“The First Form of Misdirection”: Alex Garland’s Adaptations

“The map had been the first form of misdirection, for what is a map but a way of emphasizing some things and making other things invisible?” – Annihilation, Jeff VanderMeer

I can’t remember when I first read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. In hindsight, I was certainly too young to appreciate it. My main memories of the book were of Kathy singing and swaying to the title song, cradling a toy baby. The headmistress of Hailsham watching her from the shadows, crying at the sight of the innocence on display. I don’t think I understood that at the time, much in the same way that Kathy is just confused by the adult’s tears. Likewise, before rewatching it for this retrospective, my memories of the 2010 adaptation, directed by Mark Romanek with a screenplay by Alex Garland, were of particular images — Andrew Garfield’s Tommy getting out of the car and screaming, Tommy and Kathy sat next to each other in the house of the headmistress, nervously twisting their hands and affirming their love for each other, the childish cruelty of Keira Knightley’s Ruth telling Kathy that Tommy had mocked her with Ruth for looking through the porn magazine. Until I rewatched it, I couldn’t tell you exactly what happened in the film, nor the names of its three main characters. But I’m not sure that matters.

Annihilation is very different. Alex Garland wrote the screenplay and directed the film, as adapted from the novel by Jeff VanderMeer. I will go into the themes of the film more in a later article, because I’ve seen it three times now since its release in February, and I only read the book towards the end of last year, and I’m still unpacking my thoughts about it. It is interesting that both Annihilation and Never Let Me Go are examples of Alex Garland adapting the work of another author. He started as a novelist himself, writing The Beach (of course later adapted itself into a film, starring Leonardo DiCaprio). I can understand what drew Garland to these works. Despite their superficial differences and deeper ones, there are still enough similarities to be found between them to make his decisions legible.

Something that appeals to me about Garland’s work is its specificity. He zooms in tightly on a story and doesn’t let up on it, keeping the cast small and then pushing the dynamic between the characters as hard as possible. This is a common thread throughout his work, both as a screenwriter and a director. It’s also clear from his work in adapting the work of other people that Garland understands ‘adaptation’ as a concept in a way that few people do.

There is so much focus in popular media, and in fandoms, of the importance of ‘faithful’ adaptations. Each work of adaptation is examined carefully by its audience for deviations from the source material, and it’s easy to end up with works like Zack Snyder’s Watchmen which is basically a shot-for-shot remake of Alan Moore’s original comic, and (in my opinion) suffers immensely for it. I’ve never been interested in ‘faithful’ adaptations — it makes no sense to try to exactly recreate a source work in a completely different artistic medium. I think of it as similar to translation; when translating the goal isn’t so much to find exact correspondences to each and every word, but rather to convey the meaning and tone to someone who doesn’t speak the source language. Often, the ‘correct’ word choice or phrasing isn’t the most literal, but rather a subjective judgement based on linguistic quirks of the target language, and nuances of tone in the source work. It certainly makes it more complicated to translate in this way, and takes a very different skill set than simply having knowledge of both languages. Alex Garland certainly uses this skill in his adaptations of other people’s novels.

Annihilation, in particular, barely resembles the novel. Instead, Garland picked at themes and ideas from the source work and pushed at them in his film to create something that would complement VanderMeer’s book. A particularly memorable part of the book is the Biologist (for she has no name in the book, merely a field of study) discussing how maps are as intended to obscure and obfuscate, as much as they illuminate and provide a guide. She calls maps a “way of emphasising some things and making other things invisible”, which is an apt metaphor for the way Garland approached adaptation. Although Never Let Me Go’s plot is much more in line with the book’s plot than Annihilation, it still follows this idea of using adaptation to obscure some things and reveal others. The film’s story arguably makes the ‘rules’ of the world set up in Ishiguro’s novel harder to understand. It passes over some of the scientific and religious questions in favour of tightly focussing on the world’s impact on Kathy, Tommy and Ruth. Whether that was the right choice is a matter of preference — they are simply different works.

I think that is what is most important in the case of Garland’s work in adapting novels for the screen. Instead of opening himself up for criticism by sticking to the same story and even characters as the novels, he takes specific ideas, moulding them to what interests him. The most striking part of the novel of Annihilation for me was its focus on how nature both grants us a sense of identity, but also is indifferent towards us. It has no ‘feelings’ or attachment to humanity — nature just exists, and we fit our identities around it. Garland’s film took the idea of ‘indifference’, but instead framed it as our own indifference towards ourselves as a defence mechanism. He views it as a metaphor for self-destruction, and the film explores how far self-destruction can be pushed; to the point where the film’s protagonist, Lena (Natalie Portman’s version of the Biologist), destroys her very self.

Annihilation-movie-with-Natalie-Portman
Lena (Natalie Portman) confronts the indifference of the natural world in Annihilation

I find it interesting that the released version of Never Let Me Go was so remarkably close to its shooting script. Films are, of course, collaborative efforts from a whole army of cast and crew, and to find a film with that kind of consistency of vision across multiple collaborators is rare indeed. It’s important to bear in mind that, as well as contending with the regular collaborative aspect of making a film, Garland’s adaptations were also created with knowledge of the novels. Due to his friendship with Kazuo Ishiguro, Garland wrote his first draft of the screenplay before the novel was even published — whether that affected his work, I cannot say. It’s certainly worth noting the close adherence to the novel’s structure and plot in light of the close nature of this collaboration. There is, however, a shift in emphasis from Ishiguro’s novel. Garland is unconcerned with the ethical implications of the clones, or the existence of Hailsham. Instead, it is clear that Garland is more interested in the way that the core science-fiction concept of the film affects the trio in the tangled love story at the centre of the film.

Ultimately, if there is any one thing that Garland’s “maps” are supposed to conceal, then it is the fact of these two films being adaptations in the first place. This is not to say that he rejects the sense of collaboration that comes inherent to adaptation, but rather his choices of his thematic focuses in both films create a distance with the source material that allows for greater latitude in his adaptation. It also allows Garland’s own interests to seep through into collaborative work — a small cast, combined with a tight focus on theme and mood. Garland, both as a director and as a writer, isn’t concerned with originality or ‘plot’ for its own sake. His work in adapting other writers’ novels and, perhaps more importantly, in deviating from them, asks the audience to consider what it is they value about the source material. Garland’s way of adapting the work of others for the screen allows for ideas and themes to be drawn out of hiding; rendered visible, using his own thematic and cinematic interests as the key to a map of his own.


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