions about Alex Garland’s adaptation of Jeff VanerMeer’s Annihilation.
First off, I’ve been excited about this movie from the get go. After Garland’s directorial debut, Ex-Machina, I’m down to check out whatever he does next. It’s moody, smart, thoughtful sci-fi with an impeccable visual eye. I hadn’t read Annihilation, but from what I knew, it fell very much in that wheelhouse and felt like a good fit between filmmaker and source material.
When I did read Annihilation, the first in the Southern Reach Trilogy, I had a similar reaction. It’s an esoteric, sci-fi, Heart of Darkness style journey into the unknown that unfolds gradually as it goes.
Again, appeared to be a perfect fit. Even the first trailer showed off a dreamy, ethereal genre picture; a quiet, contemplative mystery that eschews easy answers. That was great. I was pumped. And I still am, even though everything that’s come after makes Annihilation look like a generic action movie. Including this new featurette that introduces a lot of running and shooting and creatures, elements that aren’t in the novel.
I know, I know, this is just a trailer. I understand that it’s all marketing, and the story from the novel, though hugely popular, is a hard sell to a wide audience. And that’s what studios want, as wide an audience as possible.
I also understand the need to change things from the source material to make it more cinematic. But from what we see here, the interpretation of “cinematic” means action heavy. There’s not a ton of this running gunfight, monsters jumping out of nowhere type of activity. It’s more of a psychological thriller with sci-fi trappings.
The novel is about four women exploring a mysterious region known as Area X. As they delve deeper, they begin to unravel, learn new information that changes everything, and personal stakes ratchet up.
I’m not saying that Annihilation is doomed or that it’ll be an affront to humanity and spit in the face of fans of the book. In fact, it looks like exactly the kind of movie I’ll enjoy. It simply doesn’t look like the same story; it looks like they eschew all of the elements that set the book apart in favor of explosions and bullets and Hollywood spectacle. Like they thought, “This makes people think too hard, throw in a shootout instead!”
Again, the debate about adapting books to film is as old as movies themselves. Things work on the page that don’t work on screen. (Part of why I don’t particularly care for the first Hunger Games movie is that, the book is a first person account of one character alone with her thoughts. It works on the page because the audience is privy to the heroine’s inner monologue. On film, because it’s just her with no narration or anyone to interact with, we don’t get any of that, and the result is basically a quiet teenager sitting alone in the woods looking pensive for 90% of the movie.)
I’m not necessarily worried about Annihilation—I trust Garland, it has a great cast, and I’m sure it’ll be fine on it’s own merit. In general, I’m okay with making changes, as long as you stay true to the spirit and feel of the source material. But there are many things that straight up don’t happen in the book, things that look jarringly different and run contrary to the entire aesthetic and tone of the novel. It begs the question of, if you’re going to change everything that makes a work unique, why adapt it at all?
I’m surely reading far too much into a trailer and short featurette. And I know that the production and marketing teams are two very different arms with very different jobs to perform. But these are questions that arise as I watch the promotional build up, and questions I can’t wait to have answered when Annihilation opens on February 23.
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