For longer than I’ve called myself a writer, I’ve been overly preoccupied with the question “Which is better, the book or the movie?” For many years I thought books were always superior. This is largely because I’m a control freak, and books are movies I direct in my head. It’s jarring to see a story you’ve lovingly rendered in your mind subjected to the vision of someone else. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because the film Annihilation was released last month, and it is arguably superior to the novel of the same name.
Annihilation succeeds by only using the book as a starting point on its way to becoming an entirely unique thing. Sort of like when you hear a cover of a favorite song, and you realize the cover is much better than the original. Part of me always knew that the question of “which is better” doesn’t matter, and I’m now certain that is true when the adaptation is done effectively.
Annihilation is a novel by Jeff VanderMeer, the first book in an excellent science-fiction trilogy. My interest in the film stemmed from my love for these books, but also as someone who wants to write bestselling books and see them adapted into excellent movies. What is so interesting about the Annihilation adaptation is that it honors the spirit and ideas of the books while telling a very different, equally compelling story. To achieve one of these in a film adaptation is rare enough, but Annihilation’s success at reaching both is remarkable.
Part of this film’s success as an adaptation might stem from the fact writer/director Alex Garland began working on it shortly after the trilogy’s first book was published. Apparently, he started writing the screenplay without realizing two later books were slated for publication. While the differences between the book and film are pretty radical, they always work in the film’s favor. Somehow, no matter how far the film diverged from the novel, it always felt part of the world those books had allowed me to inhabit. At the same time, it doesn’t make sense to compare Annihilation to its source material, because they are so different. This is a confusing contradiction, but it’s so exciting to see a book’s limits utterly surpassed in such a satisfying way. The movie accomplishes several things the book simply can’t, and remains self-contained. I’d be amazed if Garland decided to adapt the other two books in the trilogy.
So which should you choose, book or movie? Frankly, both. I don’t even think it matters whether you watch the movie before the book, which is something I never thought I’d say. However, while the book is scary and unnerving in a more cerebral sense, the movie is downright horrifying. It reminded me a lot of Alien, which is perhaps the best sci-fi horror film ever made. If that’s not your thing, I’d still recommend the book.
Questions of book vs. movie have been on my mind since I’m about halfway through editing The Mechanic. I’ve of course thought of who I’d want to direct the film adaptation (Jordan Peele), and had a few ideas for who will play the lead (Zoë Kravitz or Letitia Wright). Whether or not any of that comes to pass is beside the point, but it’s fun to think about.
Until next month,