Welcome back to our blog series “Have You Watched a Good Book Lately?” The series’ intention is to track a number of books’ progression from the printed page to the silver screen and assess how well or how badly the filmmakers accomplished each of the adaptations.
Today we’re going to be discussing the adaptation of “Bird Box,” a novel written by Josh Malerman in 2014 and adapted in 2018 by screenwriter Eric Heisserer and director Susanne Bier (“Things We Lost in the Fire,” “Love is All You Need”) for the Netflix streaming service. For those of you unfamiliar with the basic premise, here is a brief synopsis of the short story (adapted from Goodreads) and the film (adapted from Google):
“Something is out there, something terrifying that must not be seen. One glimpse of it and a person is driven to deadly violence. No one knows what it is or where it came from. For four years, Malorie has trained her two young children, Boy and Girl, to live in a world where seeing means certain death. Now, though, it’s time to find a safer place, but the journey to get there will be terrifying: twenty miles downriver in a simple rowboat – with all of them blindfolded. They will have nothing to rely on but her wits and the children’s trained ears. Interweaving glimpses of past and present, “Bird Box” is a multifaceted snapshot of a world come completely unhinged.”
“When a mysterious force decimates the population, only one thing is certain – if you see it, you die. Searching for hope and a new beginning, a woman and her children embark on a dangerous journey down a river to find the one place that may offer sanctuary. To make it, they’ll have to cover their eyes from the evil that chases them – and complete the trip blindfolded.”
From the Source’s Mouth
Let’s start our discussion with one of the main concerns of any story adaptation – how true is the film to the source material? There is no question that there are differences between the story and the film, including the ending, but many of them arise from the fact that print and film are two different media with different presentation requirements, and the filmmakers recognized that they would have to make changes in the adaptation while at the same time staying true to the overall arc of the story.
In both the book and the film, the story is told along two time sequences, the present and the period five years before when events were first set in motion. And the basic story for both is primarily the same, as well. Something is ‘infecting” our world and is spreading virulently. No one knows what it is, where it comes from, or what it wants if it’s even intelligent enough to want something from us. The only thing we know is that if anyone looks at it, they will be driven mad, committing violent acts and, ultimately, committing suicide in some gruesome fashion. Malorie, several months pregnant, ends up in a “safe house” after witnessing her sister’s suicide. There, a small group of survivors has holed up to try to wait the crisis out or to continue on with their lives in the new world if that’s how things end up. They barricade the doors and cover all the windows so they can’t see anything outside of the house. When they have to go outside, such as to get water from the well or to go on a supply run, they all wear blindfolds – what you can’t see won’t hurt you – and they check to make sure nothing comes back in with them. They even blacken the windows in the car so they can travel longer distances than on foot.
Over the course of a couple of months, the housemates let in two strangers. Olympia is also pregnant and fears being a “burden” on the rest of them. Gary had been living in another house, but he says he left when the others became violent, knocking on doors until someone answered. He seems rational, if a bit conspiratorial and twitchy, but it is he who ultimately betrays the others, pulling down the window coverings and forcing most of them to open their eyes, just as Malorie and Olympia go into labor. He has seen the “creatures” himself, he tells them, and they are “so beautiful” they will cleanse the world with their viewing – everyone must look and see. Olympia, not realizing the room is no longer safe, looks out the open window. Malorie manages to grab her little girl and keep the baby’s eyes shut before Olympia jumps through the pane and plummets to her death. Malorie also covers her own son’s eyes, hiding all three of them under a blanket until the madness is over. Malorie spends the next four years raising Boy and Girl in a crazed and sightless world before she takes them on a journey in a rowboat down the river, hoping to find a permanent sanctuary she’s been told is there.
Now we come to the heart of our discussion, the differences between the original story and the film adaptation. We don’t have the time to delve into each and every one of them, so I will attempt to discuss a few of the more important ones. Some of the changes were small, like switching the setting from suburban Detroit to Northern California. Films are visual, and the change allowed the filmmakers to play the scenic landscape against the horrific story for maximum effect. Other changes were much larger and had more of an impact on the way the stories were told. In the book, a pregnant Malorie lives with her sister Shannon for about three months after the outbreak starts, allowing for more background development of the characters and the relationship they had with each other. It’s only when Shannon then accidentally sees the creatures and stabs herself to death with a pair of scissors that Malorie remembers an ad in the newspaper with the location of a safe house and resolves to go there.
The film, however, starts with a double bang. It opens on the “present day,” with Malorie, forcefully telling four-year-old Girl and Boy that this is the day of their trip down the river. It will be long, she hammers into them. It will be dangerous. They will be cold and tired and frightened. Under no circumstances, though, are they to remove their blindfolds! They are not to talk! They are to listen to her and do everything she says or they will die! “Do you understand?” she demands of them and then demands it again. Only after they nod their assent does she blindfold all of them, gather their things, and make the trip to where the rowboat waits for them. This is our first encounter with Malorie, and it’s quite a shock to listen to her shout out a list of demands to four-year-old children and then to tell them in no certain terms that if they don’t comply they will die. What kind of character, especially a mother, would do this? What kind of situation would require such behavior?
We are given a brief interlude as “five years ago” Malorie and Jessica (unexplained name change) are discussing Malorie’s unexpected pregnancy and her seeming disinterest in having the baby now that the father has skipped out on her. There’s news on the television of mass suicides, but they’re still mostly in Russia and Europe. Then comes the second bang. Leaving a routine OBGYN appointment, Malorie sees a visitor in the hallway smashing her head against a window, hears shots ringing out, and realizes whatever threat exists is now here. As she and Jessica drive hurriedly away from the scene, Jessica sees something in the road as Malorie’s head is turned; her eyes turn glassy, and she flips the car over while hitting another. Though both make it out alive, Jessica quickly steps in front of an oncoming truck, becoming a stain on the road. Traumatized, desperately afraid, and trampled in the mass hysteria of people fleeing the scene, Malorie is scooped up and pushed inside a safe house, the door shutting firmly behind her.
Remember, film is a visual medium. While you have any number of pages to set up the characters and plot in a book, you have to grab the viewers’ attention within the first minute or two of a movie to keep them in the theater. You have to pose scenarios that make them question what they seeing and why and thereby make them invested enough that they are willing to continue watching to get all their questions answered. This film, while diverging from the gradual buildup of the original story, did just that. I was invested, I cared, and so I watched it all the way through – twice.
Another big divergence was the character of Tom. In both the story and the movie, Tom was the leader of the housemates, the go-to person when a plan needed to be thought through or put in place. In the novel, Tom meets his end when Gary forces him to look at the creatures while he is helping Malorie give birth. It is a fitting end – not only does it show that even such an important character can’t stand against the invasion/infection, but it also leaves Malorie on her own to raise both her baby and Olympia’s for the next four years. She has to learn how to be tough enough not just to survive in this new world, but also to raise children who will be able to grow and thrive under challenging circumstances.
In the movie, Tom takes on a much larger role. He comes to the safe house at the same time Malorie does, literally ushering her in the front door as they both race for safety from the trampling hordes. After Gary manages to kill all the other remaining housemates by stripping away their protection from the outside world, he alone stays by Malorie’s side, becoming lover, friend, and de facto father to the children for four years. As Malorie becomes stricter and more hardened by her circumstances, it is Tom who reminds her that if they are to live, they must have dreams to live for, not just survive from day to day. And in the end, he gives his life protecting his new family, diverting maddened intruders as Malorie and the kids escape to the river. Though I liked the character, I did feel that his becoming the “love interest” was a clear ploy by the filmmakers to appeal to the female demographic – while giving us a more personal window into Malorie’s character, it was not necessary to the story by any means.
A third divergence was more thematical – the birds of the “Bird Box” title. The birds are sensitive to the presence of the intruders, and their behavior becomes erratic when the creatures are near, serving as an early-warning system. In the novel, Tom finds the birds in an abandoned house and brings them back to the safe house, recognizing their importance. He places them in a box outside the door, hence the title. When Malorie leaves the house to travel downriver, she takes the birds with her, and their behavior alerts her to the creatures’ presence in the water. They stay with her once she arrives.
In the film, Malorie discovers the birds somehow still alive in their cage at an abandoned supermarket and comments at how remarkable they are. She is also the one who recognizes their use as “canaries in a coal mine” when they go berserk as an infected person comes near. Though they stay in their cage as long as Malorie is in the house, when she and the children make their journey downriver, she places them in a box with air holes, giving it to Girl for safe-keeping. And after they reach their destination, a sanctuary for hundreds of survivors in a school for the blind, she and the kids set the birds free, a symbol of the new freedom she has attained for herself and her family.
With the number of changes the filmmakers made to the storyline, are there really any changes that seem out of place? The answer is absolutely yes. One of the major issues I had was with the dogs. Didn’t see them in the movie? That’s because they were completely left out. In the story, Tom and Jules, one of the other housemates, leave the house to see if, among other things, they can find dogs. For one thing, they want to train them to be guide dogs, which would greatly enhance the humans’ ability to walk longer distances outside while blindfolded. For another, by taking the dogs out, they can tell if animals other than humans are driven mad by the sight of the creatures. They manage to find two huskies and lure them back to the safe house. I found that having the housemates capable of training these dogs to “see” in a matter of a few days was completely ridiculous, but the question of who or what is affected is not only thought-provoking but integral to the story’s main theme. Are we alone in our ability to go mad? Is it only the human race that’s doomed, or is the whole planet in danger of extinction? According to the story, where the dogs eventually become deranged and Malorie is attacked by a swarm of warring birds that fall from the sky, the planet as a whole is doomed. According to the film, who knows? What you come away with is a profound lack of comprehension about what the original story was all about.
Another of the issues I had was with the ending. We’ve already seen that the film ends on a hopeful note of Malorie releasing the birds into the sanctuary she finds at the end of her journey down the river. The book’s finale, however, is a lot more sobering. When Malorie sees the survivors at the school, she notices that many of them bear the scars from digging their eyes out so they won’t be able to see the creatures, and she panics. Rick, the head of the sanctuary, tells her those scars come from the past, from a time of great fear, and it was always a matter of choice – she will not be asked to do the same. Still, knowing the lengths that people will go to in order to survive are disconcerting at best, and we know the sanctuary will always harbor some of that fear, no matter how pleasant it seems at the moment.
The Final Cut
So, how did the film version of “Bird Box” fare as a novel adaptation overall? I think the film’s writer and director understood the strengths of their medium and played well to them; their version was a more visual and aural experience than the novel allowed, and I did enjoy watching it. However, as we have just seen, they not only changed the whole tone of the ending, but they directly undermined one of the story’s most important themes, and that’s not so easily forgiven. I would give it a C+ for a fairly good effort but a lack of understanding about the nature of the horror that made this such a visceral and deeply unsettling horror story.
What do you think? Do you agree? Disagree? Please add your comments in the section below.
DISCLAIMER: The opinions discussed in this blog post are solely those of the blogger and do not necessarily represent any thoughts, values, or opinions of PoetsIN and any of its affiliate groups.