[4 April 2008]
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
Scott Smith hadn’t even finished writing “The Ruins” - and Stephen King had not yet hailed it as “the best horror novel of the new century” - when Hollywood studios started clamoring for the rights to turn it into a film.
Smith was two-thirds done with the book when Ben Stiller’s production company, Red Hour Films, bought the screen rights based on an outline. “They told me they wanted me to write the screenplay, too,” Smith says. “So while I was writing the last third of the book, I already knew I’d be adapting it for the movies.”
This helps explain why “The Ruins” - the harrowing tale of a group of vacationers stranded on a hill in Mexico - is such a cinematic read. An instant bestseller when it was published in the summer of 2006, the novel is filled with passages that practically scream out to be put on film, such as a nerve-racking descent into a pitch-dark crevice in the earth where something hungry dwells.
It’s ironic, then, that the film adaptation of “The Ruins” differs so much from the book. Although the basic narrative remains the same, several surprises await fans of the novel, many of them effective, while a few - like the new ending - are more open to debate.
What hasn’t changed is the monster in “The Ruins,” which joins the ranks of the horror film genre’s most improbable villains. In the past, there have been films about evil cars (“The Car,” “Christine”) and evil 18-wheelers (“Maximum Overdrive”), killer St. Bernards (“Cujo”) and giant killer bunny rabbits (“Night of the Lepus”).
There have even been movies about baby-eating trees (“The Guardian”) and aliens who disguise themselves as plants and kill people (“The Day of the Triffids”). But there has never been a movie about a vine that eats human flesh and talks - or rather, mimics human voices - in order to lead prey to its doom.
Even when he was writing the book, Smith says he had doubts as to the viability of his killer vine. “I’m usually very private when I’m writing, but at certain points I shared portions of the book with people close to me, and their reactions made it clear the vine was a dubious choice,” he says. “But I felt strongly that if you take the situation and treat it realistically, you can get away with things that are, on the surface, ridiculous.”
What was difficult to pull off on the printed page, however, became infinitely more daunting when using flesh-and-blood actors. Carter Smith, the first-time director who landed the “Ruins” gig on the strength of his creepy short film “Bugcrush,” says he always thought of the vine as “the big unknown.”
“If the audience is going to buy that this vine moves and can get into your body and all that, the world of the film has to be absolutely realistic,” the filmmaker says. “We took elements from lots of different real-life plants when designing our vine. It’s in practically every single shot in the film after the characters reach the hill, so it has to look like something that could really be growing there. But it also has to look menacing once you realize what it is capable of doing.”
In order to make the audience feel the characters’ desperation, screenwriter Smith made a critical change to the story’s first act. In the book, the vacationers are barred from leaving the vine-covered hill by armed guards from a nearby village who threaten to kill them if they try to escape.
In the movie, though, the villagers do more than threaten.
“Carter and the studio wanted to shut that door right from the beginning with something stronger than verbal threats and shots fired into the air,” the writer says. “But that one change resulted in a lot of changes later on in the story. In a weird way, the process of adapting the book echoed the plot, in that you make choices that have ramifications you don’t foresee.”
Smith, who didn’t have much involvement with the production after turning in his script, says he hasn’t seen the final cut of “The Ruins,” which underwent major revisions after test audiences laughed unexpectedly at some of the vine’s antics, confirming filmmakers’ fears.
The movie also sports a drastically different ending than the book - one of several that were shot during production. “We shot a bunch of different stuff to see which one would work best with the finished film. There’s a testing process you go through with a studio movie and as frustrating as it can be, it also really gives you a good sense of how an audience feels about an ending. Our final decision was informed by what audiences found the most satisfying after watching a really punishing film. I love the ending of the book, but if the movie had ended the same way, the audience would have wanted to kill themselves.”