Although I got the novel as a Christmas present, I only read Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation after seeing Alex Garland’s movie adaptation, finishing it last weekend. There are some adaptations that ruin the original for you, but that’s rarely been a major problem for me: if a story is enjoyable primarily because of what happens next, I usually don’t feel all that much of a need to read it in the first place. If there are interesting characters or ideas, if the prose is evocative and atmospheric – generally, if it’s the storytelling itself that makes the story thrilling or funny or generally engaging rather than what happens next – then I’m definitely up for experiencing a story more than once.
Annihilation is a different beast from many adaptations: if you’ve seen the film, you still don’t really know what much of the novel will throw at you, and vice versa. Many of the film’s most memorable scenes simply don’t happen in the novel. There’s no nightmare bear calling “… help me.” There’s no member of the expedition inexorably turning into a human-shaped flower arrangement. There’s no vivisection body horror or self-immolation via phosphorus grenade. Arguably the film version of Annihilation is at least as indebted to Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (in its journey into a strange zone where the laws of nature are bent out of shape) and his Solaris (the return of a long-gone spouse in the form of an imperfect duplicate created by a mysterious alien force) as it is to the novel. Nonetheless, the two versions of the story – VanderMeer’s original and Garland’s adaptation – are entangled in ways that cannot be captured by a simple plot synopsis.
When I started reading Annihilation, I went through three phases. While the novel starts at a different point in the story than the film does, it’s easy enough at first to see the two versions of the story as reasonably similar. The nameless narrator is mirrored in Natalie Portman’s Lena, and while the other characters don’t map exactly from book to film, those kind of changes are not beyond the usual changes novels undergo when they’re put on the screen, added to which neither the novel nor the film is primarily about its characters. After the first few dozen pages, though, I could no longer dismiss the growing differences: both versions are elliptic to a fault, but the film nevertheless moves its plot forward, while VanderMeer’s story movies in spirals around a place that is entirely omitted from the film. Characters vanish or die, but how and why they do is very different in the two versions. Is this the same story? Is the narrator even the same character as the film’s protagonist? Is the psychologist played by Jennifer Jason Leigh a variation on the psychologist in the novel or are they entirely different characters that just happen to share the same profession?
As the novel went on, though, I found more, and often surprising, echoes of images, incidents and ideas in the film – though “echoes” is obviously not entirely accurate, as the novel came first. Still, more than just reflecting the novel, Garland remixes motifs – or, in the film’s own terminology, it refracts them. Garland’s act of adaptation is eerily similar to what happens to those caught in Area X. In VanderMeer’s story, the biologist hypothesises that whatever alien entity or substance is affecting this zone, it may be trying to comprehend its surroundings by imitating them – both the novel and the film feature uncanny doppelgängers – and by taking them apart and putting them together again in ways that are at the same time destructive and creative. This is very much how Garland takes apart the original material and reassembles it as a way of trying to understand it.
As is often the case in Garland’s works, annihilation often turns out to be more accurately described as radical change – which for his protagonists raises the question of how much you can change before you become something fundamentally different. The same question can be asked of Garland’s adaptation of Annihilation. The story he tells starts similarly to VanderMeer’s, but it makes its own way into and through Area X, mirroring the original at times, then breaking it into its individual components and putting them together differently. Garland’s Annihilation ends up in what seems to be an entirely different place from the novel – but the DNA of VanderMeer’s novel is present, even if it may no longer look entirely like itself. It is changed, but throughout you catch glimpses of the one story in the adaptation: motifs taking on different shapes, shivering and shimmering as they are caught in the act of transformation. The film takes the original story into Area X and lets its effects take hold. In an interview, the writer-director said that he saw his film version “like a dream of the book,” and like a dream the movie often succeeds at being simultaneously strange and eerily familiar. In that sense, for all their differences, the two versions of Annihilation very much come from the same place – and in the end it may not even matter which one is the original and which one is the doppelgänger. They are, finally, one story refracted into different, differing selves.