Natalie Portman returns to the big screen in Annihilation. The mind-bending thriller, the latest from Ex Machina director Alex Garland, is based on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name. The story follows a group of soldiers, led by Portman’s character Lena, who explore the land beyond a mysterious forcefield called “The Shimmer.”
Previous missions of the same sort didn’t go well – including one which had Lena’s husband (played by Oscar Isaac) as a member. Desperate to know what actually happened to her husband, Lena accompanies four other explorers (played by Tessa Thompson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez and Tuva Novotny) into the lands beyond the Shimmer.
The story of Annihilation on the page is tremendous, but in crafting the adaptation, Alex Garland made some dramatic choices that help the movie break away from what we’ve come to expect from page-to-screen translations.
Annihilation Puts A Novel Spin On The Novel
In 2017, Alex Garland explained some of his adaptation approach in an interview with Nerdist. As it turns out, while Annihilation does feature the core of VanderMeer’s 2014 novel, the movie is vastly different from its source material.
I thought the book was amazing and very strange and original and just surprising. But, there are really significant differences between the film and the book — the film is really like a dream of the book. That’s how I saw it in my head. And the dream is such a subjective thing. And I… listen, what can I say? I hope it doesn’t let you down. I hope you’re feeling good, but whatever the film does it’s about that beautiful thing books do… The books still exists. The book remains its own thing. And actually remains really, truly, the primary thing, I think.
Big screen adaptations often take liberties with their source material. We’ve seen it happen even in successful franchises like The Hunger Games, Twilight and The Maze Runner. Going by Garland’s comments, however, Annihilation is on an entirely different level. Understandably, fans of Jeff VanderMeer’s work may have reservations about the approach, but it’s actually a great idea.
Book-to-film adaptations are inherently tricky. If a movie is too faithful they can lose momentum, and even become dull. That’s especially dangerous for a book with as many twists and turns as Annihilation. Garland erased that risk by rooting his film in the concepts and characters introduced in the book, then using those elements as stepping stones to something new.
That’s a smart approach that avoids retreading what’s come before, and keeps audiences interested and unsure about what will happen next even if they know the book.
So far, audiences are embracing the movie’s unique take on Jeff VanderMeer’s mind-twisting mythology. IndieWire’s Zack Shard praised Annihilation for its compelling twists and turns:
‘Annihilation’ is big budget Alex Garland with all the head-spinning intelligence of ‘Ex Machina.’ It’s violent and patient and then suddenly so transfixing you’re pinned to your seat.
Similarly, SlashFilm’s Ben Pearson commended the film’s risky choices:
This is the type of sci-fi we always say we want to see. Bold, challenging, singular, visually dazzling. Would not be the least bit surprised to see it hailed as a masterpiece.
This success could mark an important turn for other creators who are tempted to strike out into new ground with adaptation. Filmmakers are often criticized by fans for even the slightest deviation from source material. Even though success with loose adaptations exists in every generation of filmmakers, it’s always good to have a refresher, and Annihilation seems like the one for us now.
Garland has shown that a beat-for-beat adaptation isn’t always the way to bring life to a familiar story on screen. There’s room to put an exciting spin on pre-existing material, regardless of how well-known it is. Hopefully that will encourage other filmmakers to take bolder directions with whichever literary property they’re adapting.
Annihilation is in theaters now, get tickets to see it at AMC!