Wednesday, October 06, 2010

31 Days of Halloween - Day 6 - Movie 1

Scott B. Smith's 2006 novel "The Ruins" is a gripping novel absolutely filled with tension and dread which I HIGHLY recommend. Smith, who also wrote "A Simple Plan" as well as the Academy Award nominated screenplay based he adapted from it, also wrote the screenplay for movie version of "The Ruins" (2008) which filled me with lots of hope that the movie would be as well structured and fraught with tension and unease throughout. My hopes were dashed pretty quickly.

Like the novel, the movie has four young American tourists vacationing in Mexico where they befriend a young German man, Mathias (Joe Anderson) and some non-English speaking Greek men. The Americans and one of the Greeks accompany Mathias into the jungle in order to retrieve his brother who has hooked up with a archeologist. When they reach the archeological site, they are surrounded by angy non-English speaking Mexicans who at first try to keep them away from the site, then kill one of the tourists and prevent any of the others from leaving. Then things begin to go horribly and rapidly wrong.

I truly recommend that you read the novel, certainly before you read any further in this post as there be SPOILERS AHEAD!!

The movie feels like more of an encapsulated version of the novel than a true adaptation. The characters are merely sketches, and their relationships to one another are not really defined. Smith entirely removes almost the entire first third of the novel for timing considerations, but then chooses to rearrange the roles of some of the characters once they reach the ruins. While some of these changes seem to make some sense in terms of the difference between a movie and a novel, one of them actually takes away much of the tension that really worked well in the novel. In the novel Pablo, called Dimitri here in the movie, an engaging character who speaks no English and can barely communicate with the Americans or Mathias using hand gestures, is the one who falls into the shaft and breaks his back. The fact that he only speaks Greek heightens his plight and the way the others react to him, and begin to dehumanize him after his accident. In the movie, it's Mathias, who remains lucid and communicative throughout his ordeal. Dimitri is killed off as soon as they reach the ruins.

As you'd expect in any tense situation, compounded by outside threats, Mathias's critical injury and the unprepared nature of the group who neither dressed or brought food necessary to their situation, nerves fray, anger and frustration emerge, relationships suffer. This is the real strength of the book, and the main flaw of the movie. This entire aspect of the story is underplayed to the point of being irrelevant. The need to conserve water is mentioned, but we never see the thirst of the characters, or their hunger as they divide their meager rations. The novel completely succeeds in it's nail biting scenario of doom where it could have succeeded entirely had the "strange" element never entered the picture. The movie could not say the same.

The strange element, and the reason that the Mexicans quarantine the tourists on the ruins involves a vine with red flowers which covers the ruins. The vine turns out to be a somewhat sentient life form which can move, eat, infect, and plot against the humans within its reach. It can also mimic sounds such as the ringing of a cell phone, laughter, and sounds suggesting speech. Smith skillfully handles the revelation of the vine's abilities and threat level in the novel by only revealing what he needs to as he needs to. When I read the book, I thought the speech mimicry was maybe pushing things too far, even though it worked. I was worried how this aspect of the vines abilities was going to work in the movie without being laughable, but the filmmakers, to their credit, managed just fine. Unfortunately, any suspense regarding the vines' true nature are revealed incredibly quickly in this movie, robbing it of that building dread. There is one nice subtle touch though. When Stacy (Laura Ramsey) descends into the shaft, the light from her lantern causes the shadows from the vines to move along the wall, but in one place, the vine itself is moving in reaction to the light.

The ending, radically different from the novel, doesn't ring true and falls flat like the rest of the movie. Had I not read the novel, I would have found it to be merely an interesting idea that lacks a heart and the conviction needed to make it work.  I wish the movie had taken a more leisurely pace and allowed the audience the much needed opportunity to really feel trapped in the same increasingly horrible situation as the characters on screen. Another half hour could really have strengthened this film. It tries to remain faithful to the source material without giving itself anything that takes root and grows on its own.


Chris 'Frog Queen' Davis said...

Thanks for the review. LOVED the book...did not finish the movie. 30 minutes into it and I was done. Sad, cause like you I thought it might really have potential.

Good books to bad movies....this happens far too often :(


Raven176 said...

aye, the book was great.
the movie, not so much.