Last week I whizzed through reading James VanderMeer’s sci-fi novel Annihilation, in preparation for its film adaptation by Alex Garland. I finished the book on Friday — it was only a six-hour audiobook, although it’s part of a longer series — and I saw the movie over the weekend. And it was weird, in a good way.
I’d like to compare the book to the movie here, but just through my own opinions of what I liked and didn’t about each medium. Because they are very different, it’s hard to truly compare them. (Story discussion to follow, but I won’t spoil the ending!)
The main elements the book and film are share are a female protagonist, who is going to explore a mysterious, expanding area of land called Area X, which people come back from changed — if they come back at all. It seems like the area messes with people’s minds, causing them to commit suicide. Or it makes people disappear, and then show up back at home, with amnesia, as if nothing out of the ordinary happened. The government keeps sending in expeditions to find out what’s going on, but if they have figured out anything so far, it’s all under wraps.
The protagonist is a woman who becomes a member of the new crew investigating Area X. Playing by Natalie Portman in the movie, she goes by Lena there. But in the book, she is known simply as “the Biologist,” and the book is supposed to be her journal recording her experiences in Area X. In both versions of the story, she’s going in to Area X because her husband was on the last expedition, and he came back… different. Maybe distant, maybe sick, but definitely not the man she remembers.
Overall, I enjoyed the intimacy of the novel more than the movie. In her journal, the Biologist frequently sheds light on her past — her childhood as a loner who loved biology, her marriage in which she loves her husband but doesn’t “need” him. I loved her. It’s been awhile since I related to a character quite like that. I think it was her need for solitude, her passion for facts, and her ability to relate to places more than people that I related to most. I guess I’m a loner myself, an introvert in a world that sometimes feels stuffed to the seams with extroverts, so it was a refreshing change to get into the mind of someone who felt like an outsider and made no apologies for it.
Because she is the novel’s narrator, you get to know her on a more personal level than you do in the movie. When, toward the end of the book, she confesses in her journal that she has been keeping a few facts from you, it’s a surprise but also totally in character — she doesn’t like to give away too much about herself to anyone, so why would she to you?
But as much as I like Natalie Portman, I didn’t relate to her character or even care for her much in the movie. She came across as too distant, which is maybe how the Biologist was in the book without the intimacy of her narration. I don’t know. The biggest problem for me was the backstory added to the film, in which Lena has an affair with a coworker. I believe that was added because the movie tries to make the point that anyone investigating Area X must have somehow messed up or detached from their real life — otherwise, why explore such a dangerous place, which they may never come back from? The film also hints that Lena’s husband may have signed up for his mission there because he knew about the affair, so Lena feels guilty about that. It was interesting, but compared to the novel’s character, I found the protagonist of the film less likable and harder for me to relate to. Which was a shame, since I loved the Biologist so much in the book.
The Surveyor vs. Anya
The character who really steals the show in the movie is Anya, played by one of my favorite actresses Gina Rodriguez. I believe she’s supposed to be the equivalent of the book’s Surveyor, who explores Area X with the Biologist and is frequently at odds with her.
In the movie, she is much more intriguing as she refuses to believe any of Area X’s anomalies. When the crew discovers a video of the last mission, in which they cut one of the crew members open to show that his intestines are moving like a worm, Anya thinks the movement is just a trick of the light and believes the last crew just went crazy.
This refusal to accept Area X’s defiance of natural law causes her to go crazy. When she learns that Lena’s husband was in the last expedition — something Lena didn’t admit to them before — she believes Lena is lying to them about everything, and that the psychologist with them is in on it too. Her last scene in the movie is a dark surprise, but I won’t give away any major spoilers!
Hypnosis vs. Action
Another huge omission from the film is the use of hypnosis. In the book, the psychologist has to hypnotize the crew to get them across the border into Area X. But when the Biologist accidentally ingests some spores from a living wall in Area X, she becomes immune to hypnosis and is shocked to find that the psychologist hypnotizes the rest of the crew all the time, without their knowing. A simple change of inflection, and the psychologist can get the rest of the crew to agree with her arguments about what they should do next or where they should go. It adds a layer of suspense to the book.
The movie leaves out the hypnosis but adds more action, especially in the form of mutated animals who attack the crew members. While I missed the hypnosis, I think the addition of these more visual scenes — a huge alligator emerging from a swamp, and a bear distorted in ways that don’t seem possible — was a smart way to retain that feeling of suspense. Those types of action scenes work much better in a movie, and the bizarre aspects of this world stood out well in a visual format, whereas in a book, some of the action might have actually lost its impact when merely described.
Leaving with More Questions
When I read to the end of the book, I felt as confused as I had when I started it. Apparently you need to read the entire series to feel like you understand Area X — but even then, I’m not sure how much you really know about it. So reading just the first novel left me at a loss, until I went into the movie.
As a film, Annihilation builds to an incredible finale that was one of the freakiest things I’ve ever seen. It was not the conclusion I was expecting, but it took hints from the book — such as the fact that some of the last crew saw other versions of themselves walking around — and made it a dazzling trip onscreen. The movie also has a satisfying conclusion that still leaves a whiff of mystery in its final breaths. I’ve heard some say they didn’t care for the ending, but I loved it, and I especially appreciated the resolution that the first book really lacked.
If you’re interested in Annihilation, I recommend the movie. It’s definitely weird, and I found it scarier than the book. Don’t expect jump scares so much as disturbing ideas and visuals that made me feel like I was going to have nightmares afterwards — but it’s because the movie was just that good.
While I enjoyed the book more in a lot of ways, I think it’s much more of a niche choice than the film. It’s short and strange, and if you like your sci-fi to more mysterious than truly satisfying, this book will get you thinking. Because I did take to it really well, I’m now reading another of VanderMeer’s books, Borne, which is proving to be just as far out there in totally different ways. It’s refreshing, but I’m guessing it’s not for everyone.
If anybody else saw or read Annihilation, I’d love to hear what you thought of it in the comments!