Thursday, November 05, 2009

Real Teeth

Let the Right One In, by John Ajvide Lindqvist, Translated by Ebba Sergerberg, Thomas Dunne Books, 2007

I first came across Let the Right One In the movie and committed one of my cardinal sins of films and fiction, I watched the movie first. (Let's make things even worse, I watched it on a teeny tiny iPod screen while commuting to work.)

There is often a disconnect between what a book is and what a movie is, and I used to be among the camp who complained when a cinematic adaptation didn't live up to my literary dream, but I've since wised up to the different demands of the different arts. What you can accomplish inside one character's head on the page just doesn't always work well in a kinetic medium like film, and even the shortest novel often finds lots of scenes cut from the final theatrical release. To do justice to a large work or even a medium sized one often requires a miniseries -- which is why the BBC's Pride and Prejudice is considered the best adaptation to come along. Yet, the final products will always cater to different aesthetics.

Be that as it may, I was quite surprised at how different John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel Let the Right One In was from the film of the same name. The novel has received a fresh round of interest as a result of the 2008 Swedish film directed by Tomas Alfredson (so much interest that an American version of the film is shooting, scheduled for a 2010 release). It's a commonplace to say that a horror novel is much scarier, much creepier, than its celluloid counterpart, but it is quite true in this case.

What's interesting about that, in a book about vampires, is that it isn't really the supernatural elements that are creepier but the human ones. Oh, certainly, there are small bits of horror in the book that don't turn up in the film (for example, in the novel, our vampire sleeps in a bathtub filled with blood; in the film, she just sleeps in a bathtub covered with blankets). That's kind of small potatoes, though later scenes involving a turned-vampire that just won't quite die, are rather wonderfully dreadful.

The film adaptation presents a more streamlined version of the central story but manages to lightly touch on almost everything in the book in allusive ways. The pedophilia at the heart of the relationship of the vampire and her human companion is only suggested in the film, while in the novel it is the human's animating drive. That the film manages to contain most of the novel, if only in gesture, is the happy result of the screenplay being written by Lindqvist himself. This is effective garlic to keep away fiction-bound purists who view other people's takes on "their" beloved art as fundamentally wrong-headed.

The story concerns twelve year old Oskar, a dreamy, shoplifting loner who is bullied by other children at school in 1980s Blackeberg, outside of Stockholm, Sweden. He lives with his mother in an apartment complex and he collects newspaper and magazine clippings of murders and criminals, dreaming of violent revenge on his school tormentors. One night two people move into an apartment in his building, a young girl and an older man. Eli, the younger appearing, turns out to be a centuries old vampire, and Hakan is an ex-school teacher and pedophile who kills to feed Eli's need for blood, a slave to his passions for her underaged body.

It is a creepy conceit of Lindqvist's, pairing a pedophile with a vampire several hundred years older than him but encased in a youthful body. It's an effective, tense technique, unnerving the reader and slightly tweaking our mores. This, Lindqvist is almost saying, you find this so much more horrific than vampires killing people and drinking their blood? Here the author also slightly alters basic vampire mythology, keeping Eli sort of a child despite her true age, her being trapped in the physical form of a twelve year old preventing her from ever quite gaining the wisdom that comes with adulthood, yet still old enough to hold the upper hand in the relationship with Hakan.

Much of the relationship between Hakan and Eli is unspoken in the film version and here it makes up a sizable amount of the squirms induced in the book's early chapters. It also adds a layer of creepiness to Hakan's practical decision to prey on younger victims. He needs someone he can overpower as he grabs them and knocks them out with halothane gas, before tying them up by their feet and slitting their throats to drain their blood for Eli. What else he may do with these young bodies Lindqvist wisely leaves off the page for your mind to stumble on to only later. Eli and Hakan together have come up with this slaughterhouse inspired scheme as the direct bite of the vampire infects others and often requires Eli to kill her victims in a very thoroughgoing fashion (twisting their heads off).

The friendship between the loners Oskar and Eli deepens, the two of them tapping Morse code messages through the wall, meeting at nights out on the apartment complex playground, and learning more about each other. She encourages him to fight back against the school bullies, a path of action that escalates the situation to horrific consequences. Meanwhile Hakan, seeing a relationship forming, experiences jealousy and fear, then botches a murder and is caught in the act before he can finish. He douses himself in acid to kill himself and disfigure himself so thoroughly that he won't be traced back to Eli, his outer form now taking on the monstrous implications of his inner self. A visit by Eli to his hospital in the night and Hakan's fall from out the hospital window gives us a shuffling zombie like vampire, a kind of mindless unstoppable force, and one of the novel's most horrific scenes in a basement.

This last scene brings together the Eli plot and the minor subplot of a teenage hoodlum whose mother is about to marry a local police officer, and it's one of the livelier and more amusing subplots at times. Other strands of the narration focus on Virginia, a woman Eli attacks but fails to kill, whose illness and eventual death almost destroys her group of friends, a bunch of older, out of work alcoholics. Lindqvist's story sags the most when we visit this group, Lacke the slacker, some time lover of victim, Gosta a housebound cat fanatic, and a few other wastrels, though Virginia and her illness is at least of some interest. Her sufferings as she undergoes the transformation, her desperate cutting of her arms and drinking her own blood for temporary satiation are awful to behold. But perhaps the worst, least effective moment in the novel comes during one of the scenes of Virginia's transformation.

There are essentially two routes you can take with a vampire novel: either you can go the all-out ooga booga route and vampires are undead creatures repelled by holy water, crosses, garlic, etc. (or some variant on that), the Dracula model; or they are scientifically explainable freaks of nature infected with a virus or a parasite or something seen under a microscope, the I Am Legend style. You may even blend both types, but this is much trickier to pull off. Lindqvist tries hard, but fails at this third way, explaining in one scene that even though modern science would scoff, Virginia had a small tumor growing in her heart, a tumor made of brain tissue. It's not really a fleshed out theory, but in Lindqvist's vampire model, the vampiric virus is itself alive, somewhat sentient, and controls you through a small brain growing in your heart.

Seriously, that's just laughable and worse than that, unnecessary. It's like Lindqvist had to find some explanation for why the vampire's victims had to be "turned off" lest the geometric trajectory of vampiric infection overtake population growth. And since stakes through the heart is a reliable stand-by, why not do something there? The conceit is nothing short of dumb, and luckily the author touches on it once then moves on with his story (mercifully absenting it entirely from the film). No real plot elements hinge on this point and if I'd been editing his novel that would be the one place I'd really have issues.

The rest of the story, though, is a crisply written, unsettling little shocker of a novel. The end is one of the better hanging endings I've read in some time. Your mind can trace the later, post-novel events with a rather sure certainty and that's sort of what's so horrible about it. The futility and the repetition.

In a sense, though, Lindqvist's novel is really about love, about how we fight for it, we fight against it, we put up barricades against it, we are turned inside out and made monstrous by it, and how it can dominate and alter the very contours of our lives. The novel also turns out to be about desire and how we can confuse that with love and, worse yet, how we can be made monstrous by our desires. If you happen to see the film version first, that heart of the story is more in focus, clearer, stronger. If you pick up the print version, you may wish to turn on a few more lights in the house, because this is a love story with teeth.

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