What ‘Annihilation’ the movie got right that the book got so wrong

And what storytellers can learn from the differences between the two

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Credit: Screenshot/YouTube

Just about every time an adaptation is released, a typically brief but always passionate war is waged over which is better — The Book or The Film. It’s one of mankind’s great recurring debates, and more often than not, The Book comes out on top.

While I’m usually in agreement with that judgment, there are some instances in which The Film is the undeniable winner. Case in point: Annihilation, which I’d argue is a study in what happens when an adaptation goes right, as well as a study in storytelling done well. Let’s investigate, and I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers. And don’t feel as though you need to have read the book or seen the film to get something out of this piece; I think there’s some good lessons here for anyone in the business of telling stories.

Where The Book Falls Short

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Credit: Amazon.com

Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, the first book in his Southern Reach Trilogy, follows a team of four researchers who set out to explore a secluded and desolate swath of land called Area X. The group is the twelfth to venture into the expanse, following in the footsteps of eleven prior expeditions, some of which returned completely changed by the mysterious area and some of which never returned at all.

I read the book shortly after it was published back in 2014 and found myself completely disenchanted. In a very short space (the book is only about 200 pages long), VanderMeer made a few artistic decisions that, I think taken together, had the end result of an unfortunate and complete disconnect between reader and story.

First, VanderMeer neglected to give enough detail to important elements of the novel. The main characters had no names, were identified only by their positions, and had hardly any backstory; the location where everything takes place is given the uninspired moniker “Area X” and is often described in unfulfilling detail (for example, the threshold the researchers cross to get into Area X is invisible and simply called “the barrier,” where in the movie it’s an iridescent, translucent wall); and many phenomenon of VanderMeer’s world are glossed over, bland and poorly defined. I think VanderMeer wrote this way in an effort to keep readers present and calling on their own imagination to flesh out the particulars, but the overall impression this left me with was vague, dull, and generally underwhelming.

Further, the main character, called the Biologist, came off as abrasive and downright unlovable. And while there’s nothing wrong with an abrasive, unlovable protagonist, there’s something wrong when you don’t give readers any insight into why the protagonist is that way. With no backstory, I wasn’t able to connect with her at all, even though I was going on this significant journey with her.

I always tell the writers I work with that they have to give readers a reason to stay. There are a million other things they can be doing other than reading your book, so you had damn well better earn their attention. What that boils down to is engagement; the more you can engage a reader whether by vivid characters, a compelling storyline, rigid tension, or mastery of the written word, the more likely they are to continue reading your book to the end, recommend it to others, read your next book, etc.

I’d argue that VanderMeer gave us none of the above in Annihilation. By making the Biologist an unlikable person with nary a redeemable quality, we didn’t care to keep her company on her journey. By withholding the Biologist’s backstory, he robbed us of why we might be interested in her return from Area X. So without vivid characters, we depend on the storyline, right? But here VanderMeer fails us again; sure, we’re curious about what’s in Area X, but he leaves out all the juicy bits like people getting attacked, and skips over any description that could further intrigue us.

As I was reading I kept asking myself, “why do I care?” I found no answer by the end of the book. I was just reading for shock value and for the sake of finishing what I’d started, but I wouldn’t blame another reader for setting VanderMeer’s Annihilation aside.

Where The Film Gets It Right

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Credit: Paramount Pictures

Having recently watched the adaptation of Annihilation, I can say with total confidence that the film made some massive improvements on its source material. Alex Garland, who wrote and directed the film, took what was good and what worked from VanderMeer’s book, left the rest, made it human, and gave us a cohesive and accessible reflection on some weighty themes of self-destruction and loss. But most importantly of all, he managed to make us engage with the story without sacrificing any of the complexity, which is a feat unto itself.

To that point, Garland’s characters are better fleshed out and resemble people to whom we are a bit happier to give a modicum of thought. With names and a broader rationale for their decisions, they become stronger lenses through which we can interpret the themes he highlights. Each woman is given a reason for entering into The Shimmer (the film’s more evocative name for the book’s Area X), lending a sense of purpose to their journey, and an explanation for the reactions they have to the location. The result is a dimension of humanity.

The team in the movie feels like a more realistic approximation of what people thrown into a situation like this would be, both as individuals and as a whole. They have believable interactions with one another and express themselves in ways that make sense, given their respective backgrounds. These are characters that are tense, angry, anxious, and bitter, but not for no reason.

Through flashbacks, Garland gave us a backstory for our protagonist, who is called Lena, that transformed her from a bad person altogether to a person who’s done some bad things — an infinitely more relatable individual. We’re still intrigued by Lena — she is still complex and difficult — but we understand her and can root for her if we choose.

Generally, while Garland did improve and expand on elements of VanderMeer’s original work, much of what we see in the film is a creation of Garland’s own — he says that his adaptation was of “a memory of the book” — and though the bare bones are similar, the overall impression is significantly different and much more impactful. After finishing, I wanted to interact with Garland’s Annihilation more; I found myself poring over articles and speculative comments sections about ~what it all meant~. It’s worth noting that the book never drove me to that place, though that was almost certainly its goal.

Where We Learn Something About Stories

So what can we learn from the juxtaposition of Annihilation The Book and Annihilation The Film? There are a few takeaways for storytellers.

  • As the creator of a work, it’s your responsibility to provide your readers — or viewers — with a reason to stay.
  • Though you should call on your audience to use their imagination to better see the world you’re creating, refraining from description in favor of using adjectives like “indescribable” is just…bad writing. Don’t cheat your audience of an experience that will keep them hooked.
  • Give your audience characters they can connect with in some way, whether that’s by making them likeable at face value, or giving them a well thought out history that we accept as good reason for them being less pleasant. We read books to enter the lives of others; make sure that those lives are worth entering for your readers.

Now, there are plenty of folks out there who thoroughly enjoyed VanderMeer’s Annihilation and I don’t mean to alienate those who did — after all, I picked the book up in the first place because of all the positive buzz I’d been hearing about it. But I do think there’s some merit to acknowledging the differences between the two interpretations, and understanding how this shapes our experience as consumers of stories.

But, for the record, if you’re asking me personally I’d say The Film wins this round fair and square.

Lauren Taylor Shute is the Founder and CEO of Lauren Taylor Shute Editorial Inc., a full-service editorial firm based in New York City that helps authors around the world develop their ideas, perfect their manuscripts, and find representation or publication for their work. She speaks regularly at writing conferences and has been featured in Forbes, Fast Company, and Glamour magazine.

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