The age-old question of whether to read a book before or after seeing a movie is one I’m committed to answering on a case by case basis. Sure, I have a general rule I apply in most cases, but there are always exceptions. With the new film adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel Annihilation, I found this to be a more complicated question than usual.
Most of the time I have a pretty good plan for book/movie adaptations. I read (or reread) the book when I hear the movie is being made. Or at least I try to read it when trailers start coming out or a release date shows up. Preferably this is about six months ahead of release. The idea is to get familiar with the book and get excited about the movie without having the book so clear in my head that I get distracted by how the movie is different. (The one time I went straight from book to movie, I had to turn the movie off after half an hour because it was frustrating me too much.)
Basically, now is a good time for you to read Crazy Rich Asians and The Little Stranger (both out in August) so that when you see them you won’t be that annoying person who can only talk about all the ways the book and the movie are different and all the things they got wrong.
I also like to read the book first in case the movie is terrible. If I had seen the really awful movie of Revolutionary Road first, I never would have read the book. Fortunately I read the book first, one of the best I read that entire year.
When I have seen a movie first, often I have trouble visualizing the book without seeing the characters and setting of the movie; I don’t get to exercise that imagination muscle that is one of my favorite parts of reading a book.
So what about Annihilation?
When I saw the film I realized this may be one of those rare exceptions where watching the movie first is a good thing.
Here’s my argument:
The most crucial piece of information is one I wish I’d known before seeing the film. The writer/director Alex Garland (Ex Machina) did not reread the book before writing the script, instead relying on the feelings and memories the book left with him. Of course an adaptation doesn’t have to be faithful to the plot to be a good adaptation, but if you read the book first, you’ll find that your feelings and memories of Annihilation may not match up against Garland’s.
I read the book more than three years ago and my memories of it are still quite clear. The problem was that my memories are not just around the tone and the world the book built; there were a few specific sections of the book that I remembered keenly, and I was very interested to see how they’d be translated visually. So much of the book was hard to imagine and a big part of my excitement around the movie was to see what kind of vision a director would bring to it. But then not one of the things I wanted to see ended up being in the movie at all. So I spent the whole thing waiting for something I never got.
If you’ve read the book already, I think you can still enjoy it a lot if you go into it knowing that it’s going to be a very loose adaptation.
If you haven’t read the book, I suspect you’ll enjoy the movie even more, though. I think you’ll find the things that are surprising about the story even more surprising, and the tone will feel unusual and disorienting. Those who have read the book won’t be as surprised, won’t get to sink in and let it absorb in quite the same way.
If you read the book after seeing the movie, there’s still so much that the book has to offer that you haven’t seen yet, so much weirdness and wonder, so much that is strange and confusing, that the movie won’t taint the way it works in your imagination. There are still plenty of worlds the book will open up for you, and as much as you’ll bring some of Garland’s vision to the book, there’s plenty that simply won’t translate that you’ll have to imagine (or try to, good luck) all on your own.
For those of you who have read Annihilation already, I hope this is helpful to get in the right frame of mind for the film. And for those of you who haven’t read the book, I think you should head for the theater straightaway, and then head for the bookstore immediately after. Enjoy the weirdness.