[26 May 2009]
John Ajvide Lindqvist’s debut novel, Let the Right One In has been called a “vampire novel”, but there is much more to the book than the usual pointy fangs and avoiding the sun. The novel, published in 2004, transcends its genre by looking beyond blood lust and centering on coming of age, loneliness, alcoholism, the effects of divorce, death, and even pedophilia.
At the book’s heart is 12-year-old Oskar, living in a Stockholm suburb in the ‘80s with his mother. At school, Oskar is being bullied incessantly and acts out his revenge fantasies on a tree with a knife. Just when things are really getting bad for him at school, a strange girl and even stranger man move into Oskar’s apartment building. This is when the bizarre murders start happening around town.
The girl’s name is Eli, she’s presumably 12-years-old, doesn’t go to school, hardly ever showers, and only goes outside at night. It’s not giving too much away to say that Eli is a vampire. As expected, she and Oskar become friends and end up engaged in a sweet, dark version of puppy love.
Beyond the two adolescents at the center of the story, there is a diverse cast of characters as cold and bleak as the Swedish landscape they live in. There’s Eli’s creepy caretaker, Håkan, who is an essential part of the book; there are the town drunks who have their lives turned upside down when one of them is victimized by Eli; and there is Tommy, a glue-sniffing neighbor of Oskar’s, whose stepfather is the cop investigating the strange murders happening around town.
Clearly, this is not a cheery tale. It’s the kind of book that makes you feel compelled to turn the pages even though a part of you really wants to look away. There were moments when I had to put it down and take a deep breath—only to pick it up again a minute later.
Lindqvist has the ability to suck his readers into a world so real that you can almost feel the cold. He spends time in the heads of each of the characters and makes the reader sympathize with even the most revolting of the lot. Let the Right One In is not a formulaic horror novel. It’s a story propelled by Lindqvist’s powerful look into the human psyche and how each of us chooses to live with our demons.
The novel was a bestseller in Sweden and was translated into English, German, Russian, and Danish before it became a movie. Swedish director Tomas Alfredson took on the task of making the book into a film with Lindqvist as the screenwriter. The Swedish language film was released last year to critical acclaim and won numerous awards including the “Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature” at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival.
The film opens with a shot of snowflakes falling from a night sky. The camera then focuses on Oskar standing in his room, looking at his pale, angular reflection in the window. The scene is indicative of the quiet, beautiful, and horrific film about to unfold.
Fourteen-year-old Kåre Hedebrant does a brilliant job of conveying Oskar’s loneliness and bottled rage. His performance won him a nomination for “Best Performance in an International Feature Film” at the 30th Annual Young Artist Awards.
Lina Leandersson, who plays Eli, was up for the same award. She admirably captures the character’s disquieting mixture of childlike innocence and animalistic behavior. She is also excellent in projecting Eli’s androgynous nature. Watching her, I was unsure if she was a boy or a girl. After further investigation, I discovered that the director had a male voice-over do her lines to further convey the character’s ambiguous gender.
Surprisingly, both actors were forbidden to study the script. Alfredson read the lines to Hedebrant and Leandersoon before each scene and then relied on them to deliver the gist of what he had just read. Both Hedebrant and Leandersoon seemingly convert the screenplay into action effortlessly. According to Justin Lowe of the Hollywood Reporter:
“The youthful actors imbue even the most emotional and disturbing scenes with remarkable complexity. Leandersson is particularly impressive as the conflicted young vampire who wants nothing more than to be an ordinary girl again.”—Film review by Justin Lowe, THReviews.com (23 October 2008)
A lot of what’s in the the book is left out of the film, including Oskar’s friend Tommy, the pedophilia facet, and a few key scenes. Lindqvist kept just enough in the screenplay to preserve the book’s essence. The film is like a skeleton that is draped with supplementary muscle in the book. Despite the absences in the film, I came away from it feeling the same way I did after finishing the book – disturbed and inspired.
Alfredson focuses his lens on the Swedish winterscape with a penetrating eye. From the romantic opening shot to the random shots of trees covered in snow, he gives a visual soul to the story. The silence of the images juxtaposed against the discord of the murders is in splendid contrast.
The final scene in the movie, which mirrors the scene in the book, finds Oskar sitting on a train with a trunk by his feet. From inside the trunk, Eli taps the word for “kiss” in Morse code. Oskar then taps back the same word. Like the book, the movie leaves things open to interpretation. You can see the ending as happy or tragic depending on what you believe about Oskar and Eli in the story.
I nearly gagged when I found out there will be an American remake of the film, directed by Matt Reaves (Cloverfield). I can already see the over-the-top CGI editing and gore. They wasted no time butchering the title. It will be called (like some of the recent American book releases) Let Me In. (Sigh) The movie has already been done and done well. Let the Right One In is an original story transformed into a dark, stunning cinematic piece.
Let’s just leave it at that, please, and not let any more interpretations of this compelling story in.