Sunday, August 21, 2011

Review: Let Me In/Let The Right One In

So this is something of an experiment. We'll see how it goes.

Basically I, like many people, I have only so much appetite for "heavy". While commenting on the philosophies of our current NZ government is close to my heart (like most ex-philosophy students, I relish a chance to point out fallacies in the thinking of powerful people) I really only have so much time to devote to analysing this stuff and pulling it to bits. So, while I won't pretend to be abandoning it entirely, I'll take a break here and have a look at something else.

Currently my wife is heavily pregnant, and is in the unfortunate position of suffering hyperemesis gravidarum. This means that she's on an entertaining cocktail of anti-emetic drugs, and can't do a hell of a lot. This also means that we watch a lot of movies, as it's something she can do without provoking a fit of vomiting and which we both enjoy.

WARNING: While there aren't any spoilers in this post, you follow any of the links in it at your own risk - they all go to Wikipedia, and as such may be spoiler-y without warning...

I got Let The Right One In out when she was last pregnant, but had to watch it by myself as she had to go into the hospital to be rehydrated (a concern with hyperemesis is that women can become dangerously dehydrated, and one of the effects this has is worsening the nausea - preventing them from keeping any fluids down and necessitating intravenous rehydration). This week I got Let Me In, partly because I'd heard a couple of good things about it, and partly because the challenge of reading subtitles at speed provokes the nausea like no-one's business, so this seemed like an easier option.

The first thing to understand about Let Me In and Let The Right One In is that they are best considered as independent movies (one Swedish and one American) which are both based on the same novel: Let The Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist. The novel concerns the relationship between a 12 year old schoolboy, Oskar and a female child-vampire (also apparently 12) called Eli. The American film Let Me In, takes a lot of cues from the earlier Swedish one, but can't really be called a "remake", as it plays around with the structure of the story and motivations of the characters and ends up in a slightly different place from the Swedish version.

Unusually for a situation where Hollywood recreates a non-US franchise, both films are actually pretty strong, though I prefer the Swedish version - for reasons we'll get into shortly. The best way to showcase the strengths of both films is actually (again unusually) to read the book. This is not to say that Lindqvist's novel is inferior to the films in any way, simply that the job of film-ising it has (in both cases) been very skilfully done.

There are a number of characters and subplots left out of both films (though more is omitted from Let Me In) but this doesn't actually present many problems. Instead, it refines and distills the story, and avoids some issues that would have caused controversy to no great end. For example, one supporting character in the novel is a paedophile, and his urges occasionally drive the plot in a way which would probably have brought him more attention in the films than he merited. The character is present in both films, but his past is ignored or given a different explanation.

In fact, the major differences between Let Me In and Let The Right One In (aside from shifting the action from Sweden to New Mexico) lie in precisely what changes were made from the novel, and how this affects the film in both cases.

First, I need to get a tiny pedantic issue off my chest. Let The Right One In preserved the names of the main characters: "Oskar" and "Eli", while Let Me In changed them to "Owen" and "Abby". "Håkan" in the Swedish film also becomes "Thomas" in the American version. This all makes sense, I suppose - particularly the change for Håkan. However, a minor character called Virginia retains her name in both versions. I don't really know why this irritated me - I guess I just felt that if you were going to change all the names, you might as well change all the names and if not, the why not simply anglicise them? "Oscar " and "Elly" would have been perfectly acceptable American-English names. Still, that's a pretty minor point, and I only noticed it because I'd seen the Swedish film first.

A more important difference between the two films is the portrayal of Eli/Abby. Eli remains fairly child-like for the majority of the Swedish version, and most of the occasions where her vampiric nature surfaces are shot in such a way as to obscure what actually happens. This (and a great performance by 11 year old Lina Leandersson) give her a real sense of vulnerability, which makes the developing romance between her and Oskar simultaneously affecting and (particularly later in the film) quite unsettling to watch. It's this tension between conflicting emotions that makes their relationship so engrossing to watch. As I described it to friends immediately after watching the Swedish film: "It makes you want to simultaneously go 'Awwww' and 'Eugggghhh.'"

In the American version, Abby's occasional violent moments are depicted much more graphically, and she is given a "vampiric transformation" mode in the manner of most modern American vampire franchises (Twilight notwithstanding). This (along, I suspect, with Chloë Grace Moretz being two years older than Leandersson -13 rather than 11) makes it much harder for Moretz to seem vulnerable during her more human-like moments and makes the chemistry between Abby and Owen less believable than between Eli and Oskar. Her motivations are also less ambiguous - Eli may be interested in Oskar for sinister reasons, but this seems much more explicit in Abby and Owen's relationship. This version has much more "Eugggghhh" and less "Awwww" if you will, and as such is actually less unsettling because it's easier to interpret.

The other characters to suffer most in the transition to Hollywood are the minor characters. By and large this matters less than you'd think: Virginia's subplot makes marginally less sense in Let Me In but not enough to seriously derail the story, and the other characters seem to exist mostly as Swedish social commentary that would have made little sense in an American context.

It's more problematic in the depiction of Owen/Oskar's parents. In the Swedish film, it's clear that Oskar has a closer relationship with his father than with his mother (who struggles to connect with her son) but that this is undermined by his father's alcoholism - which seems also to be the factor causing the parents to divorce. Divorce notwithstanding, his parents seem to have a pretty amicable grown-up relationship. Oskar visits his father at one point, and has a genuinely good time with him until one of his father's drinking buddies turns up, and his father becomes a boring (rather than stereotypically threatening) drunk.

In Let Me In the father is mostly absent, and Owen's mother ends up being a combination of the two characters - the divorce is never really explained, though it's implied that her extreme religiosity plays a part and that her drinking may be a response to the fairly acrimonious divorce process. By making the divorce nastier and the parents more absent to start with, Let Me In sidesteps another source of creeping unease. Let The Right One In is partly the story of Oskar finally saying his goodbyes to the human world, as it fails him in various ways. Owen doesn't really seem like a part of that world to begin with - so there's much less for him to lose.

All in all, I'd recommend both films. I think the Swedish one is superior, as I personally prefer the subtle sense of "off-ness" and unease that pervades it to the more obvious horror tropes of the American version. That said, Let Me In is by and large a very successful translation of the novel for an American audience and people who (like my wife) can't handle subtitles.

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