Adaptive Coloration: Annihilation and A Wrinkle in Time and Making the Unreal Real
As long as we’ve had movies, we’ve had movie adaptations of beloved novels. (Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon, credited with being the first science fiction movie ever, was inspired by the work of Jules Verne.) It makes sense. Science fiction and fantasy deal in creating the unreal, imagining the unbelievable and describing what doesn’t exist. As soon as a visual medium became available to do the same, of course it was going to leap at the chance to bring alive the literature of the imagination. For better or worse. For those of us who love books and movies, nothing can quite match the fierce anticipation and existential dread of heading into the theater to see an adaptation of a beloved novel. Secretly, we want that movie that’s been playing in our heads to be externalized. We want these films to be telepathic. It’s a tall order to fill. We are so eager to see these images with our eyes rather than our minds; seeing is believing.
There are many truisms: The book is always better. (Not true. I’m looking at you, The Martian.) Read the book first. See the movie first. Some stories are just unfilmable (Arrival and A Scanner Darkly beg to differ). Should a movie stick as close to the source material as possible? (The Harry Potter films have been criticized for doing this very thing.) What about movies that use the book as the tiniest launching point for something completely different? (Blade Runner, which has the strange distinction of being based on one SF novel while borrowing a title from a completely different SF novel—the film has little to nothing to do with either of them, and yet is still a classic.)
There’s no formula. For every truism, there’s an example that disproves it. Which means that maybe there’s no sure-fire way to make a movie adaptation that makes everyone happy and adequately represents the book.
What are the strategies filmmakers use in adapting the source material? Are they creative choices or commercial? Do they assume an audience who is familiar with the source material, or one who is not? Can a thing succeed as a movie, but not as an adaption, or vice versa? Each of these answers will change what the end product looks like.
Annihilation and A Wrinkle in Time, released within two weeks of each other, are both such interesting cases for adaptation. Both books are so filled with sense-of-wonder, with really far-out imagery and otherworldliness. Both have a level of intellectual and symbolic meaning that instinct tells us makes these stories particularly difficult to translate to a visual medium. In both cases, the films seem to have erred on the side of simplification in building meaning into such visual spectacles. But how do I really judge? It’s not just that I’m watching the movies and thinking there must be more to this. I know there’s more to this because I’ve read the books.
Directed by Alex Garland
Produced by DNA Films, Paramount Pictures, and Scott Rudin Productions
February 23, 2018
Annihilation, the Nebula-award winning novel by Jeff VanderMeer, is about a group of scientists sent to study the strange biological, geological, and morphological transformations taking place in a nearly indescribable region known as Area X. Their journey is unsettling. Their identities begin to disintegrate, very much like the landscape around them. These are nameless characters who can’t help but become subject to what they study. At the heart of it all is the mystery: Why is any of this happening?
All of this is in the movie. So is a lot of other stuff.
The novel is concerned with ambiguity and uncertainty, of not being sure what we’re looking at, with descriptions of impossible things and images that aren’t really meant to be imagined at all. A film, by necessity, has to make all this concrete. It has to show us the lighthouse and what’s inside. We have to see the creeping molds and liminal creatures inhabiting this liminal landscape. How would a movie handle the novel’s ambiguity? Its surreality, its emphasis on atmosphere rather than plot?
The answer is, it imposes the structure and tropes of a conventional “then there were none” alien horror movie on the story. It’s definitely aliens—the first scene presents us with a meteor crashing into the lighthouse to make sure we know that whatever is happening came from outer space. (The novel suggests that this is a homegrown incursion, that the landscape itself is rebelling against the damage done to it by human civilization.) That’s a legitimate creative choice. But it makes the movie less an adaptation, and more its own thing, and that’s a mental hurdle those of us who read the book first have to cross.
A novel that successfully conveys ambiguity and boundlessness—is so purposefully rootless—becomes concrete and well-defined in the film. The nameless characters, labeled only by their professions, all have names now. The horrors a reader wasn’t meant to quite visualize are clearly seen in full daylight. The film not only answers questions the book doesn’t (it’s aliens!), it answers questions the book doesn’t even raise. In the film, we learn that the Biologist, Lena, was having an affair, and that drove her husband to take on the potential suicide mission of entering the Shimmer. Her guilt over this is a big part of what drives her. Of all things, the film reminded me of the Neil Marshall horror classic The Descent, which also has a group of women with a backstory of infidelity in a terrible situation, and each of them dies until the Final Girl somehow escapes. Or does she?! Annihilation has jump scares and body horror and convenient videotape evidence left by previous victims. After the first brutal death, Lena even declares, “She could still be alive,” a line that always precedes really bad decision-making.
This is one of those times where I think my experience of watching the film would have been much different if I hadn’t read the book first. I think this may be a prime example of the transformation (haha) some stories must necessarily go through in the transition from non-visual to visual medium. Could a film that captured the novel’s ambiguity ever have been made? Or is it better to present film audiences with a more familiar structure? I’m not sure.
A Wrinkle in Time
Directed by Ava DuVernay
Produced by Walt Disney Pictures and Whitaker Entertainment
March 9, 2018
Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time isn’t just a beloved book, it’s one of those rare classics that changes lives and forms a touchstone for an entire genre, a whole readership. For a lot of women, it’s the book that told them they could do more, be more, have adventures, be scientists, and a million other things that no other book of the time was telling them. It’s the book that introduced a lot of readers to science fiction. It’s the story of thirteen-year-old Meg Murray and her family, her father who has disappeared while studying the secrets of the universe, the three strange women who come to launch her, her brother Charles Wallace, and her friend Calvin on the journey that will rescue Mr. Murray. They will also encounter a darkness, evil embodied, which is engulfing entire worlds.
Again, this very rough paragraph is an accurate summary of both the novel and the movie. And yet.
My own first encounter with the novel was in the second grade, when our teacher read it aloud to us. I was too young for it, I think, and as a visual learner the out-loud reading didn’t quite sink in. I didn’t imprint on it like a baby duck, like so many others, including my mother, did.
But I never, ever, ever forgot that scene of the cookie-cutter neighborhood, with all the children bouncing their balls in unison. When the first trailer for the film highlighted that scene, in all its ’50s pastiche creeptastic glory, it gave me hope that the movie would deliver. Everyone else who’d read the book had nightmares about that scene too, and the trailer said, Yeah, we get you, this film’s for you.
But the movie gets that scene wrong, I think. The horror of the moment isn’t just the dozens of children bouncing balls in perfect unison. It’s when one of the children drops their ball and our heroes learn that the crushing conformity of Camazotz is part of its evil. That dropped ball doesn’t happen in the film. In fact, the scene is disconnected from anything that comes before or after it. Meg and Calvin escape a sudden Dark-powered tornado before. They end up on a crowded beach after, and they walk from one scene to the next for no better reason than it’s the only way open to them. This is pretty much the whole movie, by the way. Scenes happening in isolation, without context, with an occasional bit of exposition from a Mrs. to explain things and shove the characters into the next disconnected scene.
The deeper lesson of Camazotz is that the darkness isn’t just evil. The darkness is also conformity, mundanity, and fear. It teaches Meg, who has been having so much trouble with being different and fitting in, that her uniqueness and creativity are going to save the day.
In the movie, it’s like the scene is there because the filmmakers knew it had to be there, because that’s a moment from the book everyone remembers. But then the film relies on people’s memories of the book to fill in the emotional gaps. To add a scene simply because it’s in the book, without supporting it with any thematic framework, is not what film adaptations are meant to be about, I don’t think. In the best adaptations, it shouldn’t matter if someone’s read the book or not. It should be a good movie all on its own. That’s the point.
Like Annihilation, this isn’t an adaptation that will necessarily make fans of the source novel happy. With Annihilation, I could understand the creative decisions made on the film, I could see what it was trying to do in adopting a structure that gives the source material a more concrete form. A Wrinkle in Time takes a straightforward message—love and light will conquer the darkness if we are true to ourselves—and somehow makes it even simpler and less nuanced. The end result isn’t necessarily a bad film. But it’s very much a kids’ film, aimed at kids. I feel like this film is going to change some ten-year-old’s life. And that when that kid is thirty and goes back to watch it, they’ll be disappointed.
Meanwhile, everyone I know is re-reading both novels, and a whole bunch of people are reading them for the first time and loving them. And that’s the real reason I hope Hollywood keeps making big movies based on SF&F novels forever and ever, amen.
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