April 25, 2013

The highest and the lowest of all the worlds: How ‘The Host’ compares from book to film

The Host is precisely what you would expect from Stephenie Meyer, bestselling author of Twilight. Like Twilight, The Host has a supernatural premise, which is overshadowed by a dominant, romantic theme. Like Twilight, it is written from the perspective of a young female lead, in an accessible, young-adult style.

Like Twilight, there is one, central, unwavering love story. Two young lovers are for a time kept apart because of their core biological make-up. By continuing their love, they risk placing the other in danger.

In Twilight, the seemingly insurmountable obstacle is that Edward is a vampire, and Bella is a human. Vampires should consider humans as a food source, and humans should be chilled to the core when in a vampire’s presence. And yet, they fall in love.

In The Host, Earth has been taken over by a parasitic alien species. Wanderer, one of these aliens, or ‘souls’, comes to love the human partner of her host, Melanie. Jared is still human, and although Wanderer should have no empathy for the human race, she comes to value the life of this human life above any of her own species.

But Edward tries to stay away from Bella in Twilight, and Jared despises Wanderer even though he is still in love with Melanie (who may still be alive inside of her). Cue the love triangle. In Twilight, Bella has Jacob the werewolf. In The Host, ‘Wanda’ has Ian, the compassionate human who falls in love with her ‘soul’.

Stephenie Meyer knows how to write a good, mushy romance. The Host is brimming with fantasies from the mind of Melanie, and the dreams of Wanda, and the desires of Ian, and the tormented pain of Jared. The romantics out there will be satiated with lines like:

“After all the planets and all the hosts you’ve left behind, you’ve finally found the place and body you’d die for.”

“I wondered if death was strong enough to dissolve something so vital and sharp. Perhaps this love would live on with her, in some fairytale place with pearly gates.”

The book can be a bit repetitive. In showing, in detail, how Wanda fares with the humans in the caves, many of the chapters focus on Wanda’s nervous trips down dark corridors, and days spent working tirelessly to make bread or harvest the fields. There is also intricate detail on how the humans manage to live in exile: How they wash and take care of other, essential ablutions, and how their sleeping arrangements are made. Although it might sound a bit monotonous, this level of detail does succeed in pulling you deeply into the story.

One area that could have benefited from a good editor is the use of the same phrases to explain Wanda’s facial expressions and physical reactions. Whenever Jared touches her, it feels like fire. When she thinks about the Seeker, she feels nauseous. When Ian touches her, she crinkles her nose. Through the narration we understand these descriptions to be necessary, as Wanda is learning how her new body works. But I think the reader gets the point quite a while before Meyer believes she has made it.

In all, I enjoyed The Host. It is a very suspenseful read that seems to move with pace despite the repetitiveness of life in the caves, and Meyer succeeds in making you feel for the characters. It is the kind of book that you will rush through, only to regret your haste when it’s all over.

The film doesn’t endear you in the same way. The way that the filmmakers have adapted the pseudo science fiction-love story is very Bold and the Beautiful meets Body Snatchers. It’s all a little bit corny, and very Twilight.

My sister is a good barometer for the cheese factor in films. The way she audibly sighed throughout this movie was similar to her involuntary reactions to Anna Karenina.

Saorise Ronan’s breathy voice is reminiscent of her ghostly character in The Lovely Bones, where very sentence is made to sound ethereal. As the film wore on, I became impatient for the resolution. Whether Wanda took over and Melanie died, or Wanda gave in and Melanie returned, I didn’t care, so long as Wanda could show more than a vacant, confused expression, and we didn’t have to hear Melanie’s passive-aggressive voice-over any more.

In the book, Melanie’s influence allows Wanda to experience real some emotion – if it weren’t for her eyes, you could mistake Wanda for being human. But this wasn’t conveyed in the film, as the emphasis was on presenting Wanda as clearly ‘alien’ and ‘other’.

In the book, Melanie’s sarcastic, frustrated inner voice is often very humorous, and is a welcome contrast to Wanda’s sickly sweet view of the world. But in the film, Melanie’s narration from inside Wanda’s mind often comes across as laughingly lame one-liners.

At the heart of The Host – the book, as well as the film – are questions about our humanity. The souls take over earth because they perceive humans to be vicious, cruel, and careless with their planet. But, to the humans, the souls are not saving the Earth – they are taking over the world by force and destroying an entire species.

The message is that, even though there is a dark side to humanity, it is the dark that makes the light so much more beautiful. Love is more powerful amongst human beings, because they understand what it means to hate.

“This place was truly the highest and the lowest of all the worlds – the most beautiful senses, the most exquisite emotions… the most malevolent desires, the darkest deeds.”

Despite its comparatively simplistic approach, the film version does do justice to this overarching theme of the novel. The conflict between the values of the human race and the souls is well presented, and the audience is left to question whether ‘humanity’ is all it’s cracked up to be.

Getting down to the nitty-gritty now, there were some significant changes made, in transitioning this book to the big screen:

  • The film didn’t delve into as much detail about the other planets that the souls have populated, and the nature of Wanda’s past lives. It is still quite clear that Wanda is special, and her experiences unique, but in the film she is not the ‘celebrity’ that she is in the book.
  • By omitting details of Wanda’s past lives, the film also refrained from detailing the nature of the seaweed planet, and the fire planet and the claw beasts, dolphins and spiders. Which I think was a good move. These other planets are supposed to be beyond human comprehension – so to give them a visual representation on the screen would have impacted on this surrealist element of the story.
  • Another early omission is Wanda’s teaching job at the university. In the book she is given the title of ‘Honorary Professor,’ and her contribution to society is teaching other souls about the other planets. In the film, she has no such occupation. She also has no need for a Comforter like she does in the book.
  • In the book, Wanda’s Comforter acts as a counselor who tries to ease her transition into life on Earth. There is not place for the comforter in the film, as Wanda’s struggles are not as strongly felt, and she does not harbour any inner shame over not being able to rid her body of Melanie.
  • Wanda loses some of her intensity in the film. In the book she struggles for months to fight back against Melanie and is disappointed and shamed by her inability to do so. She is also fiercely proud of her past lives. In the film, Wanda is much more reserved and modest, and she doesn’t put up the same level of fight against Melanie.
  • While Wanda loses some of her intensity in the film, the Seeker becomes a much more powerful nemesis. In the book, the Seeker is a short, dark-haired, pixie-like soul, who begins as a source of annoyance and frustration to Wanda, which eventually develops into hatred. In the film, Diane Kruger’s statuesque Seeker is a force to be reckoned with. She is harsh and murderous, and although she might not trigger the same revulsion in Wanda, she does incite more fear.
  • Wanda’s getaway is much more dramatic in the film – the Seekers are lurking outside of her door as Melanie propels her from the balcony and into the pool below. She then attacks a soul, commandeers a vehicle and escapes into the night before Melanie takes control over her body once again, crashing the car in the middle of the desert. In the book, Wanda’s is traveling to see her Healer when Melanie quietly convinces her to seek out Jared and Jamie.
  • Missing from the film are the other examples of the resistant human minds taking back control of their bodies. In the book, an example is the fabled Kevin whose body had to be ‘retired’ because his resistant host made it unsuitable for habitation by such a kindly soul.
  • In the film, Melanie’s Dad shot himself to avoid capture. In the book, he was captured by the souls and he led the Seekers to find Melanie and Jamie.
  • In the book, Melanie throws herself down an elevator shaft to avoid capture. In the film, the elevator shaft is replaced with a glass window.
  • In the book, Wanda was locked away in her small, cavern-like prison for more than a week before she was tentatively ingratiated into human society in the caves. In the film the transition is quicker, and her sleeping quarters are much more humane. Wanda also has a few more run-ins with fists in the book, whereas in the film the physical assaults that she experiences are minimal.
  • The film has no Walter – Wanda’s human friend who dies of cancer and is buried in the desert – and no tribunal for Kyle who tries to murder her.
  • Wanda’s grief at the murdered souls lasts three days in the book, and she is almost comatose as she huddles in the darkest recesses of the caves and mourned the loss of her ‘family’. She only rouses when she is told about Jamie’s sickness. In the film, the mourning period is comparatively briefer, and less dramatic.
  • The way that Jamie hurts his leg is different in the film. In the book, he comes back with the injury after a raid. In the film, it happens while working in the fields inside the cave. The innocent Jamie of the film would never have been taken on a raid. He is more child-like than the Jamie of the book who is well into his teen years.
  • When Wanda and Jared go out in search for alien medicine for Jamie, the means of establishing Wanda’s cover story is different. In the book, Jared rips at Wanda’s face with a rock to obscure her scar and Wanda almost hacks her own arms off with a knife. In the film, the injuries are less brutal, their actions more restrained – Jared has no hand in it, he only watches as Wanda cuts a slice on her cheek and arms with a knife.
  • The incident with the truck accident was created for the big screen. After a high-speed pursuit, two humans deliberately crash their truck to avoid being captured by Seekers. The parallel in the book is a much less dramatic highway scene, where police officers pull over Wanda and Jared’s car, but Wanda is able to talk herself out of the situation and the supply truck passes by unnoticed.
  • Also missing from the film are the long raids that Wanda, Jared, Ian and Kyle go on, once they realise how useful Wanda can be. They travel from town to town constructing new identities, sleeping at hotels, and collecting masses of supplies. In the film, this is reduced to one casual trip to the grocery store.
  • Also missing is the family that Wanda observes at the park – the two souls with the human child, who prompt Wanda’s musing about the potential future of earth with souls and humans living together in harmony.
  • In the book, Wanda swears not to tell her secret – of how souls can be safely removed from human bodies – to any human. But eventually, and after much heartache, she comes to realise that it is the only way to save both species. In the film, Wanda doesn’t anticipate the humans’ want of this information, but eventually offers it willingly and with less sense of personal suffering and sacrifice.
  • The coaxing of the souls out of the human body is also different. In the book, Wanda teaches Doc how to reach his fingers inside the human neck and follow the spine of the soul, before massaging and cajoling it free. In the film, the trick is kindness. All that is necessary is to cut the skin and wait as the soul floats its way out of the body.
  • In the film, once the soul is removed from the Seeker’s body, the human left behind is obnoxious and “difficult”. In the film, she is reduced to a sobbing wreck that is only grateful to be free.
  • In the film there is no Jodi, and no Sunny, and Kyle does not come around and accept that souls can be treated like human beings. There are also no middle-aged healers, abducted to help pass on healing tricks to Doc.
  • In the book, there is a tribunal where the humans argue about whether Wanda should be allowed to leave Melanie’s body, and where she is presented the option of having another host body. In the film, there is no tribunal. The decisions are made without in-depth discussion.

The verdict:

How does the film rate? 2.5/5

How does the film rate as an adaptation? 3/5

Total score: 5.5/10

Book or Big Screen? Book

Coming soon: A comparison of ‘The Shipping News’ from book to film.

April 16, 2013

Look alive out there: How ‘Warm Bodies' compares from book to film

Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion starts as strongly as any book I have ever read. The opening line of the novel should go down in popular culture as one of the best in our generation. In years to come, it should be read out in small-town pub trivia games along with “It is a truth universally acknowledged” and “Call me Ishmael” for the way it, in one simple line, sets the theme and tone of the entire novel.

“I am dead, but it’s not so bad. I’ve learnt to live with it.”

Direct, funny, clever and witty. And thankfully, with the bar set this high, the rest of the novel does not fall short.

Warm Bodies has been touted as a modern-day Romeo and Juliet, with an obvious paranormal twist. Our protagonist ‘R’ comes from the wrong side of tracks (in this case the decaying world of the walking dead) yet is somehow able to maintain a romantic and philosophic view of the world.

The ethereally beautiful Julie may as well come from the other side of the world (because she is still living and breathing) – and yet, despite the differences that keep them apart, Julie and R fall in love.

If you were ever in any doubt of the Shakespearean connection, Marion also has included a balcony scene – as if to (tactfully?) point out to the reader that he intended for the parallels to be obvious.

For any Twilight fans, this story will also be familiar. You see, R is a zombie with a conscience – he doesn’t like hurting people and falls in love with woman who should be a part of his primary food group. But R and Julie are no Edward and Bella – they are imperfect, embittered, and angry at the world and they are taking no prisoners.

There is so much more to Warm Bodies than the plight of star-crossed lovers.

The novel is about the ruthlessness and meaninglessness of life: “I don’t know why we have to kill people. I don’t know what chewing through a man’s neck accomplishes. I steal what he has to replace what I lack. I eat until I stop eating, then I eat again.”

It is about the evils of our modern age, and the inhumanity of the human race: “You and I are victims of the same disease. We’re fighting the same war, just different battles in different theatres.”

The ‘life’ that R lives in the airport with the boneys and the hoards of other zombies seems like the apocalypse. It doesn’t seem like things could get any worse, until you learn how the humans are living in the stadium. That’s real chaos.

By fighting to survive, the humans have lost all remnants of what makes them human. Ironically, the dead seem to have more of a life – they get married, send their zombie children to school, make friends, and fight to be alive once again.

Humanity is the real evil. The zombies, without any hope, fears or futures, have the luxury of a more peaceful existence than the humans who are still consumed by their own pride, ambitions and selfishness.

The underlying messages of the film are not so deep. All the clues are still there, but the focus has shifted more to the developing romance to R and Julie – how they got to know each other, and the quirky little parts of the days they shared together. There is less time for existentialism.

What the film does adapt perfectly is the wit, humour and heart of the book. The film is funny and touching in precisely the way that Marion intended.

Nicholas Hoult is incredible as R. It’s amazing how he can pull off looking so believably dead, while at the same time injecting so much life into the role. He walks the line perfectly between decay and delight.

Teresa Palmer also plays her part well, although it was a little distracting how much she resembled Kristen Stewart. It’s hard to forget the similarities to Twilight when you keep expecting Robert Pattinson to burst into the airport and save Bella from the zombies.

As a matter of course, I will have to list the key differences between the book and the film:

  • Rob Corddry’s character M (the Mercurio of the adaptation) is altered in appearance, and also slightly in nature. For example, in the book he has a penchant for pornography that is not translated to the big screen.
  • In the book, R’s last outfit before he died was a suit and tie, and he speculates that he may have been an office worker. In the film, he jokes that he may have been homeless, on account of his red hoodie.
  • The occasional zombie is the film is able to retain parts of its identity – the janitor and the security guards at the airport, for example – but the rest of the zombies have shed all remnants of human life. In the book, they keep up some semblance of tradition, by getting married and sending their little adopted zombie children to school.
  • Julie’s father in the film, General Grigio (who is wonderfully depicted by John Malkovich), is frightening in his severity – yet in the film he softens somewhat. He is eventually able to relent and see the truth, whereas in the book, he is too far gone – he refuses to fight, he prefers to let go of his life rather than accept that the world may be healing.
  • In the film, the zombies and the humans unite against the boneys – in the book, the end comes about by much more cosmic means.
  • A significant change is the Berlin-style wall that separates the land of the living from the land of the dead. In the book, the humans are all huddled in a makeshift city inside a stadium, living in tins shacks and their own filth. In the film they are living in comparative splendor – Julie lives in a mansion, and the abandoned stadium exists only for R and Julie to run through, as they sneak from one land to the other.
  • The way that R sneaks into the stadium is also different. In the book he acts like a human and deceives the guard who lets him stride right past. In the film, they are much less trusting – they use eye-scanning devices to test for infection on everyone who approaches the gates. In the film, R delves into Perry’s memories to find a secret entry through the wall.
  • In the film, R doesn’t slip up inside and attack a guard, as he does in the book. Julie and Nora don’t take him to a pub and he also doesn’t have the opportunity to injure some rude and ignorant men. Overall, R’s time inside the human world is much more limited in the film – he has less opportunity to experience human life, and therefore less opportunity to fail at it.
  • Perry doesn’t speak to R in the film, the way that he does in the book. In the film it is only Perry’s memories that R accesses, and he eventually finds even that too much. In the book, R is so connected to Perry’s mind and they have real or imagined conversations.
  • The way that Perry’s father dies is different. In the book he dies in a “stupid work accident” and Perry find it difficult to reason that his death was not for any noble cause. In the film, Julie and Perry come across the zombie version of his father and Julie shoots him in the head.
  • Similarly, the story about Julie’s mother is different. In the book she gives in, accepts that the world is over and walks out into the world to accept her fate. They never find out what actually happened to her, yet they imagine the worst. In the film, it is insinuated that her mother turned into a zombie, and Grigio shot her in the head.
  • As is perhaps inevitable when changing a book into a film, the value of literature is missing from the film. Perry did not have a love of writing; he did not leave behind a manuscript for Julie to find; R does not lament the loss of his ability to read and struggle to form letters together into words; and there is no talk of the importance of recording the end of humanity in words on a page.

The verdict:

How does the film rate? 4/5

How does the film rate as an adaptation? 4.5/5

Total score: 8.5/10

Book or Big Screen? Book

Coming soon: A review of 'The Host' by Stephenie Meyer

April 4, 2013

The world is run on tricks, everyone plays: How ‘Water for Elephants’ compares from book to film

With every word that Sara Gruen allocated to the pages of Water for Elephants, she was asking the reader to care.

Through this novel – through its intricate detail, seemingly effortless style, sweeping scope, and intriguingly flawed characters – Gruen asks the reader to feel sadness, passion and empathy, and to make an investment of emotional energy as well as time.

I was more than willing to oblige.

Before reading Water for Elephants, I had heard many things. I had heard “best seller,” “five million copies” and “must read” – but these types of recommendations had long become customary. Water for Elephants was a novel that I would one day get around to, but I was in no rush.

When the film rolled through the cinemas, like every girl with a heartbeat, I was intrigued. I heard “Robert Pattinson” and “romantic” and “colourful” and “stunning” – and I thought, ‘I’ll get around to it.'

But then the time came. Water for Elephants was the next book on my ‘to-review’ list, and I started to read. And I wondered how I could have waited for so long.

I relished this book. Every word on every page felt like a gift.

Over the course of the first few chapters, I would lay down the book late at night and think about my grandfather. And suddenly I felt like I truly understood what he went through in the last few years of his life, and more than I every thought possible I valued his memory.

A few more chapters on, and I began to feel a deep sadness for the working animals and the suffering that they endured day after day so that a blissfully ignorant crowd could be entertained. Especially for the animals with enough intelligence to comprehend their own suffering.

Most of all I felt for Walter, the dwarf whose life was forever bound to the circus as he had no means of escape or of a brighter future, and who was stuck between the workers and the “rubes” (performers). He didn’t fit-in with either group and was forced to sleep with the horses.

This book is so rich and so full of colour and character it seemed a perfect fit for the big screen. Which brings me to the 2011 film, directed by Francis Lawrence. I have no criticisms. The adapters did a perfect job of translating Gruen’s cruel and magical world to the visual medium.

Although I have no criticisms, I do have some comparisons:

  • The film is a much more polished than the novel. While all the important elements of the story are where they should be, the on-screen Big Top is much more bright and clean than its literary equivalent. The construction of the circus is like a rhythmic, well-orchestrated dance; the animal enclosures are clean; the ground is lush and green; and the dust and dirt and manure and grime is replaced by light and colour and music. Jacob even has the freedom to walk around the circus grounds and enjoy the splendour – and even begins to thank his lucky stars for sending him Benzini Bros – before he is then given the task of shoveling the manure.
  • In the film, the elderly Jacob’s nursing home is across the road from the circus and he wanders over there by himself, manipulating his way into the show after insulting the ticket collector. In the book, he intentionally misses the bus back to the nursing home.
  • In the film, Jacob didn’t live away at school at the time of his parent’s death. He left the family home that same morning, and farewelled his parents when he left to sit his final exam at Cornell. The exam was then interrupted by the terrible news. In the book, Jacob was attending a lecture at Cornell when he was called out and informed of his parent’s death, he then traveled back home to identify the bodies and due to his grief he later walked out on the final exam.
  • Another slight alteration early on in the film is in regards to Jacob’s relationship with Catherine, the flirtatious girl in his class. In the book, it is implied that Catherine intentionally leads Jacob on and teases him and he is shy and inexperienced and unsure of how to deal with the attention. In the film, Pattinson’s character is much more confident and seems certain of his success in the bedroom.
  • This added confidence is also shown in Jacob’s dealings with August – he cunningly manipulates the circus-owner into employing him with the statement that “I’m sure Ringling has its own vet,” whereas in the book he just stumbles his way through the first meeting (in the book it is with Uncle Al). Pattinson’s Jacob is also more capable of dealing with Marlena’s advances, and her looks and actions in the film are much more direct and encouraging.
  • In the film, there is no Uncle Al. August, the head animal trainer of the book (and Marlena’s husband), also becomes the ringmaster and circus owner. The two brutal and remorseless characters are rolled into one ultimate evildoer, who even does most of his own dirty work.
  • When Jacob first entered the Benzini Brothers train carriage Blackie ambushes him. In the film, his reception is a little more restrained. Following Camel’s advice, Blackie backs off – whereas in the book Jacob takes quite a pounding first.
  • In the book, Jacob first sees Marlena with her ponies inside the animal enclosure, but he doesn’t actually see her perform for quite some time. When he tells Uncle Al that Marlena’s act is his favourite, he is taking a wild guess. In the film, Jacob – and the audience – is able to see Marlena’s act on his very first day, as well as the clowns, the dogs, the acrobats and the lions as well.
  • Also through Jacob’s eyes, in the film the audience is also gifted a much broader tour of the Benzini Bros carriages than they are given in the book. In the book, Jacob is forced to jump precariously from carriage to carriage on the roof of the train – although he also does this in the film, Camel also walks him through of the performer’s sleeping quarters, which are stacked to the roof with narrow bunks.
  • In the film, Jacob goes against August’s direct instructions by putting down Marlena’s horse – and Marlena is also present when he does it. It is the first time that the two really bond, and the first time that Marlena reveals how ruthless and cruel August really is. In the book, August is aware of what he is going to do but it is initially kept from Marlena to protect her feelings.
  • In the book, it is initially not known who is stealing the lemonade – and the value of the stolen liquid is deducted from the wages of the workmen. In the film, Rosie only treats herself to lemonade once, and it is done openly in front of Jacob as a way of demonstrating her intelligence.
  • In the book, Jacob is the “menagerie man” who cares for many of the animals, including the Orangutan. In the film, he is the ‘Bull Man’ only as Rosie takes up the majority of his time. The way that Jacob finds out that Rosie only understands Polish, and Rosie’s eventual circus act with Marlena, are also altered in the film.
  • The tragic nature of Marlena’s back-story is ramped up in the film. In the book she is disowned by her parents because they did not approve of her unsuitable marriage to August – in the film, she is orphaned as a baby and the circus is the only home that she has ever known.
  • In the book, Marlena does not make a deliberate, conscious decision to leave August for Jacob – she feels compelled to, and is driven into Jacob’s arms after August beats her. In the film, their romance is taken up a notch as she decides to leap from the train with him. The drama is also amped up when August’s men find Jacob and Marlena in their hotel room – in the book, they are not discovered and return to the circus separately the following day. In the book, August is never certain that they are having an affair. The stampede scene also has significant differences in the film – no doubt as a way of also making the impact more dramatic.

Actually, having thought about it, I do have one criticism… Throughout both the book and the film, I was waiting for the penny to drop. I was hoping to hear the full explanation of the symbolism of the “Water for Elephants” title. But it never came.

Sure, there are a few references. In the beginning of the novel, Jacob is certain that another resident of the nursing home is lying when he claims to have carried water for elephants at a circus. And when Jacob is brought to Uncle Al, he is taunted with the sarcastic "You want to carry water for elephants, I suppose?" at a time when the Benzini Bros did not have an elephant as part of their act.

It is explained that the circus train can only carry a limited amount of water on board, and only the most favoured employees have the luxury of a bucket of water to wash with. It is also implied that elephants can drink a significant amount – as evidenced by Rosie’s habit of stealing the lemonade, as well as her penchant for whiskey.

But, it is never explained why Jacob was so sure that his nursing home companion was lying. Why was he so certain that the man did not carry water for elephants at some other circus? What did Jacob’s experiences in the circus teach him that others would not ordinarily know?

If only I could answer these questions, I could put this book and film aside and feel perfectly content. So if you can answer them, let me know.

The verdict:

How does the film rate? 4.5/5

How does the film rate as an adaptation? 4.5/5

Total score: 9/10

Book or Big Screen? Book

Coming soon: A review of 'Warm Bodies' by Isaac Marion