Several weeks ago, HB and I went to see “the Swedish vampire movie,” LET THE RIGHT ONE IN. It was appropriately moody, creepy, and if anything the frigid Swedish setting underscored how a small community already predisposed to avoid the cold further huddles inward from fear–thereby ignoring the ravenous stranger among them. Much of the film takes place in a working class set of undistinguished apartment buildings, and it was a little puzzling to me why we kept seeing establishing shots of the dead-eyed windows in soulless building after building (okay, the master shot, got it, I know where we are already). Then I realized the filmmakers were probably trying to say something about the density of people versus the ability of a vampire to live and hunt among them without detection for a long while. So much for Jeremy Bentham’s idea of the panopticon.
In a nutshell: victimized by bullies, Oskar befriends a strange girl (Eli) who moves into his apartment building at the same time as a series of savage ritual killings circles in on his hometown. Oskar’s friendship with the girl and discovery of the killer spurs him to shed his victim role for another, not necessarily liberatory one.
I liked the film because it made me think about how the cycle of sexual abuse resembles vampirism–every perpetrator was once a victim. It’s a particularly hideous form of contagion. That metaphor wouldn’t have occurred to me had I not seen it through the lens of the film. And seeing blanched Scandanavians against a white wintry landscape was an interesting visual way to experience blood and bloodlessness.
But I hated the novel because it added depravity without insight. To say more would be to spoil both film and novel, but I will say that I’m an old fogey now, and gratuitous depravity or violence isn’t tolerable or shocking as it may have been to me when I was younger. I think this is because as I get older, I become more aware that anything that can be imagined is unfortunately probably happening in real life to a real person, to a much worse degree somewhere in the world.
So there you go. I disliked the novel because
- I have become a horrible, literalist scold
- everything should serve story; the extraneous, shocking, and horrific must justify their existence in the story even more
- if you try to shock me, you’d better get serious epiphany mileage out of it or I’ll resent what you’ve done as an author
It’s interesting to observe how the film shares the same DNA as the novel, but in some rare cases, as with this one, improves upon it. LTROI the film succeeds because there are natural obstacles to having your child actors perform certain acts, and I think in this case the restraint forced upon the filmmakers was a huge improvement on the novel. We got much more by implication in the film than by the novel’s so-called superior depiction of inner states.
The other problem is that I don’t find the novel particularly well-written. It reads like early Stephen King. (He’s become a better writer in recent years, IMHO.) It’s sprawling, goes for easy shock effects, dances at the edge of the worst kinds of darkness in human endeavors with seemingly little redemptive thematic return, has a few too many characters, and offends by sometimes being dull.
So there you have it. Sometimes the discipline and efficient story demands of a movie can be a huge improvement on a shaggy, shambling novel. And yes, I’m aware the screenwriter for the film was the novelist.