It is Different All Right – Thoughts on Annihilation On Screen and In Print.
This review discusses pilot points of both the book and movie Annihilation.
Despite having completed the book Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer three days prior, I still spent most of the movie Annihilation, written and directed by Alex Garland, completely surprised by what was happening. This is a compliment to Garland and his team, featuring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny and Oscar Isaac. But, upon further reflection, I should have not been surprised as the book and the movie had entirely different goals based on the differences between what they were trying to say.
They may have had different goals, but they have similar plots, or at least similar spoiler-free summaries. A biologist joins a team of women to explore Area X (In the movie, Area X is called “The Shimmer” which does not appear in the book. I am going to call this space Area X) after her husband returns a changed and sick man while exploring the same space. Area X is a strange environment which resulted after something crashed into a coastal area, seemingly killing the few people who were living there before the impact.
With that summary, calling both the book and the movie slow-burning, intellectual thrillers probably seems redundant. There are a lot of questions from even just that summary. What is Area X? How do people change in it? How does nature change in it? Why do things and people change? What crashed into the coastal area? Does it want something? If so, what? If not, why not? Can Area X be changed back?
Some of these questions the movie tackles in its two-hour running time. The book, which is the first 128 pages of a 593-page trilogy, spends more time setting up the questions than answering any of them.
Before I discuss some of these differences, I do want to make it clear Garland has said multiple times and in multiple places that he wrote the screenplay before the second two novels in the trilogy were complete. I am glad he did not wait as Garland’s take on Area X and especially the team of damaged people who we follow into Area X made for an exhilarating story. But for the purposes of this discussion, I am going to just limit the comparison to the single novel Annihilation rather than the entire Area X trilogy.
The team in the book was a group of four: a surveyor, a psychologist, an anthropologist, and a biologist. Their names nor their backstories are not presented in the novel. Although written in first person from the biologist’s point of view, the reader is not even given a lot of her history or backstory. It is a challenge to connect to any of them and so when most of them die (in ways usually presented off the page), it is difficult to get too emotionally invested. In fact, that the biologist is not more emotionally impacted is part of the mystery of Area X.
There is more emotional impact in the movie. While the biologist (Portman) and psychology (Jason Lee) do make it to the big screen, but they are joined by a paramedic (Rodriguez), a magentologist (Novotny), and a physicist (Thompson). They all have names (side note on names – Jason Lee’s character was named Ventress. I am too much of a Star Wars fan to not be a bit amused by having Portman running around screaming “Ventress” at one point in the film. Although having them named was really a good thing.) and, in a very well-written scene set around a picnic table, they are given personalities. Their backstories are fleshed out during the film in little ways so that when they meet their fates, it is more shocking and more devastating. For example, when Anya the paramedic dies fighting a monster, it is merely moments after she threatened to kill the rest of the team. She goes from being a threat to a savior in a matter of minutes and while I would have liked to spend more time with the character, I was glad to see her descent into madness end.
The team in the movie discussed the nature of their mission more and that people who join an exhibition that no one has returned from are probably, to some extent, hoping to not make it back themselves. It is subtly done in the film.
Also subtly done is how the transformation changes them. At one point, the biologist gets the paramedic’s tattoo. The biologist never mentions it, but the camera lingers on it long enough that we are supposed to see it. The book does discuss how the team members impact one another, but it is how the team members manipulate one another, which sums up the different themes the movie and the book are exploring.
The tunnel/tower – or lack thereof
Done in the book but not in the movie is the action in an underground structure the biologist calls a tower. It is the site of living words, also not in the movie, and the appearance of the lighthouse guardian, also not in the movie. Did I miss the tower? No. Because I got the crocodile, the women rowing down the river and the scene in the mess hall instead. However it was a pivotal point in the book. I think it is because of the living words, which in the movie may have required a clear explanation:
Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that gather in the darkness and surround the world with the power of their lives while from the dim lit halls of other places forms that never were and never could be writhe for the impatience of the few who never saw what could have been.”
And good luck on what that rambling is supposed to mean.
Also, something with an unclear meaning, the ending of the book and the movie are very different.
At the end of the book, the biologist is alone and in Area X. She is going to stay and explore the coast. It is clear cut and simple. But we have learned very little about what Area X is or what caused it.
At the end of the movie, the biologist arrives at the lighthouse and finds a video of her husband (Oscar Isaac) committing suicide while talking to a duplicate. Obviously, the being who emerged from Area X might look like her husband but is not. She then meets a being which seems to be a combination of the psychologist and an energy ball. She tries to kill it, using a grenade her husband left behind. She seems to be successful, or at least the border of Area X comes down. However, whatever it is that looks like her husband regains consciousness. The biologist asks if it is her husband and he replies he does not think so. He asks if the biologist is actually the biologist. She doesn’t respond, but they embrace and both their eyes glow. So, who, or what, are they?
Concluding thoughts on Annihilation
It may be the question at the ending or watching Garland’s vision of Area X rather than relying on my paltry imagination, but the movie has stayed with me long after the book did. After Annihilation ended, I left the theater jumpy and disquieted, trusting neither people nor nature. It took a couple of hours for me to return to normal. I read the book and while I moved onto the next book in the trilogy, it did not impact me in the same way. However, VanderMeer’s vision of Area X is worth looking into. However, VanderMeer’ story is much more about people and how we communicate (or fail to) with ourselves and interact with nature. Garland’s story is more about who we are and how we impact and change one other.
Beth Keithly is a graduate from The University of Missouri’s School of Journalism and works on grant development at a North Texas university. She is a fan of most science fiction and fantasy, especially Star Wars, Star Trek, Supernatural, DC comics and the Arrowverse, and the Marvel movieverse. When she is not teaching her children about her fandoms and the importance of a quality pen, she is reading, running or discussing fictional universes and their impacts on reality with her husband. She is @beth_keithly on Twitter.