More than once in the past week, my roommate has asked me what I was going to be doing this past weekend, and I said I was going to see Annihilation, and each time he asked “What’s that?”, to which I replied “The adaptation of the book that your sister gave me for Christmas in 2016.” Which she did! And I loved it! So much so that I couldn’t stop talking about it, and another friend got me the follow up novel Authority for my birthday a few months later, and I bought my own copy of Acceptance almost immediately after and finished that too. I was so excited when I heard that Alex Garland of Ex Machina fame would be directing the film of the book, and that the person I cast in my head as the biologist, Natalie Portman, would be playing the lead. Of course, there are valid concerns about the whitewashing of her character given that she’s part Asian (no specific nation of origin is given), but it’s also a piece of information that the reader doesn’t get until the second book, which had not been published at the time that Garland read Annihilation and started working on his script. If you’re curious, I imagined Angela Bassett as the psychologist, Michelle Rodriguez as the surveyor (a character who’s aggression and distrust was put on the paramedic character in the film but had a role on the team that was more like Novotny’s character’s) and Battlestar Galactica‘s Grace Park as the anthropologist (a character that is, for all intents and purposes, absent from the film). Those absences, changes, and additions should give you some indication of how far this film strays from Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, but does that matter?
What makes a good adaptation? Is it a strict, lockstep adherence to the source material, ignoring the differences between the languages of film and prose? Can an adaptation’s value be measured as a quantifiable variable of pragmatism in the choices of what to include and exclude when translating to the screen? Is it the ability of the film to evoke the same emotional resonance or invoke the same themes as the original text, even if it has to take a different route to bring the viewer to the same place as the reader? Films that try to maintain a one-to-one textual match often don’t work; for all its other faults, David Lynch’s Dune adaptation, for instance, attempted to translate the internal monologues of multiple characters to film, which creates a muddled mess in the movie despite this being a common element of prose fiction. With regards to pragmatism, something like Watchmen (at least the director’s cut, although I know not everyone agrees) makes good choices with what it chooses to include while excising some subplots from the text that would interfere with the pacing of the film (like the extended pirate comic storyline) and updating other plot elements to remove the need for plot lines that can be easily removed without changing the overall tone (such as changing the psychic squid monster in the finale to something more grounded and closely related to the characters). And with regards to adaptations that are more loose but occupy the same rhetorical space, something like Wolfgang Petersen’s The NeverEnding Story would be a strong example, at least for me personally. I read the book no fewer than 30 times in my childhood and a dozen more since then, and I’ve seen the film innumerable times. Author Michael Ende hated the film version; it essentially adapts only the first half of the book, removes one of the challenges that Atreyu must face in order to get to the Southern Oracle, reuses the first “gate” as the Southern Oracle itself, and makes other changes. But they are both ultimately perfect fantasy stories for little bullied bookworms, creating a place for them to expand the horizons of their imaginations, regardless of the differences between the two texts.
Let’s get this out of the way as quickly as possible: if you’re looking for a close adaptation of the novel, you’re not going to find that here. This is A+ science fiction that also happens to be a D+ translation of the source material, if your qualifications for a good adaptation revolve solely around how closely the film version adheres to the novel. Garland has admitted that he thumbed through the novel and took only the most noteworthy elements and concepts—a government-backed all-woman expedition makes its way beyond an incomprehensible barrier into Area X, a place of strange mutations of both flora and fauna stemming back to an unknown catastrophic event—and made a standalone film without the intention of revisitation in future films. In a way, this is noteworthy in that it acts as the antithesis of current studio mandates, which prioritize franchise building over creating complete and whole narratives within a single film, even going so far as to split individual books (like The Deathly Hallows and Mockingjay) into multiple films. It’s for the viewer to decide if this is to the detriment of the film and its source material or not, but those of you hoping for an adaptation of the entire Southern Reach trilogy should manage your expectations now. And hey—that’s okay. The narrative conceit in the novel that all of the characters are nameless and identified only by their occupations, which works so well on the page both as a method for giving the reader the space to imagine each character in the way they see fit and as part of a larger theme about the absence not only of knowledge but perhaps even the possibility of comprehension, simply wouldn’t work on film. That’s not a fault of the film so much as a fact that must be accepted about the difference between different forms of media, and as such I can’t detract from the film because of it.
In the interest of full disclosure (and as a point of solidarity with my fellow book readers), I’ll attempt to describe the biggest changes. Spoilers for the film and the book series through the end of this paragraph. In addition to surface changes, like making the biologist (herein named Lena) ex-military and her husband (who is given the name Kaine) an active duty sergeant while removing this characteristic from the surveyor or increasing the number of explorers (there is a fifth member of the expedition in the novel, but she chickens out before they breach the barrier’s perimeter and never makes it into Area X), there are some pretty major changes. The nature of Area X is made much more explicit; throughout the trilogy, there is much discussion about whether or not Area X is mystical, extradimensional, or extraterrestrial in origin, and Acceptance strongly implies that the catalyst was at least somewhat supernatural in nature, given the role played by the two members of the Seance and Science Brigade and their experiments in the lighthouse. Again, the need for a more explicit explanation for the events is a consequence of the nature of film language, and isn’t a de facto negative. When a filmmaker sets out to make a single narrative out of the first book in a series with no intention to adapt the sequels, this is the more sensible tack, even if it runs the risk of alienating readers. But it is quite a shock to see the lighthouse consumed in flame at the end of the film if you’ve read Authority or Acceptance, in which the lighthouse and the revelations therein are pretty vital to understanding the overall mystery (insofar as it can be understood). By its very nature, this removes the significance of the fact that the psychologist grew up around the lighthouse and knew the keeper (who was mutated/duplicated into the Crawler, an important figure in the Annihilation novel) as a child, as well as her personal connection to Area X. The Crawler and its writing, which could rightly be called the most important part of the novel, is completely excised, removing the religiosity of the novel through the erasure of his sermon-like screeds. The fact that the biologist’s husband (‘s duplicate) lives through the end of the narrative, and that Area X is “defeated” instead of continuing to expand (so much so that the point of view characters in Acceptance end the novel attempting to find their way back out without knowing if there even is an “out” anymore, or if Area X has consumed the whole world) are also major changes. These omissions will likely be the most contentious issues with the film for readers of the books, but this still works for me as a “broad strokes” approach. Also gone are the hypnotic suggestion elements from the novel (in which all the expedition members submitted to psychological preparation for their journey, including post-hypnotic triggers to ensure that they make it through the barrier without being driven to madness, but which also makes the presence of the psychologist more sinister, as she exercises other psychic controls over the expedition, to which the biologist’s mutations make her immune). For me, the strangest change was making the biologist more likable and personable, but this is again a concession for the medium, as the original character and her motivations would be harder to communicate in a visual form.
But enough digital ink spent on those who are already familiar with the source material. Annihilation tells the story of Lena (Portman), an ex-military biologist now working for Johns Hopkins, whose active military husband Kaine (Oscar Isaac) disappeared one year prior on a classified mission. When he suddenly reappears one afternoon with no explanation of his whereabouts or even how he made his way home, their reunion is cut short when his organs fail. En route to the hospital, both Lena and her husband are taken by black ops military personnel; she wakes up in the headquarters of the Southern Reach, a clandestine government organization set up to investigate the nature of Area X, a location bounded by a shimmering barrier that is expanding and consuming more of the surrounding climes bit by bit, and within which bizarre mutations occur at an accelerated pace and from which no survivor other than Kaine has ever returned (at least according to the Reach itself; the post-expedition lives of survivors and “survivors” is an integral part of the later novels). The next expedition is set to breach the boundary soon, led by psychologist Gloria Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and staffed by physicist Josie Radik (Tessa Thompson), paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), and geologist Cass Shepherd (Tuva Novotny). Lena joins the expedition in order to find out the truth about what happened to her husband. Inside Area X, all five women are confronted by threats that are existential to them as individuals and members of a species that will not survive if Area X continues to expand.
The book’s unnamed protagonist, identified only as “the biologist,” has different motivations in the novel. Herein we learn that she cheated on her husband and she sets out to make things right by investigating the nature of Area X, but in the novel she is a withdrawn scientist whose oddities make it impossible for her to maintain employment that requires frequent interaction with other people; her fascination with Area X is piqued by her husband’s bizarre return and the apparent changes to his personality (which unfold over several months before he dies, as do all the other members of his expedition, all of which occur before the events of the novel), but which grow because of her fixation on ecosystems in miniature. This change makes her more relatable (with allowance for your mileage to vary) but also less interesting; her motivations are, for lack of a better term, pretty basic.
Since seeing the movie, I’ve had discussions with a few friends who also read the books and saw the movie. One agrees with me, that the film is less interesting than the books on a couple of levels, but allowances made for the language of film mean that it would have to be different, and the differences work for him as they do for me; another friend is annoyed that what he considers to be more “weird fiction” has been reduced to a pretty standard sci-fi story. I think that this is where the difference lies for me: although I wouldn’t call this movie “brave” like many reviewers have, especially given the above-mentioned reduction-to-baseness of both themes and character motivations, I would also never call it “standard” anything, despite the simplifications and changes to the plot. I’m not put out that we’re given an explanation of what Area X is or how life is changed within it, despite the fact that I’m usually annoyed or upset when existential Lovecraftian horror is reduced to something so banal that it is essentially devoid of everything that made it distinct (ahem). I guess why Annihilation still works for me while other works were diminished by being brought closer to earth is that this allows for greater characterization and a different kind of emotional investment.
I mentioned before that the lack of identifying names or characteristics in the source material thematically mirrored Area X itself: Area X and its interior are described in detail, but we’re never told anything about what the women in the expedition look like. Above and beyond the lack of names being enforced by the agency coordinating the breaches into the “shimmer,” this also puts us more firmly in the mind of the biologist, as she is completely disinterested in her compatriots and is invested only in the science of the region. As a reader, the currency of your imagination is to be spent on giving life to Area X and its beautifully deadly terrain and inhabitants, and using any iota of that brainspace on the members of Expedition 12 is wasted; in this way, the reader becomes the biologist, with a professional detachment that grows more clinical and distant as the plot unfolds (or unravels). Again, that’s something that simply wouldn’t work on screen, and by giving the biologist and her fellow explorers more depth (this one’s a recovering alcoholic, that one lost her daughter to leukemia, this one’s a cutter, that one’s dying of cancer), Garland changes the theme from that of emotional distance and disconnection, and perhaps the innateness to humanity of that feeling, into a focus on the (perhaps innate) tendency toward self destruction. That compulsion may, and sometimes does, overtake us while in the guise of something more clinically defined, but rebirth requires the complete destruction, the or rather the annihilation, of the self that existed before, down to the cellular level. It’s a change, but one that works to create a great piece of media in spite of its distance from VanderMeer’s novel(s).