Books to Movies
Throughout human history, the looming specter of apocalypse has cast a perpetual shadow over our collective consciousness. In every era, individuals have been prone to viewing their current circumstances as the definitive conclusion of the unfolding narrative of existence. However, in the contemporary landscape, we find ourselves amidst an unprecedented surge in cultural expressions that grapple with apocalyptic themes. Against the backdrop of the tumultuous year 2020, Rumaan Alam’s novel, Leave the World Behind, emerged as a compelling addition to the burgeoning genre of apocalyptic literature. The narrative unfolded against the dire backdrop of a vaguely defined, humanity-threatening catastrophe, thrusting two New York families into an unexpected and uneasy alliance within the confines of a remote rural vacation home. While the novel’s premise might suggest a conventional science-fiction thriller, Alam defied expectations by crafting a narrative firmly rooted in the psychological realm.
Leave the World Behind ventured beyond the superficial trappings of a standard apocalyptic tale, delving into the intricacies of interpersonal relationships and human emotions. The apocalypse it presented was not one of fantastical scenarios or technological dystopia but rather an exploration of the emotional and psychological unraveling of characters caught in uncertainty. The novel skillfully navigated the delicate balance between its characters’ intimate, ground-level perspective and the cosmic urgency conveyed through terrifying glimpses of the unfolding crisis beyond the confines of their isolated haven. Alam’s work underscored that the most profound apocalypses are often deeply personal, even in global upheaval. By intertwining the fates of disparate individuals in a remote setting, the novel illuminates the shared humanity that persists amid existential threats. The atmospheric tension within the vacation home mirrored the broader anxieties of a world on the brink, amplifying the emotional resonance of the unfolding events.
When adapting books into movies, the notion that fidelity to the source material is optional reigns supreme. The creative license exercised in transforming written narratives onto the cinematic canvas knows no bounds, as evidenced by the forthcoming film The Zone of Interest, helmed by Jonathan Glazer. This adaptation of Martin Amis’s novel takes the liberty of discarding nearly everything but the title and setting, presenting an intriguing case study in cinematic reinterpretation. Often fueled by artistic vision and commercial considerations, the film industry embraces a freedom that allows directors and screenwriters to reimagine, remix, and reinterpret literary works. In the case of The Zone of Interest, the departure from Amis’s narrative blueprint is conspicuous, creating a cinematic entity that diverges significantly from its literary progenitor. While offering a fresh perspective, Glazer’s cinematic alchemy veers away from the novel’s thematic nuances and character intricacies, essentially becoming a distinct artistic expression.
Challenges and Emotions for Aficionados
However, liberating as this creative license may be, it introduces a nuanced tension for those intimately acquainted with the original work. For aficionados of the source material, each deviation from the narrative can elicit a spectrum of emotions, ranging from curiosity to frustration. The realization that every alteration made in the adaptation is, at least in the eyes of the purist, a step in the wrong direction can be a source of mild irritation. The challenge lies in striking a delicate balance between the demands of cinematic storytelling and the fidelity owed to the essence of the original creation. While a certain degree of alteration is expected and even embraced by audiences familiar with the adaptation process, a complete departure that diminishes the richness of the source material can be disheartening. The risk of alienating the core fan base looms large when the changes made for the adaptation do not resonate or enhance the narrative experience.
In Sam Esmail’s adaptation of Rumaan Alam’s novel, Leave the World Behind, a metamorphosis occurs as the narrative transcends its original contours and emerges within a more pronounced, albeit not entirely convincing, apocalyptic thriller. The protagonists, Amanda and Clay, embody a well-to-do Brooklyn couple seeking refuge from urban life, opting to retreat to a rented vacation house nestled in a tranquil rural enclave just outside the bustling metropolis, accompanied by their two teenage children. As the family settles into the idyllic retreat, the serenity of their surroundings is disrupted by a series of disconcerting events, chief among them being the spectacle of a colossal tanker unexpectedly grounding itself on a crowded beach nearby. The incident is a harbinger of the impending upheaval that will reshape the characters’ lives. The once peaceful escape transforms into a stage for suspense and foreboding.
Amidst the growing unease, a pivotal moment unfolds when a mysterious duo, George and his daughter Ruth, materialize on the scene. To the surprise of Amanda and Clay, it is revealed that George and Ruth are the owners of the secluded property, compelled to make the arduous journey from the city after a sudden blackout plunges it into darkness. Clay, embodying a casual, go-along-to-get-along demeanor, readily invites strangers to seek refuge within the confines of the vacation home. However, the narrative tension intensifies as the characters’ responses diverge, encapsulating a societal microcosm within the intimate setting. Amanda, characterized by a palpable anxiety and a vague skepticism, immediately harbors suspicions about George and Ruth. Her unease, tinted with an aura vaguely reminiscent of the stereotypical “Karen” archetype, injects an additional layer of complexity into the evolving dynamics. Esmail skillfully navigates the psychological nuances of the characters, probing the depths of trust, suspicion, and the societal undercurrents that permeate interpersonal interactions.
Lack of Character Engagement
Regrettably, the film fails to exhibit any discernible interest in or genuine affection for, the characters it introduces. Instead of three-dimensional personalities with depth and nuance, they come across as cardboard cutouts, existing primarily to embody postures rather than elicit sympathy, convey humanity, or even spark curiosity. In stark contrast to Rumaan Alam’s novel, which intricately explores the awkward collisions and unexpected coherence between the two families, Sam Esmail’s film initially appears to pivot in the opposite direction. Esmail’s narrative strategy involves a deliberate separation of the characters, dispatching them on individual journeys to witness bizarre and surreal scenes of the apocalypse unfolding. From planes plummeting from the sky to ominous red leaflets swirling in the atmosphere like pestilential clouds, the film accentuates the chaotic and disjointed nature of their experiences. Perhaps the director aims to convey that each grapple with their own personal Armageddon, emphasizing the fragmentation of experiences and the inherent inability to perceive the broader picture—a metaphor for our fractured and distracted psyches.
However, despite this thematic intent, the characters remain mere stick figures, resembling hollow avatars maneuvered through visually striking disaster sequences rather than authentic human beings undergoing an unspeakable horror. Even as the film progresses and attempts to foster connections among the characters, employing awkward monologues and nostalgic pop records, the audience is never truly transported into the narrative’s emotional core. The attempt to forge bonds among the characters feels like a belated endeavor, and the sincerity of these interactions is overshadowed by the lingering sense that it is, ultimately, too little, too late, and not well-executed from the outset. Despite its shortcomings, the film could have redeemed itself if the apocalyptic visions portrayed onscreen had been compelling, terrifying, or, at the very least, convincingly rendered. In the realm of cinema, successful disaster movies often manage to captivate audiences even in the absence of well-developed characters or engaging dialogue. However, Sam Esmail’s approach takes an unexpected turn, utilizing the story’s inherent ambiguity almost as if it were a convenient escape route, allowing him to inundate the audience with bizarre and unsettling events without coherently explaining the narrative’s unfolding chaos. Esmail adopts a half-hearted approach, leaving the viewers grappling with a narrative that feels more like a haphazard collection of intriguing concepts hastily jotted down and thrown into a box rather than a cohesive sequence of scenes belonging to a unified emotional and consequential continuum.
Double-Edged Sword of Ambiguity
Amidst the narrative disarray, certain moments shine with a glimmer of promise. For instance, depicting an unending traffic jam comprised of driverless Teslas on Auto-pilot colliding into each other stands out as an inspired idea, offering a glimpse of creativity that could find a more deserving home in a superior cinematic endeavor. These instances of brilliance, however, remain isolated within the broader context of the film’s disjointed narrative, leaving the audience yearning for a more harmonious fusion of imaginative concepts and cohesive storytelling. Esmail’s use of the story’s inherent ambiguity, while potentially intriguing, ultimately becomes a double-edged sword. While it allows for a certain level of mystique and unpredictability, it also serves as a narrative crutch, preventing the audience from fully grasping the significance of the unfolding events. Instead of a deliberate and calculated exploration of the unknown, the film feels like a hodgepodge of disconnected sequences, lacking the depth and coherence necessary for an immersive and satisfying cinematic experience.
Simply put, every element in this film left me unconvinced—neither the unfolding incidents, the characters, nor the dialogue captured my belief or engagement. This sentiment may be subjective; Sam Esmail is undoubtedly an intelligent and creative filmmaker. However, one cannot help but ponder whether he exerted too much effort to assert his directorial vision onto the material rather than allowing the narrative’s organic flow to guide him and discover where these characters and the premise could authentically lead. The camera work, marked by its meticulous compositions and foreboding movements, seems oddly detached from the palpable drama onscreen. A particularly disorienting bird’s-eye crane shot within the house early in the film may be visually intriguing. However, its effectiveness is questionable when a similar shot reappears without a significant impact. Perhaps, one might speculate, the director’s attempt to inject early visual flair felt more like an attempt to jazz up the proceedings rather than serving as a strategic deployment to enhance pivotal moments.
Struggles with Style Over Synchronicity
The parallels between Esmail’s approach and M. Night Shyamalan’s Knock at the Cabin, another recent liberal adaptation of a small-scale apocalyptic novel, come to mind. Shyamalan’s delicate treatment of the source material, marked by a nuanced manipulation of offscreen space and a judicious release of narrative information, resulted in an experience that was both unnerving and emotionally resonant. Through a laser focus on the narrative’s specific elements, Shyamalan connected with the universal, tapping into a profound understanding of the human experience in the face of impending catastrophe. In contrast, Esmail’s film struggles with an overemphasis on style and a lack of synchronicity between his visual choices and the unfolding drama. The absence of a cohesive relationship between the storytelling and the visual elements leaves the viewer grappling with a sense of detachment, hindering the film from achieving the immersive impact it could have had.
Leave the World Behind appears to aim for a lofty, Olympian perspective on humanity, yet Sam Esmail finds himself grappling with source material that thrives on specificity and interiority. Rumaan Alam, in his novel, meticulously crafted a narrative that delved into the intricacies of his characters’ lives and thoughts, dedicating pages upon pages to cataloging the minutiae of their existence. This meticulous attention to detail served a purpose: when the characters performed actions or uttered words, a rich tapestry of understanding was woven around them. The small gestures and seemingly inconsequential exchanges were imbued with meaning, emerging from deep wells of detail and intimacy. Amanda’s brittleness and paranoia, as well as Clay’s Teflon-like adaptability, felt authentically lived in. Alam’s narrative strategy allowed these characteristics to be more than superficial traits; they were manifestations rooted in the characters’ experiences and histories. As the calamities unfolded, the anxiety that enveloped Amanda and Clay concerning their children gained a poignant force, escalating in tandem with the mounting crises. In the novel, George and Ruth, portrayed as a married couple and considerably older, contribute to the slow-burning tension through their weary vulnerability, adding complexity to the unfolding narrative.
However, Esmail’s cinematic interpretation grapples with translating this rich interiority onto the screen. The shift in George and Ruth’s dynamics, from being a married couple to a father-daughter duo, alters the dynamic established in the novel. The weary vulnerability that once characterized their relationship transforms, potentially diluting the slow-burning tension that was a hallmark of Alam’s work. Once divorced from the contextual framework of the movie and book, it becomes evident that these characters’ actions lack a certain coherence, rendering their behavior perplexing within the confines of the film. Even with the inclusion of a cast as talented as the one assembled for this project, the characters need help to come to life, mainly hindered by a clunky and excessively expository script. The question looms large: Who are these individuals? As an audience, do we harbor any genuine interest or investment in their fates? Moreover, does the film itself convey a sense of care for the characters it introduces?
As the narrative unfolds, an ungenerous doubt creeps in, leading us to ponder whether the writer-director, especially during Amanda’s peculiar opening speech on human striving that culminates in her stark declaration of “I fucking hate people,” is inadvertently offering a glimpse into his sentiments. The disconnect between the characters and their actions on screen prompts a broader inquiry into the filmmaker’s intentions and motivations. Are these characters vessels for the director’s reflections on humanity, or is there a deliberate attempt to create complex, relatable figures whose actions and emotions resonate with the audience? The script’s overtly expository nature further complicates matters, leaving little room for the characters to reveal themselves organically through nuanced dialogue or subtle interactions. Instead, the narrative is burdened with excess information, hindering the actors’ ability to infuse authenticity into their roles. The challenge extends beyond the characters; it encompasses a broader reflection on the film’s overall narrative approach and its commitment to fostering a genuine connection between the audience and the unfolding story.
- Dilillo, J. (2023). The One with the Apocalypse: Inside the Leave the World Behind Ending. Netflix Tudum.
- Murray, T. (2023). Leave the World Behind author explains film’s controversial ending. The Independent.
- Slankard, J. (2023). ‘Leave the World Behind’ Shows the Comforting Power of Pop Culture. Collider.