Wednesday 29 May 2013

Let the Right One In

John Ajvide Lindqvist, 2004 [Ebba Segerberg, 2007]
(May 2013)

Ah, Plot my old friend, how I’ve missed you. 

There’s apparently something of a trend back in the UK for ‘Scandinoir’ – grim and depressing crime dramas from the more northerly parts of Europe. Can’t say I’ve seen any of it, but it seems that knitwear plays quite a prominent role (of which more later).

What I do have here though is a chance to get a little bit fancier than my usual book posts, because I’ve had the movie version of this sitting on my hard-drive for what must be a couple of years now. I bought it before my last trip back to the UK with the intention of using my iphone to watch it on the flight. Then I realized that maybe spending two hours squinting at the subtitles might not be the best way to look after my eyes in the desiccation chamber of your modern airliner, and just loaded up Angry Birds instead.

However, my eldest son’s been sick recently. Obviously I feel terrible for him, but because he’s spent so much time sleeping it means I’ve finally been able to commit to watching something more than 30 minutes in length. Hurrah! So it means you get the joy of a compare/contrast session between the book and the movie. Three cheers for the common cold!

It’s fair to say that books are usually better than their movie adaptations. Usually but not always. Part of that is just inherent in the nature of the transition from one medium to the other – unless you’re adapting the shortest of short stories you’re simply not going to have the running time to leave everything in, and even the most skillfully executed surgeries are going to remove something that some reader somewhere considered important to the original.

Sometimes, however, that acts as a boon. Cut out the padding and deadwood, rebalance things a little and you leave yourself with a tighter, more focused, but still essentially different story. There’s also, of course, the small point of the reader bringing their own imagination to bear on the book in a way that’s simply impossible with a film. For the record, if asked to name movies that were better than the books I’d say Blade Runner, Apocalypse Now, a few of the Bonds, possibly Trainspotting, and definitely (gasp) Lord of the Rings. If that list seems short then that’s probably just a function of the how few times I’ve both read the book and seen the corresponding film. And to that list I’d now add Let the Right One In.

Not that the book is bad. It’s really pretty good, but that necessary filleting that took place when it was turned it into a movie has produced a much stronger piece of work. A lot of the work of the ‘extra’ plotlines in the novel is to fully locate the action, and locate it in a grim, depressing, suffocating satellite town of Stockholm in the early eighties. Not a pleasant place to be for any of the characters. The movie is able to achieve this with more visuals and pacing and thereby place the focus firmly on the pair of protagonists at the story’s core – the social misfit Oskar and Eli, the ancient vampire trapped in the body and mind of a twelve-year-old.

I was a little disappointed that the story arc of Tommy, perhaps the only wholly sympathetic character in the book, got dropped, but ultimately it’s all to the good. You also lose some plotlines involving a ring of paedophiles, a beached Russian submarine and cold-war angst, a fire in a school, and large parts of the story of a crazy cat man and the drunks he hangs around with. Oh, and save for a single fleeting shot, you also lose the entirety of Eli’s origin story.

None of this matters, because this is such a contained, controlled, measured film that the cumulative effect of all those strands is more than adequately compensated for. One shot of a bulky woollen jumper tucked into stonewashed jeans and you know exactly what year it is. The dialogue averages out, over a two-hour-long film, at maybe two lines a minute, which is achingly slow and allows for the visuals and performances to really sink in. And of these performances, and of more significance than anything else I’ve mentioned, is that Lina Leandersson in the role of Eli is phenomenal. Oskar loses some of his edge from the book, and at times comes across as just a bit slow in the head, but Eli is perfectly realized: distant, vicious, vulnerable, and just desperately in need of some form of human connection. You get all of this in a single shot of her face and that –that– is why I’ll never dismiss movies as a lesser art form.


  1. I love the movie. I even liked the Hollywood version (Gasp), but definitely as a stand-alone flick. The original Swedish film has, of course, much stronger connections to the book, and is a much deeper film. I have the book, but just haven't read it yet. I think I will this summer...

    1. I wanted to do a triple-header with the American version as well, but just couldn't find the time. I managed the opening scene in the hospital before having to give it up. Interesting to note that the hospitalized character is, in the book, a former school teacher so I'm intrigued how the misspelled 'sory' would have played out in making him more or less sympathetic.

      The book's definitely worth a read. I can't decide if it would be better at the height of summer of the depths of winter, though. Complement or contrast...

  2. "and just loaded up Angry Birds instead."
    This had me laughing..

    "Obviously I feel terrible for him,"
    This had me laughing harder. I can feel the pain in your words ;)

  3. I've been meaning to see this film forever, so you are not the only one who has (had) been negligent in getting to it. One day. Interesting to hear that it might be a more tightly knit film than the book.

    I do agree that sometimes, rarely, the film is better than the book. I wouldn't agree with the Lord of the Rings books myself. I came to them after seeing the films multiple times and am a HUGE fan of the films. But having read the books now twice through (with little forays into various parts of the books now and then) I find the books to be just brilliant. But I know that Tolkien is a bitter pill for some, so this is just my personal opinion.

    One film I found better than the book was Blood and Chocolate. Neither were great works, but I liked the message of the film much better than the "stay with your own kind" message that I thought the book purveyed. It seemed to be out of place in a contemporary world that prides itself on acceptance of diversity.

    1. The film's well worth seeing. Beautifully done.

      I realise I'm probably in something of a minority regarding LOTR. It's not that I don't like the books, far from it, but...

      You remember that little 'worldbuilding' rant I went on a couple of months back? I think it's something that's especially prevalent in epic fantasy; people mistaking volume of detail for depth. Too many proper nouns. I'm a geographer and massive map geek, but every time I open a book and there's a map inside the front cover I'm on my guard a little, as it means there's a higher than normal chance the author's put so much effort into 'realising the world' that he (and it is usually a he) has neglected the more basic elements of character and plot and style.

      While LOTR is the ur-example of this, that's because it's the ur-example of pretty much everything in epic fantasy. It actually doesn't fall into this trap too hard too often, but I felt the pruning of the movie really cleaned things up. I certainly didn't miss Tom Bombadill or all those poems. God, the poems...

  4. I'm not sure Tolkien is a good example of what you are speaking of. His world-building isn't about volume of detail in regards to the "world", it is almost entirely about language. He 'built his world' more as a side effect of working on a language based on ancient, forgotten languages.

    And of course I would just say you aren't reading the right epic fantasy. Check out Patrick Rothfuss, or Brandon Sanderson. Character and plot out the wazoo plus wordlbuilding...and maps. :)

    1. Oh, absolutely. As I said, it's not something he falls into too hard or too often. It's easy to pin a lot of the 'faults' of epic fantasy on Tolkien just because he was the first, but as you rightly point out the world was a means to an end (grounding for his languages), not the end in itself. That clearly shows and I think a lot of weaker writers get those the wrong way round.

      Beyond that though we're getting into matters more of personal taste. There's a difference between exploring and meandering. Both are nice on occasion, but the balance in the movies just meshes better with my tastes than in the books.

      Thanks for the pointers. If I can get the TBR pile to somewhere below fifty I'll definitely have a look ;)