How do you film a psychological thriller about alien plants?
With a not-insubstantial effects budget, I would imagine.
About a year ago, I reviewed the novella Annihilation, with the intent of eventually comparing it to its film adaptation. Here we are. In many ways, the film Annihilation is pretty conventional as far as adaptations go, especially adaptations of this sort; scenes are tweaked a bit, greater emphasis is placed on the visuals, less emphasis is placed on internal monologue, but the bulk of the story stays the same.
Yet, on closer inspection, Annihilation is a wholly different beast than its source material, linked only by its most basic structure and themes. Almost all of the scenes, dialogue, and even characters are stripped down and rebuilt from scratch. That’s the primary reason I’m interested in talking about this film, because it’s genuinely rare to find an adaptation that creates so much new material. It’s even rarer to find an adaptation that creates new material on almost the same blueprints as the original.
So that’s what I intend to do: talk about how Annihilation works as an adaptation. I should be clear that I’m only basing my discussion on novella of the same name. The original book is part of a trilogy, and it’s certainly possible that scenes from the film are derived from those in other books in the series. Normally, I would want to have read the entire trilogy before discussing the adaptation, but the director has specifically come out and said that the script was based on the first book alone, and that he purposefully avoided the others as much as possible as part of the process of adaptation. Therefore, I think it best if I discuss the adaptation as an adaptation of the first book and the first book alone, even if that may not be entirely accurate.
Lesson #3: Go Far, and Keep Going
Every medium has its defining characteristics, and knowing these characteristics is essential to making an effective adaptation. In books, authors can play with variable specificity in their descriptions. Text chooses what it wants to present in a scene piece-by-piece, meaning that everything in a room in a book must be named individually if the author wants to be sure the audience knows it’s there. Likewise, an author can give a clear impression of a room when introducing it and only later reference a specific item, provided that item would be plausible for the room to hold based on its earlier description. Mastering description is perhaps the most difficult part of writing fiction, as it is absurdly easy to lean too far in either direction.
Description is likewise difficult to adapt. It is impractical to fit every description given exactly, as resources often won’t allow it, but it is outright impossible to transfer the image formed in one’s head from reading a story into a visual medium. Our brains allow for visual ambiguity; film really doesn’t.
Annihilation has to choose discretely how to depict the surreal, eerie nature of its environment. I think it does quite a good job of capturing the intended atmosphere, even if the atmosphere of the story itself leans far more into the realm of the uncanny and frightening than its source material. In fact, as I watched the film for the first time shortly after reading the book, I was slightly unnerved by how closely certain scenes matched how I imagined them. This is partly due to memory bias, as scenes that capture small similarities can trigger a sense of deja-vu, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If anything, it’s the mark of a series that knows how to capture the same impression as the book, and that is often much more difficult to do than direct replication.
Another unique quality of text is that it can take the audience inside the head of a character, in a way that other media just can’t do. This presents the film with another challenge, as Annihilation is very much set in the protagonist’s head. In fact, an outside observer would probably find the events in the novel extremely frustrating to witness, as the protagonist’s actions are often chaotic, spontaneous, and little-related to other things happening at any given point in the story. The protagonist is not especially well-defined herself, which further complicates communicating her story without access to her thoughts.
While films can and have used narration to clue the audience in to the protagonist’s thoughts, narration has a limited utility over the course of an entire film. Film has far less verbalization per scene than text, even accounting for dialogue, so any voiceover must be distilled into its most succinct elements. Narration also often struggles to connect to the events happening in a scene itself in visual media. The narrator exists in their own world separate from the events of the story. In books, this doesn’t matter because the narrator is the one describing everything in the story, so they are effectively part of the scenery. Comics get away with extensive narration for a similar reason, though they tend to use it more like films by convention. In a real-time filmed medium, unless narration is omnipresent like in Arrested Development or The Stanley Parable, it tends to get in the way of dialogue and important actions. Narration is therefore usually relegated to introductions and conclusions, whether of scenes or the entire film.
So how do you show what’s in a character’s head visually?
According to Annihilation, first you have to make sure the character has something coherent going through their head. One of the advantages of film is that by forcing some externality to the camera, the story can establish an environmental tone not specifically linked to any of the characters. Annihilation uses this effect to separate the protagonist’s character from her perception of the environment. The narrator of the book is hopped up on alien jungle spores for most of the story, so she’s not exactly a reliable source of information. However, her warped descriptions of Area X are largely responsible for the strong impression the book leaves on its audience, so the adaptation doesn’t want to cut them out entirely. It needs a relatable protagonist, so it sobers up the resident biologist and presents her as an audience vector.
And playing the role of her mind, we have the surreal visuals.
Beautiful Terrors, Terrifying Beauty
Annihilation is a horror film. This is somewhat curious as the book it’s based on is more of a psychological science fiction piece. There are horror elements to the original, of course, but the film pushes far further into that genre by adding monsters, gore, and a sensation of dread more Lovecraft than Arthur C. Clarke.
And yet, resonant throughout the film is a sense of tranquility, often juxtaposed directly with the most horrific scenes in the film. This is more akin to the tone of the book, and ultimately the note the story leaves on. The duality of these seemingly conflicting responses — fear and acceptance — are probably the most prominent characteristics of the visual style of the film, and the purpose of many of its changes in adaptation.
The book follows four characters, including the protagonist, all of whom go unnamed, as they travel through the mysterious Area X. While trying to reach a lighthouse in the dense, mutated forest of the region, they each succumb to paranoia, the dangerous environment, and each other, until only the protagonist, the biologist is left. She solves part of the mystery of Area X, then decides to stay here, slowly becoming one with the landscape itself.
The film’s plot is similar, with two crucial exceptions: all of the characters are given names, not just professions, and the protagonist, Lena, is not motivated by curiosity, but by a desire to save her husband. Early in the story, her husband returns from his secret expedition to Area X, as in the book, and has to be taken to the military compound monitoring it when he starts to fall ill. In the book, the biologist’s husband dies, and curiosity about his final mission is what drives her. In the film, he doesn’t, and Lena joins the next expedition with the hope of being able to help him. It’s a change made to kick off the plot in a way more viewers can relate to, but more importantly, it allows Lena to return to her husband, having gone through the same ordeal he has.
The humanization of the characters — all of them, not just Lena — is crucial to how the film chooses to depict its environment. One of my main criticisms of the book was that its lack of character depth reduced the impact of the events in the plot, making even the short book unnecessarily long. The film focuses on getting the audience invested in the characters, and so remedies this complaint, at least initially.
Like its source material, the adaptation is more focused on depicting a creative environment than anything else, though, which is why the film often trades off between characterization and visual spectacle. By making the characters generally more pleasant than those in the book, we care about their fates more, and their deaths are that much more disturbing. Tension is wrought around every encounter, as the danger of Area X is unclear at any given point, and often comes out of nowhere.
One of the first places the team encounters is an overgrown boat dock with multiple species of flowers growing from the same vine. In the midst of examining the flowers and the structure, though, one of the women is attacked by an enormous alligator. They all survive the encounter, destroying the creature and then examining its body to find multiple tooth rows — another indication of mutation. The attack sets them — and the audience — on-edge for the remainder of their walk. It’s almost a jump-scare, but extended over an entire scene.
More striking than these moments of horror interrupting tranquility, though, are the moments when the film slows down to allow the audience to observe the horrors themselves as though they are beautiful as well. The alligator’s bullet-riddled corpse is backlit against the pond, peaceful if not for the preceding scene. In an old swimming pool, the team encounters the corpse of a soldier from an earlier mission covered in florescent colonies of lichen. Opening a nearby camcorder, they discover the man was gruesomely vivisected by his own teammates. When Lena finally reaches the lighthouse where Area X originated, she comes across piles of human bones, laid out and stacked in almost ritualistic fashion amidst a forest of crystalline trees.
But of course, if you’ve seen this film, the part you probably remember most is the bear.
Near the midpoint of the film, one of the characters ties up the others to investigate them, fearing she’s being lied to, and perhaps becoming a bit delusional. A crew member was earlier taken by a bear, which Lena was the only one to see. In the middle of the interrogation, the characters hear the voice of their fallen comrade, and discover to their horror that it was the bear mimicking her voice. The bear kills the interrogator, then enters the room at a slow walk, sniffing, examining the humans through its half-decayed face. It grunts, and a human scream of “Help me” emanates from its jaws. When it finally does attack someone, the other characters free themselves and destroy the bear with their guns.
Dan Olson made a video a while back about how most popular film criticism blatantly ignores metaphor in favor of a literal interpretation of events in a story, which makes for inane rambling about lore with little substance behind it. In this video, Olson posits that Annihilation was extensively subjected to this treatment, despite the film’s obvious desire to be read as non-literal.
For the most part, I agree with Olson’s assessment, though I’m not sure his analysis of the film is quite as universal as he presents. Even knowing to look for indicators of themes of cancer and rebirth when watching the film, I missed several of the specific examples listed by Olson, and my impression of the film’s non-literal narrative is more centered around themes of contradiction and chaos. I’ve seen other reviewers discuss how the film’s themes include the process of grief, mortality, self-destruction, extinction, genetics, biology, science, nature, and environmentalism.
Annihilation is a film more interested in the audience reading some sort of metaphor into its symbols, rather than clarifying a single core meaning. This is often the case for artistically-minded films like it. Ambiguity can promote discussion and give audiences a lot to think about after the film is over, but it can likewise frustrate audiences who prefer a mooring line to keep the story grounded in some semblance of reality. The book similarly walks this line, attracting praise for its evocative imagery, and disdain for its haughty lack of purpose.
To be completely honest, I much prefer the spectacle of the film to the musings of the book, which I find meandering and less substantial. But, I will readily admit that the simplicity of the book makes it more cohesive as a whole. The film is full of scenes and shots that prompt complex responses, and even images that play little role in the story, like the one I chose for the header of this post, could warrant intense analysis. However, those individual scenes rarely line up with one another in a clear way, which can make encounters in the film feel episodic and unrelated to one another, except through tenuous references to the film’s many themes.
I don’t think it would be especially productive for me to run through all of the scenes I found metaphorically significant, nor even all of the film’s major themes. I won’t even touch the ending, as so much of it is abstract and its significance is wholly reliant on audience interpretation. As with much of the film, you get out of it what you want to see. While there is a lot that one could read into any given scene, the scenes themselves don’t require much of the audience. Explaining what the film means would be a pointless endeavor, because the film means pretty much whatever you want it to.
So instead, I want to describe the unifying concepts I found most unique to this film and explain why I think they’re worth talking about. The film’s use of metaphors is almost more interesting than any of the metaphors themselves, and hopefully this will give you a sense of what the film is like if you haven’t seen it.
Let’s start with the Shimmer itself.
I’m not sure what I imagined the Shimmer that cordons off Area X from the rest of the world would look like based on the book, but in the film, it resembles refracted light off of a bubble or an oil slick, hence the name. This gives it a mesmerizing spectrum of color that weaves around organic material, like a mist exuded from the forest itself. The Shimmer seems to have no more intent than a fluid, making it inherently neutral, perhaps even pretty. Yet, the introduction to the Shimmer is ominous, with Ventress, the leader of the expedition, unveiling it by opening blinds on a wall-length window. She and Lena see it from a great distance through in the comfort of the military base for the first act of the film, the Shimmer ever-present and slowly moving closer. When the characters leave the relative safety of the base, the Shimmer dwarfs them and everything else, a barrier of mythic proportions, and unquestionably unnatural.
The film creates a conceptual as well as many visual contrasts between the sheer awe of nature and the inevitably failed attempts by humans to keep it in check. The film is full of motifs of nature reclaiming human structures, but where in most films this is meant to indicate the passage of time or a return to tranquility, Annihilation gives the process a more careless quality. Creatures and plants mutate in Area X in horrific ways, preventing the dead from staying dead, leading creatures to destroy themselves, growing unchecked, uncontrolled, like an invasive species. Many people pick up on these visuals as cancerous, which is certainly supported by both the source material and numerous references within the film to cancer cells. Some of the character have cancer, Lena opens the film talking about how cancerous cells grow, and over the course of the expedition, all of the characters learn that they are mutating.
Cancerous growth, though, is still an aspect of nature. It is driven by biological processes, it’s millions of years old, and most organisms have to live with it in some way or another. If you define cancer as uncontrolled cell growth, then almost everyone develops some sort of cancer or another over their lifetime. It’s only rare malignant tumors and particularly aggressive cancers that kill people. If you’ve ever been or known anyone who’s gone through cancer treatment (and many people have), you know how terrible it can be. Cancer sucks. It’s a betrayal of your own body, and even with tens of thousands of oncologists out there and billions of dollars spent on cancer research, sometimes there isn’t anything you can do about it. Cells as persistent, and often mindless.
Even more prevalent than motifs of cancer, though, are those of consumption. Nature is consumption; all organisms are little machines locked in a cycle of consuming what they can for as long as they can. When an ecosystem is in balance, any given organism is restricted by those around it, and can’t overpopulate, so evolutionary pressures push organisms to develop new adaptations, exploit new resources, become more efficient at exploiting the ones they have. We often think of death and extinction as failure states, but from a purely secular standpoint, life itself is a mindless process, so what’s there to judge failure by? Dead things fall out of the race, but the race ends with entropy. Eventually, all resources are consumed over and over again so many times that all that remains is a lonely cell that dies a slow death. In nature, there is no individual, there is just food, eating itself for as long as it exists.
It’s almost like a orouboros, or something.
The film contains many depictions of nature consuming itself, but even more of nature consuming humans. All of the characters in the story are consumed in different ways. Two members of the expedition are eaten by a mutated, zombie-like bear. One of them, Cass, is consumed so fully by the bear, that its growls are combined with her dying screams. The other, Anya, is consumed by paranoia (and later the bear), when she realizes she’s started to mutate and demands that the others explain what’s going on. Josie is consumed by plant life, becoming one of many humanoid statues of wood and flowers. Lena discovers that her husband and the men on his expedition were consumed by delusions and paranoia similar to Anya, that at least one of them seems to have become mutated from the inside-out and killed by the other men in his group. Lena’s husband is consumed by fire from a phosphorous grenade. Ventress, and eventually Lena herself, are consumed by the tesseracting creature the book’s narrator calls the Crawler.
The people and structures in the film aren’t merely reclaimed by nature, they are viciously eaten by it, mutated and consumed until what’s left of them isn’t really them anymore.
However, it’s not always a violent process. Josie in particular resigns herself to her fate. She sees it as inevitable, and while perhaps still scared, she avoids the panic of Cass and Anya. Ventress and Lena’s husband also surrender themselves to the horrors of the Shimmer, out of delusions or a desire to seek peace, or both. The outcome is always the same; a person who is eaten by the landscape or creatures within it is gone. Their identity, as it stood before they were consumed, no longer exists.
Yet, parts of them persist. The thing about consumption is that it doesn’t merely destroy, it creates as well. The title of the film (and the book by extension) is somewhat misleading, as things aren’t really annihilated so much as altered. We have on our earth all of the exact same resources (save a couple of asteroids) that we did billions of years ago. Resources are recycled, changed to fit a new use by the organisms that consume them, but they aren’t ever fully destroyed. Throughout Area X, moments of tranquility come from the characters observing the life that is not in mortal peril, the life that is growing, thriving, making use of past horrors. On the bodies of humans grow flowers, from the eviscerated corpse of a soldier grows a colony of lichens.
Lena seems to survive her encounter, as does her husband. They are killed, but some creature — the Crawler, or perhaps even some part of their mutated selves — forms a clone, and through this clone, they live on, changed, but still the same in some way or another. They are not here because they consumed and did what needed to be done to get ahead in the horrible jungles of Area X; they are here in spite of that. They are here because life persists.
It’s not annihilation, which implies complete or total destruction. It’s survival.
What’s in a Story?
This is not my favorite film. I’m not even sure I would watch it again on my own. It just doesn’t tickle me the right way.
The film is interesting, which I realize is almost a non-description, but it’s accurate all the same. There is material in the film that you can dig through if you want. A lot of material, actually. But I don’t think it presents that material as well as it could. I’ll admit, I’m among those people I mentioned earlier who prefer a more tethered experience, even if it diminishes the potential depth of the story. For me, a film like Annihilation is only as entertaining as my mood when I’m watching it, and if I’m not actively trying to read into its visuals, the story itself falls apart.
I mentioned earlier that initially, the film succeeds where the book fundamentally fails — in giving the audience a compelling plot and characters. This is true, but the other show of course is that this effect wears off. The film has several scenes prior to the characters entering Area X that introduce the other members of the crew. These introductions are very pointed, both because we learn all of the characters’ names, but also because it stands in contrast to the clinical lack of affiliation any of the characters have in the book.
Once they enter Area X, and especially once they’re attacked, familiarity and characterization go out the window and most of the crew characters become indistinguishable from one another. This is a common problem in horror films, as characters under duress rarely have time to develop a relationship unless comedy is involved. This is also why horror comedies, even absurd ones, tend to have better characterization than straight horror films. In order to ensure the audience knows who everyone is and what their relationships are, the later acts must be consistent and clear with which characters are taking which actions, but also invest a lot of time and effort into effective characterization that is able to persist through a horror scenario. Names alone just won’t cut it.
As a result of weak characterization in the latter half of the story, there isn’t really much plot to grasp onto, and scenes between characters are often tedious. I’m not overly fond of the dialogue in the film, and I think the visuals bear far more of the weight of the film than the characters do. This is probably what the book was trying to accomplish by dehumanizing the characters from the start, but it works far better in a visual medium in my opinion, especially as we aren’t constantly bombarded by Lena’s on-the-nose thoughts. This works to good effect in the last five to ten minutes of film, which are almost entirely devoid of speech.
Unfortunately, some of the most intense conversations between characters are also wholly unnecessary. Anya’s interrogation goes on for a while, and even under duress, her sudden desire to act the villain doesn’t follow any comprehensible progression. Ventress abandons the group after their first few tragedies, and Lena eventually finds her in the lair of the Crawler, spewing the Bible passage repeated frequently in the book. I find this passage nonsensical, aside from communicating a general sense of dread and chaos. Its word choice is textured, but the words themselves might as well be randomly strung together with the number of nonliteral meanings the word “fruit” has, even in Christianity.
I have a lot of small complaints as well, like how certain scenes run on for far too long, or how the bear in the interrogation scene almost seems like it’s intentionally trying to scare the characters, making the scene tonally confusing. The violence in the film kind of bothers me. Gunshots are excessively loud, and the way the camera frames the bear and the alligator being shot is far more graphic than I’m used to seeing in a nature-oriented film. It’s not unlike some of the deaths in the film Starship Troopers, which is weird because Starship Troopers is specifically parodying the normalization of unthinking violence in action films. You could argue that Annihilation is trying to create a sense of realism, or trying to show the brutality of humans and how the humans aren’t much different from the creatures attacking them, but neither of these seem to fit especially well with the themes or aesthetic of the rest of the story. I almost think the creators just thought it would look cool.
Ultimately, the story suffers from many of the same problems as the book, which is curious given the two diverge along their own storylines rather starkly. It’s not necessarily the case that the core of either story has problems, but many of the problems in the film do come from its association with its source material. I would probably put this down to a lackluster plot, as the first half of the film is mostly fine, and it’s only once the film has to choose between its visuals and its story that it begins to struggle. The most effective narratives are those that tell a story through all of the other elements, not just plot or dialogue. Both the book and the film struggle to grasp this concept.
It would seem, therefore, that the main issue the film has is that it doesn’t go far enough to diverge from its book. It changes most of the scenes and keeps the effective thematic core, but it also keeps the philosophical musings that occupy the space between the book’s scant plot. The film does an excellent job of converting these musings into music and cinematography, but it doesn’t connect them to its characters any more effectively than the book. In fact, by taking us out of the head of the main character, relatively few of those artistic scenes seem tied to her as a character. Lena is more well-drawn than the biologist, but the biologist is more connected to the themes of the story.
The ending of the film, particularly with Lena discovering her husband’s fate and, after being consumed by the Crawler, returning to him, remedies my struggle to connect the characters to the overarching themes of the story. It’s not perfect, but it’s enough that the film leaves me satisfied. The process to get there is worth discussing, and might be valuable to others, but it’s not such an enjoyable experience that I would recommend the film outright. However, it is a worthwhile adaptation, and if you’re interested in seeing how you can tell almost the exact same story with a largely altered series of events, the film makes for interesting viewing.