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How Alex Garland Dreamed Up an Even Crazier ANNIHILATION

Midway through our interview, Alex Garland stopped me. He was worried. The Ex Machina auteur had been working on bringing the blisteringly thrilling and terrifying Jeff VanderMeer novel, Annihilation, to the big screen for years. In fact, he even began working on a script before either of VanderMeer’s remaining Southern Reach trilogy stories were published. So, when talking to a book fan, he was quick to temper expectations.

“I thought the book was amazing and very strange and original and just surprising,” Garland said. “But, there are really significant differences between the film and the book—the film is really like a dream of the book. That’s how I saw it in my head.” Clearly, this is personal. “And the dream is such a subjective thing. And I … listen, what can I say? I hope it doesn’t let you down. I hope you’re feeling good, but whatever the film does it’s about that beautiful thing books do … The books still exists. The book remains its own thing. And actually remains really, truly, the primary thing, I think.”

But he needn’t be worried at all—as evidence by the new trailer, his dream of Annihilation may be exactly what we wanted.

The story follows the 12th expedition of a mysterious part of the United States dubbed “Area X,” which has been quarantined for years and years thanks to inexplicable occurrences. At the start of Annihilation‘s journey, four women are sent into Area X on behalf of the mysterious Southern Reach organization.

In an interview with Collider, the novel’s author, VanderMeer, explained that the cut he saw—one that is apparently a sticking point between producers Scott Rudin and Dave Ellison (here’s hoping Rudin wins)—blew his mind. He even went so far as to say that the film iteration is, “actually more surreal than the novel. … The ending is so mind-blowing and in some ways different from the book that it seems to be the kind of ending that, like 2001 or something like that, people will be talking about around the water cooler for years. … Visually, it’s amazing. I’m not really sure what I’m allowed to say about it or not say about it, so I’ll keep it simple … I’m still composing my thoughts and feelings about it. I can tell you it’s mind-blowing, surreal, extremely beautiful, extremely horrific, and it was so tense that our bodies felt sore and beat-up afterwards.”

See why we think Garland shouldn’t worry?

The director, however, clearly takes this work very seriously, explaining that “the act of reading [it] was like a dream, and I think it allowed us to not do a literal, faithful adaptation. ‘Cause I couldn’t see how to do that.”

In fact, Garland had already written his script for the first film, plotting it out and getting VanderMeer’s permission, before the sequel novels were even released. “When books two and three arrived, they actually made me feel kind of nervous,” Garland said. “I thought, ‘I’d have to go and revise what we figured out that day.'”

Thankfully, “there were some weird correlations” between the books based on what others told him. “I didn’t read books two and three because I was worried about them, but other people filled me in on the elements.”

And while Garland did admit that it was a “really weird process,” he added that “it certainly didn’t come out of any sense of being cavalier with the book.”

Any reader will notice the first trailer’s differences from the books right away. Some of the major sticking plot points in the book that detached and/or ostensibly “protected” the expedition from their surroundings have been added back in—like names, technology, and video.

“One of the things Jeff did was really just give me permission,” Garland said. “I caught [the novel] early and sent him what I’d written and I said, ‘I don’t know how to adapt this ‘faithfully’.” … And Jeff said, ‘Look, that style works, you’ve got your approach. My book is my book. You guys work on the film.’ He couldn’t have been more generous, really.”

Then there was the casting. Naturally, a discussion of differences between text and film cannot go without mention of the whitewashing controversy surrounding two characters, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s psychologist and the expedition’s biologist and main protagonist, played by Natalie Portman. In the later books, it is revealed that Leigh’s character was half Native American and Portman’s was at least partially of Asian descent. Garland admitted he was unaware of the controversy, again pointing to the timing of the process.

“I did not know that stuff,” he said before asking us to explain the gist of the issue. “It would not be in my nature to whitewash anything. That just wouldn’t be like me. I read a book and I adapted it because I thought the book was amazing. And I thought, ‘I’m not exactly sure how to adapt this, but I’ve got an idea.’ And I just went with it. So that was it.”

The reality of our culture is that Garland and the studios could’ve gotten away with casting only white actresses to play its badass, complicated, female scientists, and perhaps even earned praise for passing the Bechdel Test in the process. Instead, and thankfully, we wound up with the casting of Tessa Thompson as the group’s surveyor and Gina Rodriguez as its anthropologist.

Perhaps taking the film an even more novel step forward, the scientists’ gender will not be the focus of the film, nor will it be winked at in that oh-so-patronizing Strong Female Character way many studios hamfist into things to make them feel progressive in 2017.

“I’d just worked on a film that was very preoccupied with gender in Ex Machina,” Garland said. “At the heart of Ex there’s really a story about objectification. And as much as the audience and a young man is asked the question—’Does this machine have an inner life?—the more the machine looks less like a machine and more like a young woman, the less the question gets asked. … I’d been through a whole cycle and sort of thought process about that kind of thing, and in Annihilation, I took a completely different approach; what I don’t want to do is do this as anything that even resembles virtue signaling. It’s just going to be what it is. It’s a group of scientists going into their thing. They happen to be women. There’s no great discussion of it in the film. I’m not planning to do any great discussion of it promoting the film. It’s actually the absence of discussion that I think is more interesting.”

He added, “I mean, look, it’s almost like … it’s almost impossible to f***ing talk about without that becoming virtue signaling. Like that is not what I was interested in. Not the approach at all. It was just like, this group of people going into this place.”

Garland’s final words on the matter should hit home for anyone watching or reading: “It’s about how hard it is to be, how hard it is to be a person.”

Alicia Lutes is the Managing Editor, creator/host of Fangirling, and resident Khaleesi of House Nerdist. Find her on Twitter!

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Images: Paramount

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