Thus revealed, the creature buried its nose in the tire-tilled soil...
January 25, 2018
Thoughts on Let the Right One In (Swedish and American films + comparisons to novel)
Category: Books … TV, Film, & DVDs

Having finished reading John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel Let the Right One In (and the short story sequel, "Let the Old Dreams Die"), last night I watched the Swedish and American film versions back to back. And... it was an interesting experience. I first saw the American film nearly a year after I saw the Swedish one, so it wasn't entirely fresh in my mind -- but from what I recalled the American movie seemed like a superfluous remake of the original, made only for people who for whatever reason can't abide subtitles or dubs. And while it does seem that the American movie is more an adaptation of the Swedish film than of the original novel, my previous opinion of the film isn't *quite* right.

It's true that the scenes between Eli and Oskar -- Abby and Owen in the American film -- are almost exactly the same in both films (even the dialogue in the American version matches the subtitles in the Swedish film, though I'm aware of one particular instance where the subtitles don't match what the character actually says onscreen). The subplots of the secondary characters, however -- which are such a large part of the book that it's hard to call them "secondary" characters, and which are included in truncated form in the Swedish film -- are almost entirely done away with; what necessary elements remain (these people largely become Eli's victims in the book and Swedish film, and an American vampire's gotta eat too) are relegated to Owen's neighbors, whom he watches from his bedroom via telescope. Given how frustrating I found the sections concerning these characters in the novel -- and yet how, this time around, I found those parts of the film somehow incomplete and/or confusing without the additional information that the novel supplied -- I actually find that change really effective. There's also one bit of dialogue in the American film in which Owen describes a friendship with Tommy, a character who is present in the novel but absent from both films (Owen says that the character moved away before the events of the film began), which is both a neat nod to the novel and an admirable handling of the character. (Tommy -- along with his widowed mother and her cop fiancé and all of the drama involved in that situation -- was rightly left out of the movies, especially since one of his scenes in the book involved Eli paying him for a liter of his blood. If she could simply pay people for blood and leave them alive and well, why kill for it? Even the novel doesn't effectively answer this question; the movie, I think, would have had an even harder time with it.)

Another difference -- although more subtle than I expected it to be, given all I've read about it online -- involves the character of Hakan, Eli's caretaker. Given that I watched the movies (some years ago) before I read the book, I was surprised and disappointed to learn that the character, whom I had imagined had arrived in the service of the vampire through some interesting and meaningful events (the American movie is perhaps less interesting in this regard, since it suggests that the caretaker had been with Abby since he himself was a child), was simply a pedophile who served her out of desire. (Indeed, one of the lamest -- and grossest -- parts of the book involves Hakan returning from death as a mindless ghoul driven only by a compulsion to rape his former master.) The Swedish film doesn't explicitly mention this pedophilia at all, but -- supposedly -- there were hints at it in the dialogue. And while admittedly I was reading the subtitles, and the subtitles might not be wholly accurate (in one scene, right before Hakan pours acid on his face, he clearly says "Eli"; the subtitles read, "I'm trapped"), I didn't pick up on this in the film even though I was actively looking for it. In fact, the exchanges between the caretaker (he's not named in the American film) and Abby line up almost verbatim with those of Hakan and Eli in the Swedish version. The difference is that Hakan in the Swedish film seems to regard Oskar with a kind of jealousy, which I suppose people read as romantic jealousy, which -- given that Eli is physically a child -- I suppose gives people the impression that Hakan in the film is a pedophile. I think those are valid reads, but I also think that Eli is an immortal (her age isn't specified in the film, but the book notes she is over 200 years old), so attraction to her doesn't necessarily make one a pedophile despite her appearance. (In Anne Rice's Interview With the Vampire, is Louis a pedophile for growing romantically attached to Claudia, physically only five years old, during the 60+ years they spend together?) There is also one scene where Hakan stands outside a school gym, watching teenage boys play basketball, with a rather intense look on his face -- but, as he's got one of those boys strung up to be killed in the very next scene, I read his expression more as a hunter's scrutiny than sexual longing.

I could probably write more about the differences between the films and the book -- there is one *major* revelation in the book that is absent from both films (and, while I don't think it justifies the ponderous examinations of the lives of so many of Blackeberg's inhabitants, it at least makes clearer what John Ajvide Lindqvist wanted to explore in delving into these many different relationships) -- but these are the ones that sprang to mind following my recent viewings. I will say that watching original films and their remakes/foreign adaptations within days (or hours) of each other is a practice I'll have to continue; it makes the similarities and variances so much more pronounced and interesting to ponder. (I never did get around to watching the live-action Ghost in the Shell with Scarlett Johansson, so maybe I'll have to schedule a viewing of that and the original anime in the near future!)

One final thing that struck me about both films: despite the structures' aligning with the text (Eli is mentioned as leaping down from a height of over two meters in the book), in neither film does the jungle gym -- or the part of it from which the vampire girl descends in her debut scene -- seem quite high enough. In the book, after Eli first lands in front of him, Oskar thinks, "She must do gymnastics or something like that." In the films, however, her hopping down off the jungle gym is hardly impressive: I could do it without spraining my ankle even at my advanced age. So this sounds like a trivial detail, but somehow it seemed to me like the filmmakers were more interested in framing Eli/Abby lounging on the structure (and the fact that she isn't wearing shoes) than on emphasizing the remarkable nature of her agility.

EDIT 1: I was asked a few questions about the above on another forum, so I elaborated accordingly -- figured I'd post my responses here as well. Note that I discuss a pretty MAJOR spoiler from the novel in the text below, so stop reading now if you want to be surprised!

Questions: What's the major revelation? Which version did you end up preferring? Did you think the American version made the right call in excising the bit about Abby actually being male (by birth, not trying to piss anyone off)?

My response: Well, that Eli is male was the revelation -- I was trying not to spoil it outright, haha -- and I don't think it's really addressed in either film. The Swedish film does give a glimpse of Eli's genitals, but there's no discussion of what their unusual appearance actually signifies. (I doubt many viewers have seen castration scars, and in any case -- since there's no opening for urination -- I'm not sure real castration scars look like what Eli sports.) In fact, given that scene in the movie, and especially after reading about certain powers Eli has in the book (at one point Eli's limbs lengthen, he grows elongated claws, and a thin skin membrane forms between his arms and torso, thus giving her wings), I'd assumed the character was some kind of blood-drinking changeling -- which would fit with his assertions that he's neither a girl nor a boy. (It would also fit with Eli's protestations in the book that he's not a vampire; he mentions that a vampire is a different type of supernatural creature.) The book is ultimately *super* explicit with respect to Eli's castration, though (there's even a flashback to the scene, since others can experience Eli's memories when he kisses them), and once it's revealed Eli is afterward referred to with masculine pronouns.

As far as preferring one version or another... I'm not sure. The Swedish film is definitely a more faithful adaptation of the source material, and there are definitely things I prefer about it (the locale fits the story better, and -- though the dialogue is largely the same -- I think the actors convey the nature of Eli and Oskar's relationship in a more poignant and compelling fashion). I also think that the American version's treatment of Hakan/Owen does the characters no favors; Eli and Oskar's relationship means so much to Eli precisely because it differs from what she had with Hakan (especially in the book, since he's super gross). But I also think the American version is a tighter and less potentially confusing story even though it doesn't hit the emotional notes as forcefully.

Everything the films do well, the book does better -- but there's a lot of crap in the book (enough that, were I not reading the book for a discussion group, I'd have stopped reading) that the films appropriately leave out or minimize. So... they're all flawed variants of a story that, at its core, I really do find compelling. I guess the Swedish film best expresses the parts I like without dwelling on everything I really could've done without, but I feel like it could be improved upon, too.

EDIT 2: After writing the above addendum, I decided that I wanted to add a bit more clarification and elaborated as follows:

Actually, I take that back: "Everything the films do well, the book does better." With the character motivations and the dialogue, yes -- because they're described and explained allowed to develop at greater length. With the visual elements, no -- I'll take shots of snow falling to descriptions of snow falling (unless there are some *really* effective metaphors present) almost any day. But, most notably, the scene where Eli rescues Oskar from the bullies is *beautifully* rendered in the Swedish film. By comparison, the American film's depiction is chaotic and messy and fraught with swearing, so perhaps it's more realistic but not suggestive of the salvation it represents. (That said, it occurs to me that, in the American film, Owen's fate is *actually* rather bleak -- so perhaps that's appropriate. It's also worth noting that Abby's eyes aren't included at the end of that scene: there's only a shot of her bare, bloody feet as she stands over Owen. Again, appropriate given the film's interpretation of their relationship, but... man.) And it isn't described at length in the book at all; what little there is of it is gleaned from witness accounts acquired by a police detective. (There is somewhat more description of it in the sequel story, but still nothing as compelling as the visual rendering.)

-posted by Wes | 7:51 pm | Comments (0)
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