Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Has He Hurt You? Are You Sad?

Spoilers for the novel Let the Right One In are to be found below!! BE WARNED!!

Where do I begin? The problem with beginning this particular post is that I, quite frankly, don't really feel like jumping headlong into a critique and analysis of John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel Let the Right One In, which has recently been turned into a very highly acclaimed film by Thomas Alfredson and Lindqvist, a movie which everybody in the world seems to have seen, except me. No, I decided to read the novel first -- which is my usual way of doing these things, if it's a novel I especially want to read -- and will now most likely have to wait until the film comes out on DVD to find out how in the sweet name of crap they crammed all 472 pages of this bloated mess of a novel into 114 minutes of screen time.

Okay, I'm being unfair to the novel, and to Lindqvist. One of the ways in which I'm being unfair is that, by saying the above, some might think that I'm implying that Lindqvist isn't at least trying to do something interesting within the sections of the novel that I believe contribute to the bloat and the mess. But he is. He's trying to bring in, and flesh out, the kinds of characters you rarely see in horror novels, such as Stockholm's unemployed and alcoholic fringe dwellers. He wants these characters, and the more stock ones, to live, and he doesn't want their every action to further the main engine of his (admittedly interesting...for a while) vampire story. All well and good, and in fact I wish more horror writers would try this. But damn it, much of it, especially in the last half, is just not very good, and the elements that are relatively new to the genre that Lindqvist is bringing in are simply not very interesting. These fringe dwellers only take on life when they become part of the plot, and even then it gets dicey.

Before going too much farther, I suppose I should write up a brief synopsis of the story. Okay, so, Oskar is an overweight Swedish kid who is mercilessly bullied on a daily basis. Living next door to him is Eli, a twelve year-old girl who he runs into one night in their apartment complex's playground (he had been stabbing a tree, imagining that the tree was one of his bullies). She's quite friendly, and Oskar sees in her the possibility of a sort of emotional freedom. Unbeknownst to him, at first, is the fact that Eli is a vampire, and living with her is a middle-aged pedophile named Hakan, who murders people in order to supply her with blood. Although Hakan does many terrible things, and some unforgivable appetites, he does feel a great deal of remorse, and is beginning to psychologically break down...or, well, break down more, I guess.

So that's the important stuff, story-wise. Part of the problem with the novel must be the translation, by Ebba Segeberg. I don't want to come down too hard on Segeberg, because the art of translation is largely ignored, and I would guess it is also immensely difficult. But there are long stretches of this book where Segeberg simply seems to be unable to find any interesting or evocative English equivelant to what Lindqvist has written (so, actually, maybe it is Lindqvist's fault. Anyway, it's the fault of one of them). Surprisingly, to me at least, Segeberg is able to best find her (his?) stride in some of the novel's humor, such as in this passage, where Lacke, the primary alcoholic fringer dweller, is wondering about the practical aspect of sterilizing the apparently dozens of cats owned by Gosta, the most pathetic alcoholic fringe dweller:

Lacke imagined Gosta getting on the subway with maybe...twenty-five cats. In one box. No, in a bag, a sack. Go to the vet and just pour out all the cats. "Castration, please."

Segerberg can also occasionally nail some of the novel's more poignant moments, such as this bit taken from a note left for Oskar by Eli:

Sorry I broke your music machine. Take the money if you want. I have a lot. Don't be afraid of me. There's no reason for you to be. Maybe you know that. I hope you know that. I like you so very much.

The passages where Segerberg and/or Lindqvist do not nail it are harder to quote, because it has less to do with flat-out bad writing (although there is some of that) as it does an accumulation of teeth-grinding flatness. And this can often come at the worst times, such as in one of the major suspense sections towards the end. But the section I'm thinking of, which deals with one of probably half a dozen returns by Hakan, is so standard issue and over-the-top -- a very bad combination -- that I'm not sure top-notch writing could have really saved it.

Which brings up another point. I haven't seen the film, as I mentioned, but having finished the novel I decided to read two reviews of it, by my good pals Fox and Marilyn. First of all, I'd like to digress briefly and say that Marilyn's review has really renewed my interest in seeing the film, something that reading the novel had dimmed considerably. Second, Fox's review -- which is less enthusiastic than Marilyn's, but still positive -- focuses on an element of the story that I think should have been focused on more in the novel, which is not just the relationship between Oskar and Eli, but the motives of Eli. But that's neither here nor there, because that's still one of the novel's stronger elements. No, what both reviews indicated to me is that many of the novel's particularly ludicrous plot elements appear to have been completely excised from the film (except for, if I'm understanding Fox's review correctly, the stuff about the cats...), such as -- and here are my big SPOILERS -- the nonsensical and unexplained "zombification" of Hakan, and the utterly baffling and pointless revelation that, before she got vampirized, Eli used to be a boy. Whose name was Elias, don't you know, and whose dad(?) de-manned him for what would appear to be purely sadistic reasons, leaving Elias looking like a girl, but also leaving his genital area (that would be the crotch) completely smooth, like, I don't know...a robot.

What in the world is the point of this? Is it simply Lindqvist's way of playing around with the (to me utterly boring) idea that a vampire's sexuality is ambiguous? If so, that's a damn stupid way of going about it, and it also doesn't make any sense because, in the novel at least, any sort of sexual involvement between Oskar and Eli seems off the table due to the complete indifference of both.
Anyhow. I'm still looking forward to the film, because it sounds as though everything that should have been toned down in the novel has been toned down in the film, and everything that should have been cut from the novel has been cut from the film. And there truly is a good story buried somewhere in Lindqvist's book. I just hope the film found it.
UPDATE: On reflection, I'm thinking this post is probably very disjointed. I wrote it way too fast, and had no clear idea of how I wanted to progress from one paragraph to the next. Right now, I'm too tired, hungry and lazy to proof-read and see if I'm correct, so if you read this and agree with me....then I'm sorry, I guess. It's not like I'm charging you money, or anything. Although I probably should.
UPDATE UPDATE: I just added an ending. Of sorts.


nd said...

Everyone I've talked to who's seen the film AND read the book has marvelled at how much better the films is. I haven't read it & probably never will. If you see it, just try to forget about all the backstory about Eli & Hakan, because I think it's actually implied in the film that their relationship is quite different.

One point, though: the novelist was also, I gather, the author of the screenplay. So either he did a major, intelligent overhaul of the book, or else the director or someone else overhauled it for him.

I don't know if the cats get as much play in the film as in the book, but they're there, & actually are responsible for the one notably weak scene in the film (due to some rather ludicrous CGI).

There is one loose end in the film which maybe the book would tidy up--a mysterious metallic egg, a set of rings & a golden orb, which simply pop up for one scene & are never mentioned again.

Anyway, I really was impressed by the film--it's got some alarming gore in it but the overall methodology is pleasingly Lewtonesque in its use of pacing, darkness, sound & the power of suggestion. & the child actors are great.

Greg said...

I'm confused. And of course I haven't seen it either, but it is that time of year when I finally start seeing the new stuff. Anyway, I read your spoilers and I don't think it spoiled it because I think I have to see it for it to all make sense in my head anyway.

Anonymous said...

I haven't see the film yet, either, and I'm not likely to until it's out on video. But I don't think it spoils it for me, either ...

whoissecretdubai said...


A humble request...

Do you, by any chance, happen to know who Secret Dubai (the blogger: is?

Greg said...

I already answered this on my blog. I say it's Jimmy. Am I right? Come on, Secret Dubai, throw me a bone here.

bill r. said...

ND - One point, though: the novelist was also, I gather, the author of the screenplay.

Yeah, I sort of, but not really, said that in the post. But I can't say if I even liked the movie yet, so...

There is one loose end in the film which maybe the book would tidy up--a mysterious metallic egg, a set of rings & a golden orb, which simply pop up for one scene & are never mentioned again.

Er...I don't remember anything like that in the book at all. I'll admit that, at times, my eyes glazed over as I was reading, so it's possible missed that, but I don't think so. So don't bother reading the book just to get that cleared up.

the overall methodology is pleasingly Lewtonesque

That makes me happy.

bill r. said...

Jonathan and Rick - Your confusion may stem from the fact that my post isn't very clear, but could also be due to the fact that these are book spoilers, and not film spoilers. But the main spoiler has to do with Eli's gender issues, which is a big (stupid) reveal in the novel.

bill r. said...

The Secret Dubai is actually two people: Murph and Skeeter. Those goofs!

Marilyn said...

I didn't read the book, but I think I said in my review that I suspected the film improved upon it (and yes, Lindqvist did write the screenplay - I expect he got a lot of help with it).

The cats - maybe because I saw the film on widescreen tv, they didn't look like bad CGI to me, and I loved the concept. I had hoped to see in on the big screen, but it hasn't happened yet.

bill r. said...

Hm...the concept. I'm starting to think that you (meaning Marilyn) and Fox are talking about something else. The cat scene in the novel I'm thinking of involves the fairly ridiculous slaughter of many cats, a concept which I doubt you (meaning Marilyn) would find interesting.

Marilyn said...

There is no cat slaughter scene, no homeless people. The scene to which we're referring has cats attack Ginia, who is turning into a vampire.

bill r. said...

Ah, well, in the book, that attack scene involves many of those cats being killed.

And they're not homeless in the book, just unemployed and alcoholic. Well, okay, Virginia is employed. Anyway, those characters pretty much have to be in the film, for the ending to come off, unless they completely changed it, but if they included Virginia, and the cat attack, they must also have included Lacke and his involvement in the ending (which, outside of zombie Hakan, is pretty effective).

Greg said...

Cat attacks, zombies, vampires, homeless people, unemployed alcoholics - It sounds like Barfly only better!

bill r. said...

I take it this all sounds like absurd gibberish to you, doesn't it? That was sort of what I was trying to get at in this post, because the book, when distilled down, IS absurd gibberish. From what I've gathered, the film isn't. I hope.

Marilyn said...

I think it's safe to say that you won't find the film gibberish. Whether or not you like it is another story. I've been told that I give this film cred because I'm not a fanboy. (Little do they know...)

bill r. said...

I've been told that I give this film cred because I'm not a fanboy.

I don't even know what that means. Wait, maybe I do. If I'm right in my assumption, that's a really stupid thing to say.