Book Vs. Film: The Ruins

 

SPOILER WARNING: Book Vs. Film is a column comparing books to the film adaptations they spawn, often discussing them on a plot-point-by-plot-point basis. This column is meant largely for people who've already been through one version, and want to know how the other compares. As a result, major, specific spoilers for both versions abound, often including dissection of how they end. Proceed with appropriate caution.

 

Book: The Ruins, Scott Smith, 2006

Film: The Ruins, adapted by Scott Smith, directed by Carter Smith, 2008

Let's get the obvious question out of the way first: No, first-time director Carter Smith is not related to author/screenwriter Scott Smith.

More answers to obvious questions: Yes, The Ruins the horror movie is a relatively faithful adaptation of The Ruins the novel. Nonetheless, the book is pretty good, and the movie is flat-out awful. Why? Largely because the book does a reasonably good job of selling its ridiculous premise, and the movie doesn't.

Scott Smith's 2006 pulp horror novel was only his second book, after 1993's A Simple Plan, which was also adapted into a film, which he also wrote the screenplay for. The Ruins got a rave review from Stephen King, and no wonder–it reads more than a little like the stuff King was writing circa the mid-1980s. Most specifically, it in many ways parallels King's 1983 short story "The Raft": It centers on two young couples who encounter a monster, which eats them one by one, putting a certain strain on their relationships in the process. There's no explanation for the monster, in either case, which is just as well, because the monster is so ridiculous that any explanation would just strain credulity. In both cases, the writer sells the concept by grounding the rest of the story heavily in little details and strong reality. Maybe the monster doesn't come across as believable, but the people do.

The film's main problem is that it leaves out all that detail, and what's left behind doesn't work, either as reality or as horror.

In a nutshell, the book is about four young American tourists on an alcohol-soaked vacation in Mexico. On one particularly pickled evening, they meet an interesting guy named Mathias, who's headed into the jungle the next day to meet up with his brother, who's hanging out with some archeologists researching some crumbling ruins deep in the woods. There's a bunch of complexity there–Mathias and his brother had a fight, the brother is involved with one of the archeologists–but the end result is that the tourists come with him, hoping to see something non-touristy and off the beaten path. They bring along another drinking partner from the previous night, a Greek guy who speaks no English; as a joke, he and his hard-partying friends introduce themselves as Pablo, Juan, and Don Quixote, though they tend to swap those names around, for the dubious humor value.

They go looking for the archeological dig, and wind up at a hill covered with overgrown vines and beautiful red flowers. But as they arrive, a bunch of panicked locals show up and herd them onto the hill with guns and arrows, and refuse to let them leave. Over the next few torturous days, they come to realize that the vine is alive and apparently semi-sentient, capable of independent movement, of imitating their voices, discerning and exploiting their fears, and pulling various tricks to make them come unglued. One by one, it kills them off, while they argue, panic, explore their limited environment for ways to escape, and desperately hope for rescue.

I didn't love the book the way I loved King's early work–it's a little too clunky, especially in its lengthy early attempts to characterize its four American protagonists with long, meandering descriptive passages about them. But I read it in a couple of breathless sittings, because like any good pulp novel, it constantly raises the question of what will happen next. And the horror is gritty and effective, in spite of the ridiculous premise of a man-eating, talking plant.

Perhaps most effectively, though, Smith-the-author stays deep inside the heads of his four American protagonists' heads, as they try to puzzle through what's happening, and figure out how to escape. Many of the best parts of the book are about their imagination–the situation they're in is obviously ridiculous, so their imaginations run wild, manufacturing everything from worse threats to signs of hope to elaborate escape scenarios to happy endings for other people in equally bad situations. Like in this passage–one of my favorites–where one of the tourists, Eric, sits at the bottom of a mine shaft on top of the hill, bleeding from a scraped knee and trying to comfort Pablo, who fell down the shaft and broke his back. They're sitting in the dark, conserving lamp oil, waiting for their friends to build a makeshift stretcher and haul them up, and Eric is telling Pablo stories about other people he knew who got into bad situations and got out of them just fine:

 

Now and then, Eric thought he could see things in the darkness–floating shapes, balloonlike, faintly luminescent. They seemed to approach, then hover right in front of him before slowly withdrawing again. Some had a bluish-green tint; others were a faint yellow, almost white. These were tricks his eyes were playing on him, he knew, psychological reactions to the darkness, but he couldn't help himself: Whenever they appeared to come especially close, he'd relinquish his grip on Pablo's wrist so that he could try to touch them. As soon as he'd lift his hand, though, the shapes would vanish, only to reappear at some new spot, farther away, and resume their slow, gently bobbing approach. He took the T-shirt away from his cut knee. The wound had stopped bleeding again. Immediately, he reached for the lamp, the matches: still there, still there…

He told Pablo other stories, too, tales that hadn't ended so happily–implacably, inexorably–changing them for the wounded man's benefit. Little Stevie Stahl, who was swept into a storm sewer while playing in a flooded field, was no longer discovered by a volunteer scuba diver, half-buried in silt, bloated beyond recognition. No: he reappeared five minutes later and almost a mile away, spit out into the river, cut and bruised and crying, it was true, but otherwise, miraculously, unharmed. And Ginger Ruby–who'd set her uncle's garage on fire while playing with a book of matches, and then, disoriented by the smoke and her rising panic, fled away from the door through which she could have easily escaped, and died crouching against the brick wall, behind a row of garbage cans–was, in Eric's retelling of the story, saved by a fireman, brought out to the cheers of the gathered crowd, gasping and coughing and covered with soot, her shirt and hair scorched, but otherwise (yes, miraculously) unharmed.

The cold air coming from the open shaft on the far side of Pablo's body wasn't constant. Sometimes it would stop, seem to hold its breath, and the temperature in the hole would instantly begin to rise. Eric would start to sweat, his shirt growing damp with it, and then, abruptly, the cold air would return. This constant fluctuation unsettled Eric, frightened him, made the darkness within the shaft seem threateningly animate. Each time the draft paused, he felt as if it had been blocked by someone–or something–a presence that was hesitating just in front of him, examining and appraising him. Once, he even thought he heard it sniffing, taking in his scent. His senses were playing tricks again, he knew. But still, he had to resist the urge to light the lamp, his hand pausing, wavering, then resuming its steady back and forth: still there, still there, still there.

 

If you've seen the movie but haven't read the book, you probably noticed something wrong with this passage. Something like this scene happens in the movie, but Pablo isn't the one with the broken back, and Eric isn't the one down in the shaft with him. Curiously, the film follows the book's main plot points fairly closely, but swaps the characters' fates around, like so:

• In the book, Pablo is the one who falls down the well and breaks his back, and later gets his legs eaten by the plant. In the movie, it's Mathias.

• In the book, Eric goes down the well to help, and scrapes his knee, and the killer plant gets into his wound, leading to a long, creepy side plot in which he thinks the plant is growing inside him, and keeps trying to cut it out with a knife, doing increasingly sickening damage to himself as he goes crazy. In the movie, all this instead happens to his girlfriend, Stacy.

• In the book, Mathias dies when Eric accidentally stabs him while trying to keep hold of the knife, so he can continue cutting himself. In the movie, Stacy accidentally stabs Eric.

• The other two tourists, Jeff and Amy, have completely different fates from the ones in the book, but that relates to the movie's ending, so we'll talk about that later.

• Okay, so in the movie, Stacy gets Eric's death, Eric gets Mathias' death, and Mathias gets Pablo's death. So what happens to Pablo, who ends up as the odd man out in this particular game of musical murder? He actually gets shot by the locals when everybody first shows up at the hill. In the book, the locals arrive in a panic and herd everyone up onto the hill, and they go compliantly, apparently finding the presence of weapons enough of a motivator. In the movie, they need more convincing, and the locals kill Pablo to prove that the situation's serious. (The whole "Pablo" name-swapping thing isn't in the movie; the stars know him by his real name, Dmitri.)

I'm fairly convinced that the whole point of the swapped-around-deaths thing was a) so someone would die early on to provide tension, and b) because when you're looking at the visuals instead of reading what's going on in people's heads, there's a little more pathos in a pretty girl slashing herself up with a knife, rather than the mildly geeky-looking sidekick-guy. But honestly, I didn't think the whole cutting-to-get-at-the-plant-inside thing was very effective in the film at all, because I'd read the superior version in the book.

In the film, it's pretty clear from early on that Stacy does have part of the evil plant growing inside of her; there are a lot of special effects of it sliding around under her skin, and it's pretty gruesome, and eventually Jeff, who's about to head to med school, has to cut it out of her. But in the book, it's less about gore and more about psychology. Eric becomes convinced that there's a plant growing inside him, and he gets more and more unstable as a result, as he tries to figure out how to get it out. It's creepy as hell, because it really seems like he's just going mad. There's no reason to believe he's right; it's almost Lovecraftian, how he's convinced that his own body has betrayed him, even though there's no direct evidence for the reader. And of course none of his friends believe him, either; they can't see the plant crawling around under his skin, so they keep telling him he's imagining it, which of course just makes him more and more unsettled.

This gap between the book's ambiguity and the film's flat-out obviousness extends throughout the whole scenario. The book is more about who the characters are and how they're reacting to this scary, impossible situation than anything else. Smith-the-author describes their inner lives clunkily, explaining at length that Stacy is a dreamer and a fantasist, that Jeff is a practical Boy Scout type who almost enjoys the crisis because it lets him flex his problem-solving skills, that Amy doesn't quite feel worthy of Jeff, and simultaneously resents how capable he is. The exposition is awkward, but it beats the film, which doesn't characterize them at all–apart from a little early poolside banter and an oral-sex joke between Eric and Stacy, they're all pretty much horror-movie meat for the grinder, interchangeable and uninteresting. They also tend to communicate with blunt explanatory lines like "We're best friends, and these are our boyfriends!"

Having established their inner lives, Smith-as-author complicates things with a bunch of tensions in the relationships, which come to life when things get desperate. Smith-as-screenwriter tries to bring a few of these things across, by having Amy flirt a little too heavily with Mathias and having the couples occasionally fight, but things get a lot more complicated in the book, with, for instance, Amy and Eric and Stacy eventually sharing a bottle of tequila around, trying to numb their fear and pain and misery, and Jeff flipping out because they're being so very, very stupid, dehydrating themselves and trying to ignore their problems instead of dealing with them.

In addition to their inner landscapes, author-Smith fleshes out their environment in much vaster detail in the book. And this is where the novel really captured me: He lays on the sense of you-are-there, talking about the bugs and the oppressive heat and humidity of the jungle, the desperate hunger and thirst that sets in as the protagonists crouch on the hill, the terror that comes with nightfall, when there are no lights and they can no longer see anything around them. Like Stephen King, he makes a ridiculously unreal situation seem real by focusing on the real things in it: the heat during the day, the life-saving rain, the cold at night, the itchiness of wearing the same clothes day after day, the desperate desire for a shower after days of sweating and sunburn. And most importantly, the book focuses on the agonizing, plodding weight of the hours: the time that crawls past, when no one has anything to do but wait, miserably, hoping for rescue.

The film, by contrast, blinks rapidly and lightly between big events, skipping over most of the time for thought and reaction, turning the whole story into a blur of clumsily choreographed death. What bugged me most was the way it jumped unthinkingly from daytime to nighttime. In the book, twilight is a time of terror, as the protagonists rush to complete whatever they're doing before it gets dark and they're helpless. In the film, it's day and they're scared. Poof, it's suddenly night, and nothing has changed. Poof, it's day again. As a result, there's no real sense of the passage of time, no real sense of the environment, no real sense of anything. So the movie never seems real. It's just a typical monster-eats-stupid-pretty-young-people movie, with a particularly silly monster.

There are a lot of other alterations between the film and the book, some of them fairly large, but to my mind, none of them are as major as the gap between the book's rootedness in the characters vs. the film's emphasis on dumb booga-booga moments. But here's a rundown anyway:

• The book constantly refers to the sentient plant's home as a "hill"–in the movie, it's an ancient Mayan pyramid. Which actually looks pretty cool.

• The book has a long buildup to the characters' arrival at the hill, as they walk through an eerie, run-down Mayan village where no one will look at them or speak to them. It contributes to the slow, ramping-up sense that something is horribly wrong. The locals who later keep them on the hill come from this village. It's left out of the movie entirely, no doubt for pacing purposes.

• The book inserts a lot more little early signs that things are going awry. One of the girls gets her breast groped by a young boy and has her hat and sunglasses stolen while she's distracted, and she keeps mentally returning to this double violation throughout the book. On the truck ride out to the archeological dig, the guys wind up in the back of a pickup truck with an angry dog chained almost within reaching distance of them, trying to bite them the whole way out. Things like this are just little doses of local flavor, but they stand out when compared to the movie, which lacks any such flavor.

• In the book, early on, the protagonists find the bodies of Mathias' brother and the archeologists, and realize that the many hillocks around them are piles of human bones. They also find a sign the archeologists made to warn future travelers away, and which the plant apparently took down. There's a little of this in the film, but not much. The corpses are all stripped of flesh; there's no scene comparable to the one in the film where Stacy and Amy find the preserved body of the girl down at the bottom of the mine shaft, and the plant suddenly whips fully to life and tries to get them both. In the book, the plant is more about slow movement and inevitability than whip-fast motion and sudden danger.

• In the book, Pablo falls down the mine shaft, breaks his back, and starts screaming. He screams nearly nonstop for hours on end, and intermittently goes back to shrieking in the days that follow. It's a mercy that they left that out of the film–it'd be hard to get through a lot of that blunt, clunky dialogue with someone constantly wailing in the background–but it's just one more aspect of the threatening, oppressive environment that's missing from the film. The book leans pointedly on descriptions of his agonized screaming, and how jarring and disturbing it is, and how long it goes on, until everyone just wants it to stop at any cost. There's a clear message about how at some point, other people's pain becomes an inconvenience and an irritation. Film version? Doesn't scream at all.

• In a scene entirely invented for the film, Amy, in a frustrated tantrum, grabs some of the plant and throws it at the men keeping them on the pyramid. It hits a little boy standing among the guards. The guards freak out and start shouting at the child and trying to herd him onto the pyramid with the others, but when he, too, freaks out and doesn't respond quickly enough, they shoot him. This bit seems a little transparent in its purpose, but it's one of the more effective scenes in showing just how terrified the natives are of the vine.

• In the book, the killer vine's juices are acidic, which just adds to everyone's misery–when they pull it off themselves after sleeping, or dig through it to find corpses, it burns them. It grows on their clothes as it does in the movie, but if they brush their hands against their clothes, the plantlets get crushed and burn them. Pablo actually falls down the well because part of the vine gets tangled up in the winch that's lowering him, and gets crushed, and the acid burns through the rope–in an early indication that the plant really is plotting their deaths. In the movie, it just seems to be an accident. And the plant isn't acidic. Which is too bad, because that detail really added to the poisonous atmosphere of the book: The protagonists can't fight it, can't even resist it, without hurting themselves.

• The book's brief acknowledgement of sex: Stacy quietly gives Eric a handjob in the middle of the night, mostly just looking for physical warmth and familiarity. He wakes up in the morning with the acid plant wrapped around his legs and genitals, since it seeks out any moisture. Ew. This isn't in the film; instead, the film invents a bet between Stacy and Eric, with oral sex as the stakes; when she loses, he insists on being paid the next morning. Cut to them turning up at Jeff and Amy's room, and Eric being asked why he looks so happy this morning. Also, Stacy gets gratuitously naked.

• The business with the vine talking to them and reflecting their voices back at them is much more elaborate in the book. The vine proves pretty creative in choosing what to echo and when, in order to make them all miserable and suspicious with each other. For instance, a drunken Eric jokingly refers to Mathias as a Nazi, and the plant picks this up and chants it over and over at Mathias, somehow knowing that "Nazi" is a charged word that will have a strong effect on a German kid, and that he'll wind up furious at all the Americans. This is the hardest part of the book to buy, and I'm glad it was cut from the film. On the other hand, the ridiculous scene where Stacy hears some vague vine-whispered noises and charges out of the tent and accuses Eric and Amy of having sex ("I heard you fucking her just now!" she says to two fully clothed people) is terribly mishandled in the film, and comes across as just ludicrous.

• My favorite part of the film, where an angry Jeff insists that they'll all get out of this okay somehow, because "Four Americans on a vacation don't just disappear!" isn't in the book, alas. I'm assuming this line was meant to be hilariously ironic; presumably Jeff has never seen a horror movie before, much less the recent spate of Americans-on-vacation-tortured-to-death films.

• Inevitably, the ending was changed. The book has a tremendous downer ending: The vine chokes Amy to death in the night. Jeff attempts to escape and get help for the others during a blinding rainstorm, and the locals shoot him to death with arrows, leaving Stacy as the only one alive. She calmly, purposefully heads down to the base of the hill, sits down, and slits her wrists. She intends for her body to sit there as a warning to anyone else who happens by, but even as she's dying, she can feel the vine starting to drag her body away, and she realizes it's no use. In the film, by this time, Stacy is already dead (having cut herself apart and accidentally stabbed Eric), and Jeff creates a huge distraction, luring the locals into killing him while his girlfriend Amy makes a break for it. Much as in the end of The Descent, she comes barreling out of the jungle, makes it to a vehicle, and drives like crazy… and that's the end. No indication as to whether she told anyone, spread the vine everywhere and caused the end of the world, or what. It's so terrifically abrupt that it's actually more anticlimactic and unrewarding than the book's end.

The book, it has to be said, is not a masterpiece by any means. It's a steamy pulp novel about a bunch of kids killed by a sentient vine. But it's about as convincing as such a book can be, with a lot of immediacy and a sense of slow, grinding, terrifying escalation that largely comes from the fact that the enemy is a vast unknown that keeps pulling out new tricks: Every time the protagonists try something new, their enemy manifests a new ability and shoots them down, proving itself more capable and powerful. They can't outthink or outfight or escape it, because it doesn't obey any laws of nature. And that alone is pretty scary. By contrast, the film version feels random and scattershot, without any sense of buildup; the scariest moments happen mid-film, when the vine comes to life and goes after Stacy and Amy. It's all pretty much downhill from there, with it doing less and less to affect them, and all of the tension running out through long scenes that don't connect very well. It's the first movie I've seen in a long time that actually builds up to a complete anticlimax.

So. Book, or Film? Undoubtably the book. Usually in any given book-vs.-film pairing, the book has more detail and the film has more immediacy and tension. In this case, the book has both, and the film has neither.

Next in Book Vs. Film: The long-asked-for first "vintage" Book Vs. Film, a write-up of a film classic that I only recently found out was based on a novel.

More Book vs. Film