The Movie Version of ‘Annihilation’ Isn’t an Adaptation—It’s a Transformation
How much can you change something before it’s a different creature? The novel asks that question, and the movie embodies it
Annihilation, Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel, is short, clocking in at just over 200 pages in paperback. There’s not an ounce of fat on it; VanderMeer avoids the all-too-common speculative fiction trap of overindulging in world-building by focusing strictly on his protagonist’s inner life. We know her only as the biologist, and the story unfolds as an entry in her journal, which serves the neat double purpose of making the biologist the only character with interiority, and holding the reader at an extra degree of remove — we’re not reading the events of the narrative as they happen, but rather as the biologist relates them to us after the fact. It’s a cerebral story, with sparse dialogue, no names, little action, and a healthy dose of ambiguity.
The concept is gripping from jump — a team of scientists ventures into a mysterious and abandoned area of coastline, called Area X, that’s thwarted all previous research attempts. Though Area X appears tranquil, there is an eeriness to its flora, fauna, climate, and remnants of civilization that builds over the course of the novel. In the climactic scene, the biologist encounters the Crawler, an amorphous ectoplasmic entity and the catalyst for the biologist’s ultimate transformation. The Crawler, understood in the text to be the evolution or mutation of what used to be the lighthouse-keeper, moves up and down the stairs of the Tower (a living structure descending into the depths of the earth), writing a mysterious text over and over on the walls. The biologist, having found herself beginning to change from the spores she inhaled in the Tower at the beginning of the novel, finds herself undergoing a trial by fire as she encounters the Crawler on the stairs. It passes over her, cataloging her, recognizing her. Afterwards, she’s not the same.
The movie adaptation, written and directed by Alex Garland, translates much of the book’s weirdness into a language that works on-screen: the mutated flora and fauna of Area X, fairly understated in the book, are punched up, artifice raised to the level of transcendent natural beauty, which makes perfect sense in a visual medium. The characters are given names — the biologist becomes Lena, her husband becomes Kane, the expedition leader (a psychologist) becomes Ventress — which helps the audience keep the characters straight and keeps the dialogue from feeling too stilted. There’s added action and gore and interpersonal conflict to appeal to a broader commercial audience.
Despite the common refrain of “it wasn’t like that in the book,” deviance from the source material is not inherently a bad thing in an adaptation. The language of film is fundamentally different than the language of literature, and there are certain literary devices that don’t translate from text to screen. But what the best adaptations do is update the trappings while keeping the bones of a story the same — and that’s not what happened with Annihilation. Instead, Garland has effected a total transformation of the novel into something that shares its name but few of its defining qualities — a process that mirrors the biologist’s evolution in the novel — and that raises some of the same questions. How much of a thing’s DNA can you change before it becomes something utterly new?
Garland has effected a total transformation of the novel into something that shares its name but few of its defining qualities — a process that mirrors the biologist’s evolution in the novel.
For one, Garland makes Area X itself into the enemy, rather than staying close to the biologist’s conflicted inner life and the interpersonal dynamics of the expedition. In traditional terms, this is now a “man vs. nature” story instead of “man vs. man.” The film removes the element of human monstrosity that underlies the book’s narrative — the psychologist’s insidious conditioning of her teammates, the creeping realization of the extent to which the researchers have been manipulated by the government agency that sent them, the black boxes supposedly monitoring for danger (revealed ultimately to be placebos, useless pieces of plastic), and the revelation that there have been far, far more previous expeditions than they were told. Narratively, replacing the psychologist with Area X as the primary antagonist changes Lena’s ultimate relationship with Area X; the film becomes a story of her triumph over the space, rather than her adaptation to it.
Garland also disambiguates a lot of the questions posed and then deliberately unanswered by the book. In Annihilation, VanderMeer is distinctly uninterested in telling us what Area X is, where it came from, because, frankly, that’s not the point. (He does address some of these same questions in later books, but those weren’t yet published when Garland wrote his treatment.). Garland, on the other hand, is much more interested in explanations. The opening scenes show some kind of projectile hitting the lighthouse from above, and the characters seem to settle on an extraterrestrial origin for the whole phenomenon. Josie (Tessa Thompson) theorizes that Area X (or the Shimmer, as the movie calls it) refracts DNA the way a prism refracts light, accounting for the endless iterative mutations around and within them.
It’s the omission of the Crawler, though, that most seismically alters the story. Garland includes a version of the Tower under the lighthouse, and Lena and Ventress certainly encounter something down there, but it’s an adversary, where the Crawler is both catalyst and a glimpse of the biologist’s future, a distillation of Area X itself. The Crawler is both creator and adapter, writing an endless living tract, disassembling and reconstructing to fit its own worldview.
The characters in the Southern Reach Trilogy enter Area X as one thing and exit (if they do at all) as something different. Suspended in the medium of the unknown, they’re irreversibly altered by it in a way that’s informed by everything else Area X has ever encountered or absorbed. The adaptation process moves in parallel: a director or screenwriter digests a source text through the lens of their own personal cultural patina — the stories they’ve consumed, their life, their views — and recombines the pieces into something new.
But where’s the line? At a certain point, the biologist is no longer the same person as she was at the beginning of the novel. Where in the narrative that change takes place may be a matter of opinion — was it the moment she inhaled the spores from the wall of the tower, or was it when she finally passed through the Crawler? — but that it takes place is indisputable.
Pose that same question to Alex Garland: at what point have you changed your source material so drastically that you’re telling a completely different story? At what point do you yourself become the Crawler?
At what point have you changed your source material so drastically that you’re telling a completely different story? At what point do you yourself become the Crawler?
At the end of the novel, the biologist leaves her journal in the lighthouse and journeys off along the coast, deciding to stay in Area X indefinitely. She feels close to her late husband there, and has come to believe that the inevitable encroachment of Area X on the rest of the world isn’t such a bad thing — would it be so terrible, after all, if this eldritch Eden engulfed the whole planet, given how humans have exploited and squandered the natural world? As readers, we’re inclined to agree. VanderMeer gives us little to love in the human world, and while Area X is strange and frightening, it’s honest. There’s a distinct desire to wander up the coast with her and explore.
But on-screen, in a bravura piece of filmmaking, Lena has a showdown in the lighthouse with an entity that doubles her, attempting to take her form. She kills it, and in doing so seems to defeat Area X, before returning triumphant (yet altered in some tantalizingly vague way) to the copy of her husband, still living. She’s a hero, of sorts, and in her debrief at the Southern Reach we learn that Area X has collapsed and the lighthouse is reduced to ashes. The threat is eliminated, though some part of Area X lives on in her husband’s double, and in the shimmer in her eyes. There’s a sense of loss here, since there was so much more of Area X to explore. It feels conservative in a way the book never did, to choose the violent rejection of change instead of embracing it.
It feels conservative in a way the book never did, to choose the violent rejection of change instead of embracing it.
You can’t see the full shape of a story until it’s over, which is why endings have such weight. The ending of the movie throws into sharp relief just how differently VanderMeer and Garland see this story — where Vandermeer conceived of a loner becoming one with a strange land, Garland saw a woman driven to solve the mystery that wounded her husband. Neither view is wrong; one story is not objectively better than the other. But when a filmmaker strays this far from his source text, it ceases to be an adaptation and becomes something else.
Or, to quote Lena, “It’s not destroying… it’s making something new.”