How ‘Annihilation’ Gave Me a Greater Appreciation for Jeff VanderMeer’s Novel

     February 27, 2018


There’s more than one way to adapt a novel for the big screen, and all have potential. A straightforward adaptation is an option, but so is a looser approach where the filmmaker holds onto a select few elements and crafts his or her own narrative using that framework. Right after walking out of Alex Garland’s Annihilation, I confidently labeled it the latter. But Garland’s film isn’t something you can quickly shake off and so, after quite a bit of thinking in circles, obsessing and trying to rationalize and explain a third act that has sparked many wildly different interpretations, I’ve come to view Annihilation the movie as one of my favorite forms of adaptation – one that functions as a companion piece to the book, where one enhances the other.

Haven’t seen Garland’s Annihilation or read Jeff VanderMeer’s book? Now might be the time to check out because this piece will include spoilers from both. It’s also worth pointing out that I’m writing from the perspective of someone who’s read Annihilation, not the entire Southern Reach trilogy, something I chose to do to preserve some of the mystery and keep my focus on the material Garland was working with.


Image via BN

Honestly? I didn’t love VanderMeer’s book. Yes, I know it’s an award-winning piece that’s widely lauded as a chilling, atmospheric and highly immersive exploration of a fascinating environmental anomaly but, simply put, it never clicked for me. VanderMeer delivers an abundance of stunning imagery and creates a deeply fascinating landscape that I really did want to learn more about, but just not as his narrator, the biologist, tells it. No, not every character has to be likable but accessibility is important and while the journal does offer a wide window into the biologist’s mind, she still comes across as a very closed off character.

And as presented in the source material, none of the supporting characters satiate the ache to connect to another human being in this otherworldly scenario. The psychologist is manipulative, the anthropologist is naive and the surveyor becomes an adversary. None inspire you to engage or root for them and the fact that their personal information is largely left out of the biologist’s account doesn’t do these characters any favors either. This all makes a ton of sense given the story is told from the biologist’s perspective and all of the scientists involved are required to withhold names and other personal information during this mission, but it did make it a challenge for me to feel invested, especially in the first half of the book.

As the biologist’s narrative continues and we learn more about the terrain she’s in and her life outside of Area X, I started to feel more of what some fans of the book have described – being enveloped and swept away by the unfolding mystery, what it means in the moment, for the future, and how it sheds light on present behavior. Ultimately, I wound up satisfied where this portion of the story ends and interested in moving on to the second novel in the series, but I have to admit, I was a little disappointed I wasn’t as swept away by the material as other readers.

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