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Let The Right One In: Nuance Lost

May 16, 2010

The local Waldenbooks was going out of business, and they were clearing everything out. I sometimes stop in to buy books on my way to the bus stop, even though most of which I never get around to reading. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was looking for that day, but a book called Let The Right One In stared at me from the shelf. I glanced at the cover, and it rang some sort of vague bell in my convoluted memory bank. I passed it up and kept looking. Something drew me back to it a few minutes later. I picked it up, read the back cover, and I knew I had heard of the film somewhere before (this was the movie tie-in version). I left with four books that day, and right now, I’m not even sure what the other three even were.

The cover had drawn me in, but the book itself sucked me in right from the beginning (pardon the pun). Even in the translation from the original Swedish, I knew I was reading a masterful novel. It put in me a tangible sense of unease and had an underlying creepiness, and this was before the vampire subject matter was even introduced. The turn of a phrase, a few seemingly unimportant words, continually surprised me through the first half of the book. There are phrases that seem so effortlessly written, but hold a world of meaning behind the simple sentence structure. Unfortunately, the film version, which I just purchased and watched today (even with the superior “English theatrical” subtitles) let me down considerably.

Granted, they had to fit the film into about a two hour format, so some (translation: a lot) of the book needed to be excised. I can appreciate that most of the subplots were removed for the sake of focusing on the two main child characters, but in doing so, much of the interior dialogue, and thus, motivation, was lost. And entire chunks of the novel were removed, leading again to somewhat shaky motivation for some of the characters. As an example, when the main character Oskar visits his father in the book, it was a major turning point and contained some heavy foreshadowing, in retrospect. This was the first time we had seen him abandon his family in favor of Eli, the twelve year old vampire “girl.” It had also been established that this had been his first trip alone on the train. Both of these foreshadowings bear fruit at the end of the novel.

In the film, we see the barest bones of this sequence, but never really get into Oskar’s head as in the book. We never really see the relationship between Oskar and his father, and how it degraded every time the father’s drinking buddy came over. We get a sense of it, but the depth and nuance in this relationship is lost in the film.

We are shown Oskar leafing through his newspaper clippings of the murders, and his stabbing the tree near the beginning of the book, and even the first bully sequence, but all of these are neutered in the film and, for me, at least, lose almost all of their resonance. The first bully sequence in the novel was harrowing and knowing and powerful. In the film, it consists solely of Oskar getting his nose flicked and being called a piggy. The clippings of the murders, likewise, show that Oskar has an unhealthy interest in this dark aspect of humanity, but do not really convey the sometimes paranoid delusions (again, something that in the novel was very unsettling) that Oskar has about his “special abilities” and what he considers himself capable of doing. I’ll give Kare Hedebrant, the child actor who plays Oskar, credit for doing a respectable job with such a subtly demanding role, but unfortunately, his facial expressions and the always seemingly dazed look on his face do not come close to conveying the power of particular phrases or scenes. We can get an idea of who Oskar is, and why he acts in the manner he does in the film. But all the nuance, chilliness and unease seems drained from the character.

Having read (and spoiled for myself) some user reviews of the film before I had watched it or even finished the book, I know one of the major controversies (not including the subtitle debacle) involves the fact that Eli is not a girl. Besides a VERY quick shot of ambiguous genitalia, there’s nothing to suggest that Eli is indeed a boy. She claims twice in the film to not be a girl, but this can be taken to mean that she is a vampire and therefore is not a normal “girl.” In the novel, there is almost a testing of the waters in the relationship, along with a genuine curiosity, when Oskar wants to see what happens when he does not invite Eli in. This scene, of course, is in the film, and Lina Leandersson, the actress playing Eli, does a good job of conveying the torment she faces, deciding between an unspeakable pain and the acceptance and possible love of the only person left in the world (maybe the only person that had ever been in the world) that meant anything to her.

And this scene (and the rest of the film, in fact) loses the ever so slight sadistic edge that Oskar has. Again, the actor seems to be playing Oskar as innocent and almost consistently dazed. Maybe this is a stylistic choice for the film, to play the character a bit differently. But in doing so, Oskar comes across more as an archetype than a multifacted character. And directly after this crossing of the threshold scene comes the revelation that Eli is a boy, and the sharing of his (Eli’s) experience at being castrated when (s)he kisses Oskar. It is also the point at which the novel stops referring to Eli as “her” and instead as “him.” The impact of reading this for the first time on the page is not even touched in the film. For me, I can forgive the missing subplots. I can forgive scenes seemingly losing some of their resonance and feeling compressed or truncated. I can forgive a possible stylistic choice to play Oskar differently than how the character is portrayed in the book. I can certainly forgive the removal of the pedophilia references. But in the film, which seems designed partly as a character study and partly as a glimpse into the friendship between two children with vampires as a backdrop, it seems almost inexcusable to treat Eli’s gender with so much ambiguity (again, no pun intended).

I had literally just finished reading the last nine pages before I watched the film, so the letdown was even more crushing than it otherwise might have been. On the plus side, I think the final pool sequence and the train ride immediately following are superior to how the novel ended. And maybe I need to watch this again with some distance from the novel. But if you’ve somehow managed to read this far without having seen the film or having read the book, do yourself a favor and watch the film first. Taken on its own, I’m sure the film is wonderful and worthy of all the superlatives on the DVD (or Blu-Ray) case. But in comparison to the novel, it lacks all the nuance inherent in the characters, and in the sometimes supremely unsettling wording or turn of a phrase.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 16, 2010 9:32 am

    I wrote this as a draft back in January, but decided to post today after having watched the film again on the Blu-Ray version that I had just purchased a few days ago. I can say after having seen it again that even though I had bought the DVD copy with English theatrical subtitles, apparently my PS3 displayed the (bad) subtitles regardless of which ones I had chosen.

    I can say in retrospect that after having watched the Blu-Ray version, knowing I was seeing the correct subtitles, that the film did improve significantly. It also probably helped that I had distanced myself a bit from the novel. Some of my above qualms still remain. But on two scenes this time, I actually did tear up a bit, mostly the crossing the threshold scene. The look on Eli’s face before she does is just heartbreaking.

    Just wanted to add this comment as an addendum to the blog post.

  2. Rick permalink
    May 16, 2010 12:33 pm

    I took your advice and watched the movie before reading the book. The insane amount of gay pedophilic activity, subsequently reminisced upon, actively happening and hinted at, is uncomfortable and awkward to read and I wasn’t really expecting how much of it there ends up being. I’m about halfway through the book, and while it is a pretty great read, both deep and powerful while being unsettling and creepy through virtue of its own characters’ perspectives on the world and life, I don’t really think it’s a book I’ll be recommending to people any time soon. I only know a few people who would handle such a book without over-reacting and hating it simply because of its darker elements.

    The research I’ve done on the American remake looks to take out the entire idea of Eli’s character (Abby in the American release) as a castrated boy. I have no idea how this will effect the rest of the story since that’s a major linchpin moment, but I guess time will tell.

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