How Annihilation Ties Into The Books, According To Author Jeff VanderMeer

Natalie Portman in Annihilation

Adapting any successful story from another medium to film is always a tricky proposition. Finding the balance between being faithful to a fault versus being the same story 'in name only' is quite the tightrope to walk. Adapting Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation to the big screen is something else entirely. The acclaimed novel is surreal and nightmarish and borderline un-filmable. But director Alex Garland was able to take a story that pushes the bounds of imagination and make it work in the film medium. For author Jeff VanderMeer, much of the film's success has to do with the way it maintains the tone and spirit of the book, as he affirmed:

I think that the movie does that. The visual language of the movie is very faithful, I think, to the books. It's interesting too, because I like the fact there are these points of commonality, and the book and the movie share DNA, but I can still be surprised by the movie myself, as a viewer, which is a nice thing. The movie definitely ties into the book, and vice versa, but I don't think they spoil each other, so to speak. I think of it almost as another expedition into Area X in a sense, if that makes any sense.

Annihilation is such an interesting case of adaptation because the film is wildly different from the book, but it still feels like Jeff VanderMeer's novel. Part of this has to do with the aesthetics of the film. The visuals of Annihilation manage to evoke the dreamlike, intangible quality of Area X in order to give the viewer that same unsettling feeling that haunted readers throughout the novel. As the author mentioned to Syfy Wire, the book and the movie share DNA (an extremely apt analogy) and this is the same story, just told differently. It also works like the author says, to just think of the film as a separate expedition into Area X with a different team and different outcomes from the one in the book.

Indeed, the book and the film do not spoil one another either, at least not in the traditional sense. There are points of commonality, but also huge differences between the narrative of the two. In fact, I would be very curious to see how those who like the film would react to reading the book for the first time. The two are such different yet similar experiences, like a reflection distorted in restless pond. I imagine there may be many who prefer one to the other and not necessarily the one they experienced first.

Warning! Spoilers to follow for Annihilation and Jeff VanderMeer's novel of the same name.

It is always interesting to see how authors react to their work being adapted by someone else into another medium. The written word is only limited by the author's imagination, while film is bound by the constraints of budget and the power of technology. Inevitably, this adaptation process often forces changes and omissions from the original work. Not everything that came across well on the page succeeds on screen and sometimes; precious elements have to be cut. For Jeff VanderMeer, there was one thing he really wanted the film to include that wasn't meant to be, as he recalled:

It was quite funny because initially, just because I find wild boar very frightening in North Florida when I'm hiking, I was very committed to there being a boar in there. Alex was very kind in trying with the boar, but the boar just wasn't working. The boar kind of got cut, and the moaning creature got kind of combined into the bear, which makes a lot of sense for the movie.

It is kind of funny that Jeff VanderMeer is so fearful of wild boars that, like Batman, he wanted others to share his dread by including a boar in Annihilation. The only confirmed boar in the novel is in the beginning of the book, when the expedition is making its way to base camp after crossing the border into Area X. A wild boar charges the group before turning away. There is also a point where the biologist (Lena in the film) is walking through the marshes and she is chased by a moaning creature that might have been a boar, although she never fully sees it. This moaning creature gave off an eerily human sound. So clearly Alex Garland took some of these disparate elements and came up with the bear-like creature in the film. The bear moaned in horrific fashion and cried out with the voices of its victims as it terrorized the expedition and thinned its ranks. The beast had qualities of a bear and a boar and moaned like the creature in the book, while also providing a visual terror not present in the novel.

I thought adapting Annihilation into a feature film was a seemingly impossible task, but Alex Garland managed to take a story, not well suited to the screen and make it work while still maintaining the spirit, tone and nightmarish qualities that made the book so memorable. Annihilation is in theaters now. After you've seen it come back and let us know what you think, and maybe give the book a try. This film is just one of many exciting science fiction films hitting theaters this year, check out the rest in our guide.

Nick Evans

Nick grew up in Maryland has degrees in Film Studies and Communications. His life goal is to walk the earth, meet people and get into adventures. He’s also still looking for The Adventures of Pete and Pete season 3 on DVD if anyone has a lead.