Alex Garland on How His Annihilation Adaptation is a Response to Jeff VanderMeer’s Novel

While 2015’s Ex Machina may be what pushed writer-director Alex Garland into the mainstream, about half of his body of work is in adaptations: He wrote the screenplays for both Never Let Me Go and Dredd, and is writing and directing the adaptation of Annihilation, the first book in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy. Lightspeed Magazine recently posted the full text of Wired‘s Geek Guide to the Galaxy interview with Alex Garland, which runs from irreverent (he likes to be contrarian) to serious (reflective commentary on the difference between telling a story through a novel and a movie). The whole thing is worth a read, but Garland’s thoughts on adapting Annihilation—especially doing so without having read the subsequent installments.

Not only did Garland adapt Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go for the 2010 film adaptation, but the two authors became friends before then: Garland, then a new novelist for The Beach, wrote a piece about modeling a section of dialogue in the book on Ishiguro’s work; after that transpired letters and meetings over coffee, and, eventually, Garland adapting Ishiguro’s dystopian drama for the big screen.

Between that and Dredd—based on the Judge Dredd comic books, of course—Garland has tackled a number of very different adaptations. But his process for each of the aforementioned projects informs what he’s doing with Annihilation, as he explains:

You’re doing an adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation.

Trying to, yeah, that would be a better way of putting it.

I interviewed Jeff about that book in 2014. I read the first two. I really loved them. Do you want to talk about what attracted you to that project or what you’re hoping to do with it?

Just to put it in a truthful, accurate context, Scott Rudin, the producer, said, “You should read this book.” I read the book. I thought it was brilliant. I really loved it and thought, “Okay, I think I’ve got a handle on a way to adapt this.” Then I adapted it, and it’s now in with a studio who are going to make a decision about whether they want to pay for it. So, it’s in a kind of fifty/fifty state. It could be eighty/twenty against, it could be eighty/twenty for, it could be fifty/fifty. I’ve got no idea. It’s just in a sort of unknown state where it hasn’t landed yet, one way or the other. So that is what’s going on with that.

In terms of my approach to it, I’ve done different kinds of adaptations. Never Let Me Go, apart from a sort of philosophical aspect in the presentation of the narrative in terms of a subtext—which is in that subjective realm we were just talking about—it’s like holding a mirror up to the novel within the parameters of a film. Not being able to show everything a book does because you’d end up with an eight-hour film. So, within that caveat, it’s like holding up a mirror to the book, I would say, in some crucial respects.

It’s the closest film I’ve ever worked on to being an auteur movie, and the auteur was Ishiguro because we referred so tightly to the tone and everything, dialogue, narrative. Then Dredd, and in the case of Dredd, which is based on the 2000 AD character Judge Dredd, there’s a very faithful, I would argue, and tested as well, actually, representation of the character in aspects, but also something which is very different from the comic book in other respects. The comic book has aliens and robots and a level of futurism that, on our budget, we couldn’t begin to do, so we just looked the other way. We look at a tower block with no aliens and robots and implicitly there are no aliens and robots in this universe. I don’t want to be disingenuous about it; we just sort of changed those terms.

Annihilation is somewhere between these states, I think, in terms of the way I’ve approached it. It’s definitely not holding up a mirror to the novel. But it’s true to my subjective response to the novel. It’s true to what I responded to and got out of the novel. And that was partly to do with some narrative aspects of this group of women entering into this strange sealed-off zone and finding something that . . . well, I don’t want to talk too much because there’s a plot point embedded within it. I think that’s wrong, forget the film, just for people who might want to read the book. But, also, a tone. There is a tone in there that, to me, related to what I used to feel reading certain kind of Ballard novels. It’s not in any way derivative, this novel, it’s actually very much its own thing, but it made me feel something like what I used to feel reading The Drowned World or The Crystal World, Ballard novels that took a strange central conceit and then just kind of exist within them, like the world is turning to crystal. There’s a sort of dream-state aspect to that that I found incredibly alluring and hypnotic, and it’s that that’s pulled me in to Annihilation, I think. The premise and the atmosphere and a very particular thing about the ending as well. These are the things that really sucked me into that book.

I’ve read the first two books in the Annihilation trilogy—I didn’t read the third one because it wasn’t out yet when I interviewed Jeff—but I’ve been told that he actually wraps things up very nicely. I always thought that the TV show Lost would have been the best show ever made if they had an ending in mind when they started it. So I was wondering, do you see Annihilation as something that is going to actually fulfill that promise of having this really bizarre, weird setup, and it’s actually going to pay it off in the end?

I actually wrote the screenplay before reading the later stuff, and then was really interested that there were some really quite strange connections that get repeated. What’s interesting about that is it shows what is unconsciously embedded within the novel in the way it makes your mind work. I find that really strange and fascinating. But also, the way I go into these things is it’s hard enough to get one movie made properly, and so my goal is to try to make this film. I really want to make Annihilation. I really want to try to do it. And what I want to try to do is make one good film. That would be my ambition, and then after that, who knows? It probably wouldn’t be me attached anyways.

Annihilation is expected to come to theaters sometime in 2017.

Set photo by Alex Garland, via Tessa Thompson’s Instagram

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