Finish Alex Garland’s Annihilation and you’ll find yourself sitting in a dark theater quietly murmuring, “What the…?” Finish Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, meanwhile — the science-fiction novel that serves as the source material for Garland’s film — and … well, you’ll also find yourself sitting someplace quietly murmuring, “What the…?”
The book and film versions of Annihilation, however, are equally “What the…?” in different ways. The first-person narrator of the book is terse, vague, and somewhat unreliable; coupled with VanderMeer’s minimal exposition and the main character’s repeated insinuations that some things are so otherworldly they can’t be described, the original story is a gripping, disorienting read — and a real challenge to adapt for the screen.
So how exactly did Garland make Annihilation into a movie? Where did he take liberties in interpretation, and where did he depart from the source material entirely? Here are a few key spots we’ve analyzed. (Spoilers for both the book and the movie below).
• The border between Area X and the outside world is invisible in the book. One of the instantly iconic images from the movie is the shiny, translucent ooze hanging in the air that marks the barrier between civilization and Area X; in the book, VanderMeer describes the border as invisible. Garland goes for a more tangible-looking interpretation, depicting the border as a massive iridescent wall that looks like the outside of a soap bubble, which the scientists even refer to as “the Shimmer.”
• We know more about the world outside Area X in the film. VanderMeer’s 2014 novel was the first in a series of three books that would all be released that year, collectively called the Southern Reach Trilogy. Garland, who’s credited as both director and screenwriter of the new film, has said before that he based his Annihilation on just the first book in the series: “At the point I started working on Annihilation, there was only one of the three books,” he told Creative Screenwriting. “I knew that it was planned as a trilogy by the author, but there was only the manuscript for the first book. I really didn’t think too much about the trilogy side of it.” Still, much of the world outside of the twelfth expedition in the film is not present in the first novel. For example, the structure and mission of the Southern Reach research team, and even what happens to the protagonist when she leaves Area X, are fleshed out in the second novel. The psychologist/program director’s terminal illness, meanwhile, revealed in the opening act of the movie, doesn’t surface until the third book.
• Five women enter Area X on the twelfth mission in the movie; four enter in the book. The film follows biologist Lena (Natalie Portman), anthropologist Cass (Tuva Novotny), physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson), paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), and their leader, psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), into Area X. In the book, one leaves before they even get to base camp, and in VanderMeer’s version, they are a psychologist, a linguist, a surveyor, an anthropologist, and biologist. Though the film gives each scientist a first and last name, the novel refers to each woman only by her profession.
• We know much more about how Area X’s mutations and “refractions” specifically manifest themselves in the film. There’s no mention in the book of flowering bushes that grow in human shapes, ghoulish zombie-bears that absorb the sounds of human screams, or eel-like creatures taking up residence inside human abdomens. Instead, VanderMeer’s protagonist refers to what she sees and feels obliquely; she references a “brightness” taking over her body and a “moaning creature” making spooky noises at night. The havoc they unleash on the scientists, too, is much more specific and visceral in the film: While most of the deaths in the book occur while the biologist isn’t there to narrate them, Garland puts them on camera in all their gory, ominous splendor.
• There’s no Lena-Dan affair in the book. The affair between Portman’s character — Lena, a biologist — and her colleague Dan (David Gyasi) while Kane (Oscar Isaac) is away exists only in the film adaptation. Additionally, in the book, the biologist and her husband have hit a rough stretch in their marriage before he leaves for Area X.
• In the book, the tunnel the explorers discover has written words that appear and disappear from its walls. The text that appears there, it’s worth mentioning, sounds religious, but isn’t necessarily from any known religious text. That text becomes a central plot point throughout the three Southern Reach novels, and the being writing the text on the walls — referred to as the Crawler — a major presence.
• The movie has home videos, where the book had journals. An important inciting incident in both the film and the book Annihilation is the biologist learning the details of what happened to the participants of past expeditions. In the book, she does so by reading a stack of journals she finds in the lighthouse. In the movie, she finds handheld camera footage, largely shot by her husband.
• Hypnosis figures into the story in the book, but not the movie. Specifically, the psychologist hypnotizes her comrades at various points throughout VanderMeer’s text, first when they cross the border into Area X and then a handful of additional times throughout the story. In their state of hypnosis, the psychologist has “programmed” the other scientists to perform specific actions when they hear certain words, and this is where the book and movie get their title: The word “annihilation” is supposed to trigger immediate suicide. The film, meanwhile, only glances at the possibility that the scientists have been hypnotized, with a vague reference to the fact that the scientists can’t remember setting up camp.
• The movie version of Annihilation ends differently from the book version. VanderMeer’s Annihilation leaves off in a somewhat different place from where the film does — but this might be because of its first-person narrative structure. In the book, the biologist’s narration ends with her deciding to stay in Area X for the foreseeable future, knowing that whatever mutation is working on the environment there is working on her too. The film, however — and the later novels in the series — imply that a “duplicate” assumes the biologist’s identity at the end of the story and goes back to the outside world.