As a fan of the sci-fi novel that Annihilation was adapted from, I was left disappointed. Here’s why the movie fell short.
Paramount recently released sci-fi movie Annihilation, staring Natalie Portman. It’s an adaptation of the best-selling and highly-acclaimed novel of the same title written by Jeff VanderMeer. The book is the first volume of VandaMeer’s The Southern Reach trilogy, and, followed on by Authority and Acceptance, is only a third of the story. Whether or not Paramount intend to adapt the other two novels is unknown as yet, and the movie ends far more conclusively than the first book.
By no means is the film terrible. But it left me trying to remember why I’d loved the book so much. What made me feel like this reasonably faithful adaptation wasn’t a success like some other sic-fi/fantasy book to movie adaptations?
Well, first, because we’re positive people, let’s start at the positives.
Annihilation covers five scientists (in the books they’re not all scientists, and remain unnamed, but I’ll stick to the movie’s format to avoid confusion): Lena, a biologist (Natalie Portman), Dr. Ventress, a psychologist; Josie, a physicist Josie Radeck; Cass, an anthropologist and Anya, a paramedic. Together they make up the twelfth expedition sent by a secretive government agency, The Southern Reach, to investigate a mysterious environmental disaster zone labelled Area X.
The preceding eleven expeditions ended disastrously. One in mass suicide, another in gunfire, while all members of the eleventh – which included Lena’s husband, Kane – died of cancer after returning home. Here the movie tweaks the story – Kane is the only member of any expedition to survive.
All members of the twelfth expedition have this knowledge before they embark, which loses the increasing sense of unease delivered in the book as they – and the reader – discover more about the previous expeditions and realise the terrifying dangers they are facing.
“I had the unsettling thought that the natural world around me had become some kind of camouflage.”
The weird and wonderful landscape of formidable Area X makes for a great movie setting. Both vast and suffocating, Area X fills the expeditors with awe and dread. The fact that the novel is narrated by secretive Lena means that readers can never be sure what she’s keeping from us, or just how much of her account we can trust.
The CGI in Annihilation effectively translates the contorted, hallucinatory sense of confusion that’s so powerful in the book.
One of the novel’s most impressive features is the suffocating, uncomfortable atmosphere that Jeff VanderMeer skilfully created. The movie, packed with creepy vibes, certainly doesn’t disappoint here.
The problem is the character
So far, so good. But the biggest difference in this otherwise faithful adaption is in the characters of Lena and Kane.
Secretive and emotionally detached, introvert Lena admits in the book that society would probably label her “antisocial or selfish.” But she’s also passionate about, and fiercely loyal to, the things and people she loves. Her feelings of alienation and ability to connect with the ecosystems she studies explain the disturbing connection she develops with Area X. This is a major factor in the book and pretty absent in the movie.
In the film, Lena has some of the aforementioned traits, but not all. Possibly most out of character, she cheated on Kane to sabotage their otherwise perfect marriage. In response, Kane embarks on the suicide mission of exploring Area X.
Lena’s lifelong habit of distancing herself from other people makes it evident that the bond she shares with her husband is a connection completely unique in her life. That the character would cheat just doesn’t feel accurate at all.
As for Kane, I know that everyone responds to things in different ways, but I felt that such an extreme response really needed more of an explanation. It feels less like a motive and more like an excuse used by the movie to have him on the mission.
Whether or not these differences matter to how Lena is perceived is probably down to the individual. I found a lot of her traits relatable, so, while she was never the most likable character I’d ever come across, I could sympathise with her imperfections. And personally, I was really put off by her dishonesty in the movie’s portrayal.
So why does this matter? Well, in the novel, everything about the mission and setting are just a backdrop to the main point of the story. The uncovering of Area X’s mysteries parallel the revealing of Lena’s character.
We uncover a person cold and hard and almost monstrous. But then we realise that this is only her armour, a persona she has created to protect her heart. A heart that, deep down, really loved her husband. A heart that knew, intuitively, that the man who came home was not the one who had left.
The real Kane was still out there, and in need of saving. It was a really poignant moment in the book when the biologist realised that despite her best attempts to be otherwise, she cared enough to provide that rescue. To venture into Area X, and face unknown horrors to find him.
At the end of the Annihilation book, Lena hasn’t found Kane, but she’s unearthed evidence of him and is on his trail. The film ending really doesn’t make sense – fake Kane, who returns home at the start, survives.
There is the suggestion that he is actually the real Kane, as Lena has succeeded in destroying the ‘entity’ responsible for Area X and everything that was part of it – which would have included Kane’s double. The final scene suggests that maybe part of this entity lives on in Lena and Kane, but this twist is so convoluted that it feels like a rushed attempt at creating the haunting effects of the book.
Maybe my expectations for Annihilation were too informed by Jeff VanderMeer’s novel and I would have responded differently had I only see the movie. But what about you? Did you enjoy the movie? Have you read the book? Let me know in the comments!
Enjoy flawed movies? Have a read of our article discussing where Netflix’s ‘Mute’ went wrong.