Saturday, February 12, 2011

Tales of the macabre!

It meanders a bit (see: it's gigantic) but this post is about the writing and film adaptations of the work of Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist. TL:DR? Skip to the bottom.

In 2009 I became enamored with Joseph Dunn's webcomic (and review series) Joe Loves Crappy Movies. Comics and reviews, all in one convenient location! It also seemed that he and I had rather similar takes on films, so when he says something is worth checking out, I'll file the name of the film away in my mind and take a detour to View Town, should the opportunity arise.

You may recognize the writing and art style from Dunn's other strip, featured on Kotaku, Another Videogame Webcomic. Here's the JLCM strip that put me on the road to writing this post - it's the one which accompanies his review for Let The Right One In:

The film is absolutely wonderful. I would go so far as to call it the best movie I've seen in recent memory (still - a year and a half later), and the single best vampire movie I've ever seen. I was so thrilled with the original Swedish flick that I put together my first-ever movie post, and summed it up thusly:
"Let The Right One In is - to me - probably the most touching cinema love story since Leaving Las Vegas.

* * *

It's... uplifting and chilling. Focused and personal. Smart. Elegant. Beautiful.

See it."
I was so... amazed by how original, moving and thoughtful this story was, I naturally had to track down the English translation of the novel the film is based on. After reading it, I was tempted to put together a post, but it seemed there was more media to ingest before sounding off on the subject. Speficially, the translation of Lindqvist's second major book - Handling The Undead - was due for release shortly, and I wanted to wait until I saw the (ugh) North American film version of LTROI, called Let Me In.

Last night, finally, I watched Let Me In. I have now digested both of Lindqvist's major "horror" stories, and both of his first novel's film adaptations.

I am ready to sound off.

* * *

So, today, we are talking about four products. Let The Right One In (novel), Handling The Undead (novel), Let The Right One In (Swedish film) and Let Me In (American film).

It begins with the novel. 'Novel' is an appropriate word for the narrative of Let The Right One In - it's hailed by many as a stunningly original work. And yes, yes, "nothing is truly original."

Anne Rice took the idea of a child vampire and thought about how vulnerable such a creature would be, but explored little of the realistic strategies for its long-term survival in Interview. Lindqvist took that ball and ran with it - really thought about what a vampire trapped in the body of a child would need to do to survive, on its own, in the real world - and the product is Let The Right One In. The Little Vampire also probably fits in here, somewhere.

So yes, the basic conceit is derivative - but let us not forget that's simply how it's done. You really think William Shakespeare came up with Romeo & Juliet all by himself? Well, let me introduce you to Pyramus and Thisbe.

* * *

What's rather remarkable about Let The Right One In is that the book, in a few ways, isn't as good as the subsequent Swedish film (the screenplay to which was also written by Lindqvist).

Isn't that weird?

One of the film's greatest strengths is how controlled, subtle and thoughtful the storytelling is. A great deal is left to the imagination of the audience - a great deal is left unsaid and unexplored - with only the hazy periphery left in view.

Deductions and assumptions can be made - how Eli came to meet her aged protector, for example - and the common conclusion drawn from viewing the film is much more terrible and affecting than the book's thorough exploration of their relationship.

That is the weakness of the book - it leaves nothing to the imagination. Want to know what Eli really is? Read the book. Want to know how she got that way or what (her aged protector) Håkan did for a living? It's in the book - as well as a great deal of time spent with peripheral characters that don't result in much of a payoff.

The storytelling of the novel simply isn't as mature or wise as the film's. The book explains everything to the point that it rather stops being scary, and is much less emotionally involving.

Strange, no?

* * *

The 2008 film is just delicious in all ways. It is poignant, reserved, intelligent, unique and deeply, deeply moving. It doesn't rely on CGI, it doesn't attempt to shock you with savagery or gore.

It's about these two kids, and involving the audience in the needs and emotions of young Oskar - even as we grow to realize what he's gotten himself involved with.

So connected are we to Oskar's precarious psyche, the ending - which may be accurately viewed as a horrific tragedy of absolute proportions - can also (more commonly) come across as a thrilling vindication of hope, and romantic triumph.

It's nothing short of brilliant, and one of my favorite movies of all-time.

Then, they had to go and fuck it up by making an American version.

* * *'s the thing, though - the American version ain't bad. In fact, compared to any other modern American horror movie I can think of, it's frickin' amazing. If Let The Right One In is a five-star film (and it is), Let Me In is certainly four.

It doesn't accomplish this by being exactly the same as the Swedish original. It keeps a half-dozen of the central characters, swaps a few from the first movie out and brings one from the book in, and ends up feeling even more focused than the 2008 version. Still, it's the same story, and the climax has the same rock-your-socks impact.

Most impressive is that it found two stars that capably compete with their European counterparts. Chloë Moretz - who was the best part of Kick-Ass - is an emotional dynamo, here. Cold and caring in equal measure, Let Me In does a better job than the original of informing the audience - and her new friend - of the little vampire's monstrous nature.

Kodi Smit-McPhee, meanwhile, manages to be a touch more creepy than Let The Right One In's Kåre Hedebrant, and more emotionally accessible to the audience, while being just as strangely ethereal.

Of course, it does feel a bit imperfect, when held up against the original. The only time I couldn't quite buy Moretz's Abby was when she had to deliver dialogue that felt a bit too much like the screenwriter trying to spell things out for us - but such examples are few and far between. The biggest difference is how they cranked up the action by about fifty per cent, and relied a bit more heavily on special effects.

Never, in the 2008 film, did a special effect look like a special effect. The film was so completely grounded in reality, and the glimpse of a little girl scrambling up the side of a building seemed all the more freakish for its context.

In Let Me In, we get full, in-focus views of Abby scratching her way up a tree or kicking off the wall of a tunnel as she frantically subdues a victim twice her size. While Let Me In's Abby, at times, seems more feral and dangerous than Let The Right One In's Eli, suspension of disbelief is shattered at such moments - when it becomes abundantly clear that we're viewing a computer-generated special effect. Oh, and don't get me started on the voice modification crap.

Director Matt Reeves is clearly reverent of the Swedish film, but is evidently not so confident in his audience to "get" all the lovely little things the original quite consciously chose not to explicitly tell the viewer. Instead of alluding to a particularly disturbing idea, he flat-out explains it - making the same mistake as the novel, just not as egregiously. The most significant example is the relationship of the little vampire to her human protector.

In the book, the relationship is exhaustively explained - and the truth of how they met is much less interesting than how the audience thinks they met, upon viewing the original film.

In the American film, Reeves straight-up tells the audience that yes, they met precisely how you think they met in the first film.

He doesn't trust his viewers to fill in the blanks with the most powerful possibility - so he does it for them.

Still, I can't say I entirely disagree with Stephen King's assertion that Let Me In is "the best American horror film in the last 20 years," but I agree more with the Washington Examiner's declaration that the original Swedish film is the "best. Vampire movie. Ever."

* * *

Finally, we have the English translation of Lindqvist's 2005 novel Handling the Undead. This is his zombie book.

Like LTROI, the central idea is to take the fantastical, the supernatual, and place it in the context of reality. Having done that, the focus is not on the spectacle, but the human impact - attempting to dream up the emotions of people in such an insane situation, and make it resonate with the audience.

Handling the Undead is at once a more patient and - for the author - indulgent than LTROI. The dead begin to walk fairly early on, and then it takes until the book's climax for something really interesting to actually happen with it. Unfortunately, as in his first novel, the mechanics and intricacies of what's actually going on are so exhaustively detailed that the book almost entirely abandons its fear factor.

We're not worried about anything, because we know precisely what's going on. There is no unknown, here, to make us afraid. It's rather disappointing.

It also feels largely... self-absorbed. Lindqvist is attempting to create a parable, here, about death, about the experience of losing loved ones, and about acceptance - but by the end, it feels like a rather forced exercise in applying the same degree of sensitivity he so effortlessly commanded in Let The Right One In.

It's an interesting read - but a plodding one - and ends up being nowhere near as interesting or effectively thoughtful as his first work.

* * *

Having sifted through all this work - two novels, two films - what of it is worth your time, my friends? That's easy.

Go watch 2008's Let The Right One In - you may discover it's one of the best movies you've ever seen - just be mindful of which subtitles you're getting.

The first few runs of the North American DVD/BR version have really messed-up subtitles. If you walk into a video store and find it, and it has a big red 15 on the cover, that's the UK version - you're covered. If it's not the UK version, look at the subtitles at the back of the box and be sure it says "Subtitles: English (theatrical)", not just "Subtitles: English."

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