In episode 11 of Fiction/Non/Fiction, V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell offer a very Lit Hub take on Academy Awards season. What’s the process really like when a book becomes a movie? How does Hollywood decide which books will work best for the big screen? For answers, they talk to production and development executive Christina Sibul, who worked on the Academy Award-nominated book adaptations The House of Sand and Fog (2003) and Sideways (2004). Then author Jeff VanderMeer joins the show, fresh back from the LA premiere of Annihilation, a brand-new Paramount Pictures film based on the first novel of his bestselling Southern Reach Trilogy. Jeff gives us the inside scoop on his techniques for freaking out readers, how director Alex Garland translated Annihilation’s monsters to the big screen, and how to dress for the red carpet if you’re an author. BONUS: Sugi casts the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast movie adaptation!
Readings for this episode: Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer (2014) · The House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III (1999) · Sideways by Rex Pickett (2004)
From the episode, part one: Christina Sibul
V.V. Ganeshananthan: It sounds like the process by which you made Sideways was pretty unusual in comparison to other films; was it freeing or different in any way not to have the finished novel? When versions of it would come in, would you look and see what the changes were? Already the whole process seems so bananas to me, and this seems like another level.
Christina Sibul: The novel itself didn’t materially change: it always had a similar structure of going through the week from Saturday to Saturday, basically, of their trip. So in a sense it’s a very formalist novel. It has that sort of structure, of each day having its own entity and its own journey. It sounds like diary entries. There wasn’t a lot of vast structural change once we really got into the writing of the screenplay. I know that really well, because essentially my one task on Sideways, from beginning to end, was tracking the changes in the novel. I just always remember that—I would feel like a weekend would be lost, when I would get the next raft of pages or the new draft from Rex [Pickett]. I’d be like, “I guess I’m going to do a page-by-page comparison this weekend, and that shall be my weekend.”
VVG: [laughs] Novelists. We’re a real pain in the butt.
CS: I know! It is the sexy part of filmmaking when you have to do a page-by-page comparison on an 800-page novel.
Whitney Terrell: But somebody must have really believed in the core to that story, and I wondered: there’s this scene pretty early on when Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church—Miles and Jack, their character names—are having breakfast, they’ve just left Miles’s mom’s house, and they have this sort of ethical dispute about what the weekend’s going to be. For Miles, it’s all about aesthetics, and for Jack it’s all about sex. That ethical conflict must have always been there. That to me is something I would teach a fiction writer to do. I would say, “You know, you’ve got to have an ethical conflict between your characters.”
CS: Right, yeah. Absolutely. In terms of screenplay structure, that’s something that lends itself so well to that sort of screenplay embrace. They’re both looking for immensely different things out of that weekend—or out of that week.
VVG: It’s interesting to think about the books and movies where both versions are good, but they’re extremely different. In this case, I’m in the camp of people who like both The English Patient novel and The English Patient movie, and I know there was a whole Seinfeld episode about people who think that The English Patient movie was not great . . .
CS: That’s fair.
VVG: But it is one of my all-time favorites [laughs]. I love that movie, but it’s also such a dramatic departure from the book. And then I think we can probably also think of books turned into movies that were duds. I wonder if you could talk about a book that was surprisingly good when adapted or anything that you think is the kind of characteristic that’s ripe for adaptation.
CS: So for me, it’s less about material and more about the dialogue that a filmmaker has with the material. Because ultimately, we look at the text that’s being adapted as one emotional source of material or one factual source of material or one literary source of material. And then we look at the filmmaker and their body of work as another source of ideas and inspiration and form. And then what happens is there’s almost a tertiary product created that’s a dialogue between that text—the original book—and the filmmaker and that film that they create.
From the episode, part two: Jeff VanderMeer
V.V. Ganeshananthan: One of the striking things about Annihilation is the intensity of its mood . . . and the paranoia that engulfs this team of explorers sent into Area X and you were describing. So much of that feeling of fear, which the opening of the book really has, has to do with tiny details, not jump scares, not the monster coming around the corner.
Whitney Terrell: There’s also this sense . . . when they descend into the tower again, when the biologist feels confident that the tower isn’t made of stone at all but that it’s alive and breathing. And I wondered if you could talk to us, just in terms of the writing, [about] how you developed that feeling of tension. Was it there immediately? Were there techniques you had to learn to help create it along the way?
Jeff VanderMeer: Well, I think there is always a disturbing quality when the thing you think is one thing turns out to be another. So the idea of a tower, which we automatically think of as being made of stone, turns out to be organic. And they can’t decide if it’s a tower or a tunnel . . . but there was also a lot of thinking, I think in my subconscious, and then things that you pull out after you’ve written a rough draft, about the spatial relationship between the characters and the landscape, which seems like a really dry topic. But that thinking really helped the visceral, tactile aspect of it. And so I imagine the entire novel as traveling down into something. Always a descent. So even when they’re actually just walking across wilderness, or they’re going up into the lighthouse, even in moments when it seems like they’re getting on top of the situation, the situation in terms of the words used to describe things, is getting away from them? And so that dislocation, I think, is especially intense when they go up into the lighthouse because . . . it’s meant that when they’re walking up into the lighthouse, you feel like you’re traveling down into a tunnel.
WT: Oh, that’s nice.
JV: And then there’re the things I learned from reading J.G. Ballard’s stories. Not the content. I don’t think he actually dealt with the natural environment that much. But he was expert at expanding and contracting space and time in his stories, in the reader’s mind. And so you study that technique and you think about the destabilizing things you can do. And then there’re things I thought of that I don’t know where they came from.
Like in the second book, Authority, any incidental dialogue, like in the halls, or when he’s in a bar—the main character—is actually repurposed Annihilation dialogue. And the idea is to create this eerie sense of déjà vu that you don’t know where it’s coming from.
And then also, the movie, Kubrick’s version of The Shining. There’s a moment in it where there’s a TV on and playing and there’s no cord. Of course that doesn’t register at all to a modern audience, right? But back then, that was an uncanny moment. And so when I saw that, I thought, “What is the translation to fiction?” Not a literal translation. You can’t just say, “There’s a TV with no cord. Oooh, that’s scary!” But what will destabilize. What will the reader not notice right away? So there’s some deliberate continuity errors involving how large the lighthouse is on the inside, which you have to be very careful about because they can just seem like mistakes. Or otherwise they can seem like something more out of House of Leaves . . .
The thing Annihilation does—I didn’t realize this until after I wrote it—it stacks a lot of genre tropes. But it stacks, like, six in a row. And it stacks them in unconventional ways, at least that I’ve seen. And so that also creates some destabilizing. You expect that the novel is one thing. But then section by section, it becomes something else, while still remaining true because it has this central expedition as the through line.
VVG: I love the idea of destabilization. That’s really helpful . . . But there is a monster, right? There’s this thing that’s creating this writing on the wall of the tower.
JV: Oh, yes.
WT: And it’s held back for a long time in the story. People talk about the way that’s done in Jaws—the way Spielberg holds back the somewhat disappointing-looking shark for a long time in that movie.
JV: [Laughing] It’s just a shark! . . . But with regard to the monster [in Annihilation], I think what I was after in the books was to destabilize the usual reveal. The reason it’s gradual is to kind of acclimate you so when you actually finally see it you notice more than just the horror and surprise of it but the beauty and the strangeness of it as well. And I think Garland [the director of the Annihilation adaptation] gets there a different way. He’s still thinking about the same things, and in many ways, it’s a very loose translation of the book. But you can see many points where he is translating, where he is reacting to something in the book, and so I do think that in the third act of the movie where you do see the crawler—and you don’t see it before that—he somehow manages visually to get the horror and beauty of it by being very precise.
The thing I found fascinating is on the set visit they had what I would call a three-act structure of the visual imagination. Like, literally on the walls all around this building they had just pasted photographs and pictures, some of which they found and some of which they created as, like, what is the tone and texture of this part. And for the third act, several of the images they had that were inspiration for the monster were the same things that I’d come up with during my research, but we had not communicated about this. They had just come to it through parallel evolution. So, I think that the depiction of the crawler is very accurate in some ways. And very horrific and beautiful at the same time. There’s another monster too in there because there’s the moaning creature in the books, and the moaning creature he translated into this strange bear that also combines aspects of the boar that’s in the book. So, there’s another translation of the monster where someone may see it and say, “That’s not from the book,” but in actual fact it kind of is, you know.
Transcription by Kevin Kotur and Erin Saxon.