The Book Club

With COVID cases high again, and the Midwestern weather being as inconsistent as ever, it’s hard not to feel like we’re in a poorly written science fiction film. While I love terrible CGI as much as the next person, it can take away from whatever fragmented plot remains. That being said, you might be wondering why I’m talking about films rather than books in a book-themed column – I promise I’m not taking over Levi’s gig! My latest read has been “Annihilation” by Jeff VanderMeer, which is the first book of the “Southern Reach” trilogy. The book was later adapted into a film starring Natalie Portman, and Oscar Issac, the star of Marvel’s “Moonknight” series. While the movie may have been far from stellar, I don’t plan on reviewing it in-depth, but rather plan on reviewing the book and pointing out aspects of it that the film unfortunately had to alter to make it blockbuster worthy.  

In VanderMeer’s book, readers follow a biologist and her team as they venture into Area X, which has been cut off from the rest of the world. The previous teams have all been lost, killed or return as empty shells dying of cancer. The teams are all sent to document as much information as they can about the area, the lifeforms that live there and the origin of this strangely pristine place. The book is a written documentation of the biologist, and it’s both intriguing and frustrating to see everything from her point of view. She purposely withholds information from the readers, even lies, and her vocabulary fails to describe some of the strange phenomena occurring. One of the major points where this is noticeable is when she discusses the other members of the team. None of the characters have names besides their occupation, such as the surveyor or the psychologist, for she doesn’t find it necessary to share anything else – a strange choice on VanderMeer’s part, but a creative one regardless. While we are simultaneously given a boatload of information yet none at all, it was amazing to see how VanderMeer could create such a disturbing atmosphere with limited descriptions. Without giving too much of the plot away, I can comfortably say that the ending of the book doesn’t wrap up all of the information in a nice little bow, nor does it really answer anything – for we know as much as the biologist tells us, which allows VanderMeer to perfectly extend his mystery into two sequels.  

Now, where does the film adaption go right, and where does it go awry? To give the directors some credit, they had an interesting plot but not much to go off of with VanderMeer’s novel. That being said, it’s understandable that some creative liberties were necessary. While most of the characters in the book had limited interaction and failed to even have names, the directors decided to make the team more dimensional. This makes sense, since I doubt viewers would sympathize much with characters named “Surveyor” or “Biologist”. Instead, they were given names, distinct personalities, and they even had moments of kinship. While necessary, I still didn’t find it as effective as VanderMeer’s approach. Similarly, they also gave dimension to our biologist, making her a lovestruck widow of sorts with a complicated marriage. Our book-biologist had a complicated marriage, but beyond that she seemed mainly focused on her work more than anything. She wasn’t exactly likeable, granted that wasn’t necessarily VanderMeer’s intent. But the movie portrayal didn’t feel remotely like the same woman I had spent 195 pages with. Beyond that, the film is vaguely similar to the book, but the plot was changed significantly, and made to be more action-packed to keep an audience engaged. And, unlike the book, the directors attempted to wrap up most of the mystery in a nice little bow promptly instead of waiting for two sequels. However, despite my criticism, I do give them credit for making Area X come to life. While our book-biologist was limited with her descriptions, the directors were able to perfectly capture the grotesque beauty of the environment, which helped bring out the unsettling atmosphere that VanderMeer was attempting to create with his strange plot structure.  

 While I can’t say I would recommend the film adaption of “Annihilation” – you might need to ask for Levi’s input – I can confidently say that the “Southern Reach” trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer is perfect for those in the mood for a slow-burn science fiction series with a minimal page count.