Apr 11, 2009

Let The Right One In [15]

Dir: Tomas Alfredson
I’ve often said that adaptations of books need to start losing more of their source material, and I stand by that, just look at the stodgy every last comma adaptation of The Green Mile or the interminable Lord of the Rings trilogy. So when I say that the biggest problem I had with Let the Right One In was that it jettisoned far to much of its source novel I’m on uncomfortable ground.

The screenplay, by John Ajvide Lindqvist, who also wrote the book, tells the story of Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), a bullied 12 year old who develops a friendship with Eli (Lina Leandersson), the girl who has just moved in next door. They become very close, and stay that way even after it becomes clear that Eli is a vampire. The thing is that that is only one strand of a truly multi-faceted novel, the main one, and the key one certainly, but choosing to focus almost entirely on that part of the book doesn’t just mean that scenes are dropped, it means that the film fails to capture the unique feeling of the book and that, surely, is what any adaptation should aim to do.

That said, what Tomas Alfredson’s film does, it does brilliantly and assuredly. The children are perfectly cast.  Kare Hedebrant looks delicate, as if he might break at any moment, but he’s also capable of showing Oskar’s simmering rage at the way the other children in his school treat him, and the confusion caused by his feelings for Eli - which are more than a little complicated by the question “what if I wasn’t a girl, would you still like me?” Lina Leandersson is similarly wonderful as Eli; she looks like a pre-pubescent PJ Harvey, and strikes a delicate balance between seeming like a normal, sweet, 12-year-old girl and the animalistic need for blood that grips her when she’s hungry. There isn’t much horror in this vampire movie, but Leandersson is truly scary on occasion, especially when Oskar offers his bleeding hand to Eli, so they can mix their blood, she tells Oskar to go, or he’ll die. As well as being two fine performances individually Hedebrant and Leandersson have real chemistry together, and their performances complement one another beautifully. Their friendship, and growing love for one another, is completely convincing and more than a little moving.

Alfredson’s imagery is often extremely beautiful. There are many shots here that will live in an audience’s memory. The first shot of Oskar, reflected in his bedroom window is a particularly lovely one, but most of the really stunning visuals centre on Eli, one extraordinary moment, perhaps the film’s best scene, answers the question of what happens when a vampire ignores the fact that they can’t enter a private place unless they are invited. Alfredson shoots this brilliantly; with a series of slightly out of focus close ups giving way to an incredibly striking wider shot. It’s to both his and Leandersson’s credit too that, like Oskar, you desperately want to be able to stop what is happening to Eli in that moment. Almost every scene contains some memorable image, be it Eli’s older guardian of sorts Hakan (Per Ragnar) hoisting a victim, Oskar striking the classmate that has tormented him, or a final close up of Eli’s cat like eyes.

It’s in the margins that the deletions from the source novel start to bite. There’s a sub-plot involving a group of friends trying to find out what has happened to one of their number (who has been killed by Eli). In the novel the relationships between this group, particularly the central pair of Lacke (Peter Carlberg) and Virginia (Ika Nord), are given real colour. Here so much is gone that not only do they feel almost like intruders into the story, but they become ciphers, indeed we barely get to know that Lacke and Virginia are an item, and none of the feeling between them makes the jump from book to film. Another deletion that massively impacts on the film is that here Hakan is no longer a pedophile. This creates some plot holes (why is he with Eli? She never seems to threaten him, nor does she, as is the case in the book, seem to need him to kill for her, so why does he?) Worse it robs the film of most of the book’s most frightening and horrifying sequences, and renders Hakan’s character largely pointless, despite a nice performance by Per Ragnar.

Other deletions are wiser; the excision of an older boy who is, quietly, friendly to Oskar accentuates his isolation, and makes his reliance on Eli more believable and more touching, while also getting rid of a lot of extraneous plot with the older boy’s family. The deletion of Eli’s background is another wise move, because mystery is almost always more intriguing than certainty. The overwhelming problem is that the focus being so completely on Oskar and Eli means that the rest of the film has little room to breathe, and the other characters end up feeling very thin, meaning that any part of the plot that involves them winds up feeling like we are treading water.

There are several scenes in Let the Right One In where Alfredson gets it completely right. The beautiful sequence when Eli sneaks into Oskar’s bed is one anyone who was ever in love with a friend can relate to. The stunning and bloody ending is masterfully rendered, in a single underwater shot, and Eli’s vampiric attacks are chillingly executed, especially the first one, which takes place entirely in long shot and silhouette. Indeed the only time the film really goes completely off the rails is in a silly scene where Virginia is attacked by some very poorly rendered CGI cats.

I really wanted to love Let The Right One In, and there’s a lot about it that is spectacularly good, but for me it fails to capture the novel, and in that it creates some pretty big problems for itself. I will go and see it again next week, because it's quite conceivable that I’m actually wrong about it, if that’s the case I’ll certainly re-review it, but for now it's a rather average adaptation of a great book.

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