By: Nick Coffman
Jeff VanderMeer‘s novel Annihilation caught on the adapted screenplay train rather quickly. Just four years after being released to sci-fi lovers in hardback, the story is being shown on the silver screen, with Natalie Portman on board. The book is the first in the Southern Reach trilogy and tells the story of four women who set off to explore Area X, a remote area filled with mystery. As members of the twelfth expedition, Lena (Portman) and the others try to determine what has caused Area X to appear. Searching for answers, they are instead stricken with paranoia of what may lurk beyond each corner.
It’s only natural that movies and the books that they’re the based off will be compared to one another. Therefore, it’s time to go toe to toe with Annihilation: book versus movie.
Round 1: Setting
In both book and movie, Lena enters Area X as part of the twelfth expedition. She does so upon her husband, Kane, returning from the mysterious coast.
VanderMeer’s novel puts us right into Area X. Lena and the other expedition members are sent in by Second Reach and are tasked with exploring the surrounding area and recording their findings. They awake beyond the border with no recollection of their trip. Soon, they stumble upon a tower, not mapped out by previous expeditions. With flesh-like walls and odd writings scribbled on those walls, the tower gives readers a sense of dread and wonder.
Alex Garland‘s screenplay does away with the tower, in exchange for more time outside of Area X in the beginning. The dread is still there, thanks in part to a vocal bear. A lighthouse, while also present in the book, takes the place of the tower. This is where Lena discovers what has happened to Kane, as well as what has caused Area X to appear.
Winner: Movie. At first I thought removing the tower took away too much from the story. The tower and what is in it drives Lena’s curiosity and ultimately changes her. Garland simply took this revelation and moved it to the lighthouse for the last 20 minutes of the film. Instead of focusing on the mystery of the tower, Garland shined the spotlight on the dangers of Area X. He did this through the wildlife, which tormented Lena and the others. VanderMeer, meanwhile, focused on the paranoia and distrust between the women (leaving the wildlife in the background).
While I did feel dreadful as Lena marched through the tower in the novel, I was just more interested in the world set up by the film. The wildlife in the film provided a present danger, which fascinated me, and drove me to find answers to what was going on.
Round 2: Characters
VanderMeer decided all members of the twelfth expedition would remain nameless with each being referred to by their career or field of expertise. There isn’t much to the four-woman squad. We learn about them through Lena’s field entries, and they all meet their demise quickly.
Garland rips away the job titles and gives the twelfth expedition some heart. Ventress, Cass, Josie, and Anya all enter Area X as damaged women: They’re plagued by loss or conquered by addiction and depression, or they’re awaiting their end by the hand of disease. Each has their reason for accepting this suicide mission. Damaged goods go in, but they don’t come out.
Winner: Movie. What’s in a name? Not a lot, but the weight of each character’s past really makes you feel for them as they enter a doomed scenario. Viewers also get a little more time with Kane, through flashbacks and found footage, giving us a better picture into his decision to enter Area X.
Round 3: Themes
Lena’s relationship with Kane plays center stage in both the book and the movie. Each is a failing marriage but for different reasons.
Book Lena is engulfed in her work. She prefers the company of the wildlife she is studying over the company of other people. This is obvious from her lack of interest toward the other women in the expedition. She prefers solitude over the companionship of marriage. In Lena’s eyes, her marriage and her husband have invaded her way of life.
While we’re on the topic of invasion, Area X isn’t the worst culprit of it in the book. That honor belongs to the psychologist (the Ventress character) and the reader. Throughout the expedition, Ventress demonstrates control over the other women. With various phrases, she can command just about anything from the others (just saying “annihilation” has some horrifying results). The reader, on the other hand, while not invading the mind, invades the private thoughts of Lena through her field entries.
On the silver screen, this solitude and hypnosis are nowhere to be found. Instead, Garland chooses to focus on the self-destructive nature of people. Just by entering Area X, each character displays a willingness to die. The women of the twelfth expedition are all aware that the others have not returned, yet they all enter willingly.
Lena’s infidelity destroys her marriage in the movie. Kane, distraught and betrayed, accepts the mission to enter Area X. To him, his marriage is dead, and he doesn’t see a future in which he can forgive Lena. He knew the mission to Area X was a one-way ticket, so he took it. Later, when the alien of the lighthouse creates a copy of Kane, he finds a solution. This copy is like him in every way minus the pain of the past. Kane finds a fresh start for his marriage. He takes his own life and has the copy carry on in his place. When Lena discovers the videotaped confession from her husband, she realizes he has given her a second chance, even if it isn’t with him.
Winner: Tie. This is where the book and movie really go their separate ways. Both cover different themes so well that they really stick with you for some time.
Overall Winner: Movie. This is the most split I have ever been between a book and its film adaptation. Both stories were portrayed exquisitely, and the dread throughout each keeps you on edge. However, Garland has more success in creating a beautiful world. He leaves you wanting to see more of what Area X has to offer, while at the same time dreading what may come.
Nick Coffman is an academic coordinator at Northern Illinois University. He played football for Southeast Missouri State University and has written for Man of the Hour. He currently lives in Chicago with his wife and high school sweetheart, Layne.