Annihilation, based on the first novel of the same name in the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, is writer and director Alex Garland's follow up to 2014's film Ex Machina. While the film follows the same basic premise of the sci-fi novel, there is a huge difference between the original source material and what ended up on the big screen.
The story of Annihilation revolves around a group of female scientists sent into a location known only as Area X (the film calls it The Shimmer). Their mission is to uncover the mysterious things happening inside the region and how to stop it from expanding and threatening the rest of the country. The book follows the main character, played in the film by Natalie Portman, who embarks on the mission to uncover what has happened to her husband (Oscar Isaac), who was part of a previous expedition. Along the way she and the other scientists find a number of unusual things that cause them to question their very understanding of reality.
Related: How Scary is Annihilation?
Annihilation is a movie based on a book, but it is not an adaptation. Instead, Garland takes the feelings of anxiety and horror created by VanderMeer's writing and uses them to dictate the tone and visual style of the film. Both versions are thought provoking experiences that will leave their respective audiences with open jaws and tons of questions.
Here are the major things that were changed.
The Characters Don't Try to Get Along in the Book
In the book version of Annihilation the characters are described only by their professions. There is the Biologist (Portman), the Psychologist (played in the film by Jennifer Jason Leigh), the Anthropologist, and the Surveyor. There is also a Linguist who is supposed to join the group, but changes her mind at the last minute. The characters are given no physical descriptions and the only background information given is what the biologist reveals about herself. Garland explained this as the reasoning behind choosing to cast Portman and Leigh, white actresses, in a roles that in the books are described as Asian and half-white, half-Native American respectively. This character information is not provided until the second novel, Authority, which Garland did not read or use as source material for his film.
In the novel, the relationships between the female scientists are much more antagonistic. While the film shows them in lighter moments trying to build camaraderie and opening up to each other, the book shows hostility from the very beginning. None of the characters trust each other. They do not know the motivations for why the others would want to venture inside Area X, which in the book is veiled in secrecy and mystery. It is a tense building of animosity that eventually grows to such an extent that the Biologist kills the Surveyor. In the book it is every character for themselves, rather than the group dynamic that persists at least initially in the film.
Another major character difference is the personality of the Biologist. In the book, she is much more clinical and introverted. She prefers tide pools to people and has a tense relationship with her husband who she has trouble letting in. The Biologist is driven by her overwhelming curiosity. She volunteers for the mission into Area X after her husband returns because she wants to know what happened to him from a scientific perspective. In the book her husband and the rest of the members of his team die from cancer shortly after returning home from Area X. In the film, Portman’s character is driven by her guilt and feeling that she “owes” her husband because she had an affair while he was gone. Her actions are driven more by him and their relationship than her own desires.
The Movie Cuts A Major Book Plot Point
One of the central plotlines - and mysteries - of Annihilation is left out of the film. In the book, upon exploring Area X, the Biologist discovers a tunnel which she calls a tower. The Biologist is drawn to this place and returns to it to discover its true purpose. The tower goes deep into the earth and on its walls are written words made from a plant like substance that appear to be alive. When the biologist gets too close to the plants they shoot out spores which infect her and in turn give her heightened senses. This is what causes her body to change and adapt to the environment, unlike in the film where all of the characters are affected inside the contaminated area.
This tower and the creature inside the tower, the one writing the words on the walls, are absent from the film. Instead in the film, the explorers are motivated by their desire to get to the lighthouse and uncover the source of the Shimmer. They are also driven by their flight from strange hybrid animals, like bears and crocodiles, that pick off the members of the group one by one. The film is more of a monster movie about survival, while the book is quieter, with more time for introspection and wonder.
However, despite Annihilation's quick pace, it does a good job of creating the same sense of dread as the novel with its sound and score. The strange animals may not have appeared in the book, but they add to the overall sense of horror that permeates the film. The bear that attacks Anya (Gina Rodriguez) makes for an especially tense scene as it stalks its prey with the voice of its former victim, Cass (Tuva Novotny).
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