November 20, 2011

A smile, lifted lifelessly as if by hooks: How ‘We need to talk about Kevin’ compares from book to film

When I was a kid, I used to linger in the dark hallway at bedtime so that I could watch the beginning of Unsolved Mysteries. As soon as I was spotted I would be ushered to my room, but the narrator’s eerie voice still lingered down the hall and pervaded my dreams.

That is how it feels to read We need to talk about Kevin. It is bone chilling and heart breaking novel, and the glimpses into the minds of Eva and Kevin Khatchadourian are utterly gripping.

Lynne Ramsay’s film is just as chilling and just as captivating. When the final scene fades off to a starkly white background and the end credits suddenly flash, the cinema remains completely still. The audience is shocked and awestruck, and it’s eerily quiet without the usual rustle of discarded popcorn boxes.

Lionel Shriver’s novel is a 468 page inner monologue, as Eva Khatchadourian divulges each detail of the story in a sequence of rambling letters to her husband Franklin. I confess that, for a huge chunk of the novel, I had serious problems with this structure. I constantly distracted myself with questions – is this really something that a wife would write to her husband?

Tilda Swinton as Eva
The background details of Eva’s life were too obviously for the reader’s benefit and I felt sorry for Franklin if he ever had to read them. The only way I could continue reading myself was to imagine the letters sitting in a crumpled mess, gathering dust on Eva’s desk.

It’s when Eva begins to deconstruct Kevin – and finally reveals some facts that Franklin doesn’t already know – that the novel really picks up. If you persist to the point in the book where Eva engages in “black, straight-faced banter” with her son, you will be hooked.

One compliment that must be paid to Shriver: she is a true wordsmith. When you least expect it she will surprise you with such a well-constructed, lyrical sequence of words, which you will immediately re-read just to experience it again.

The equivalent in the film is the score, which is splendid. In scenes when Eva is alone and quiet, with only her inner torment for company, the music unpredictably ramps-up into a folksy, upbeat tune. A stark contrast to the unearthly silence of the Khatchadourian home, interrupted by the thump of Kevin’s backpack against the counter top or the reverberating echo of the garden sprinklers.

The film couldn’t be more true to the spirit and feel of the novel; it is a true psychological mind warp. Although there are some elements of the story that you will need to read the book to understand, but the film does not seem lacking without them.

One area where the film does fall short is in its depiction of Eva. Tilda Swinton’s character never manages to snap out of her shocked reverie. She is so guilt-ridden and tortured that it borders on pathetic – but you cannot help but feel for her, as she is so cruelly subjected to a Lindy Chamberlain-style persecution that the film never entirely explains.

Ezra Miller as Kevin
In contrast, Shriver’s character is much more stoic and rigid, and much more difficult to forgive. She is forever passing the blame – from herself, to Franklin, to Kevin, and to the inadequacies of the world – but she is so unashamedly selfish, independent, un-maternal and vain, that you wonder if it really was all her fault.

Some of the most riveting passages of the book occur when Eva challenges Kevin in conversation. But in the film she’s often too dumbstruck to speak. It does deprive the film of some of the book’s electricity.

If you are intrigued by the human condition, the debates of nature versus nurture, and the very foundations of evil, We need to talk about Kevin is a must-read. And follow it up with a film experience that will leave you wondering whether any movie will ever challenge you in the same way again.

The verdict: 

Book or Big Screen? Book

The film is:   3. A decent, credible, faithful adaptation

I would be very happy to receive your comments and feedback on ‘Book or Big Screen’ – please click on the below link to tell me what film adaptation you are excited about, or to suggest the book/film that I should review next.

1 comment:

  1. I've never heard of this book, but it sounds intriquing.