The ‘From page to screen’ series takes a look at the journey of a piece of writing (be it novel, non-fiction, play etc.) to the screen and other manifestations.
You’ll often hear people lament that a film or series didn’t live up to the book, but it’s an unfair comparison. There’s too much detail, even in a relatively short novel, to keep it all in a motion picture. Plus, why would you want to? They have very different experiences and purposes.
Released in Sweden in 2004 and written by John Ajvide Lindqvist, Let the Right One In is a vampire story. Its relatable, yet unique themes, setting and approach made it a worldwide hit. Since this, it’s been made into a Swedish language film with an English remake and a stage production: this is the legacy of Let the Right One In.
“If a child was a vampire, having to kill other people and drink the blood in order to survive, what would existence be for this child? It would just be a lonely, loathsome, terrible existence.” – John Ajvide Lindqvist, Independent interview.
With a background as a magician and stand-up comedian, Lindqvist’s journey is an unusual one, but one that’s had a great impact on his writing. Without his unique background, perhaps his work wouldn’t be as idiosyncratic, detailed and varied. His interest in the fine lines between myth and reality and in illusion and the art of magic is evident throughout his body of work. In fact, these interests are often what sets his writing apart.
Let the Right One In was Lindqvist’s first published novel. Set in the 80s in a blue-collar suburb of Stockholm (Blackeberg), the story centres on Oskar, a lonely, bullied twelve-year-old boy who lives with his mother. His father lives in the country, but the relationship between the pair is strained. One day, young girl, Eli and her father move in next door to Oskar and the two strike up a friendship.
Quickly, we learn that Eli is a vampire and her ‘father’ is a man who helps her find blood to feed on. The relationship between Oskar and Eli is somewhere between Platonic and romantic – there’s an air of ambiguity and doubt over many of the motivations. Some characters’ driving desires aren’t ambiguous, though. Explicitly so. The novel is shocking in places.
Where the brilliance of the story lies is in its subversion of the vampire as a sex symbol. Rather than a forceful ghoul, Eli is a sympathetic character, something of a lost soul. Someone capable of love, yet still a bestial animal in many ways. Eli is both victim and perpetrator. Oskar is a lifelong weakling who falls for her strength. Love, in whatever form, is a powerful theme throughout Let the Right One In.
At over 500 pages, Let the Right One In is a lengthy page-turner (much like Lindqvist’s other creations: Handling the Undead, Harbour, Little Star and Let the Old Dreams Die all of which are also excellent).
Lindqvist constructs a thoroughly immersive, believable world where the supernatural and natural blend seamlessly. He does this using detail, picking out small things, quirks and ideas which make his writing easy to engage with. Let the Right One In is an excellent read, but those going to see the 2008 film having read the book first, were in for a bit of a shock.
“I’m twelve, but I’ve been twelve for a long time.”– Eli, Let the Right One In
Tomas Alfredson directed the Swedish language cinema outing of Let the Right One In and it swept into the public domain on the back of glowing reviews. It’s an excellent film, superb in its own right. It’s also a very stripped-back version of the text, the perfect example of leaving out all the fine detail a book carries – precisely what was stated at the start of this piece: a novel and a film have very different experiences and purposes.
The screenplay for the film was written by Lindqvist, so it shouldn’t really be shocking that the right bits were left out, keeping the essence of the story and making Let the Right One In its own beast. It just required some adjusting for fans of the book. The film is incisive, taking the lifeblood of the novel, removing only the prime cuts needed or wanted by a cinema audience.
Lina Leandersson carries a world-weariness that’s unmatched in the American remake. On film, her Eli is a majestic, terrifying predator. Moving with grace, purpose and precision at all times, even when not hunting. And Kare Hedebrant gives Oskar a youthful naivety, which, paired with his new friend, creates an odd couple working as a very offbeat love story.
Crisp and cold like Swedish snow, there’s an air of realism about Alfredson’s Let the Right One In which fits with the novel. Stylistically somewhere between a few genres, it strikes a delicate balance both visually and thematically, straddling romance, horror and coming of age, while blending brutality and beauty. An ethereal quality allows the supernatural to take place without feeling forced or subject to elongated exposition.
Let the Right One In would make for a good TV show, but it’s not necessarily needed now the film has proved so successful. Lindqvist’s second novel Handling the Undead would be perfect for television and has been in pre-production for years. Alas, this doesn’t bode well – the story does for zombies what Let the Right One In does for vampires.
“Let The Right One In was a wonderful Swedish movie, this is a wonderful American movie.”
These words from Lindqvist were carefully chosen, one suspects. He’s not wrong, in the sense that Let Me In (2010) is very much an American film, but whether it’s wonderful is more subjective than that of its Swedish parent. Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, War for the Planet of the Apes) directed the film, which stars two famous child actors: Chloe Grace Moretz and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Abby and Owen (Eli and Oskar).
Perhaps what Lindqvist meant about Reeve’s take on the Swedish film is that it shifts in tone, not narrative. Let Me In is a direct descendant of the Scandinavian big screen version, rather than the novel – Lindqvist’s original screenplay is credited for a reason. The American movie is gorier and yet somehow feels more sanitised. It’s an expensive way to pointlessly reproduce a good film. Let Me In adds nothing to either the novel or film of Let the Right One In.
Reeve’s movie essentially goes for all-out horror, ditching the subtlety of the original. For some, this may work, but the reason Let the Right One In is such a brilliant film is that it’s a translation of the book to screen, rather than a translation of a translation. They’re made for different audiences, of course, and perhaps which audience you fit into most will dictate which version of Let the Right One In you prefer on screen. Perhaps.
Even more stripped-back than the Swedish film, the British stage production relocated Let the Right One In’s story to Scotland. There was also a Swedish version, first on stage in Uppsala, which John Ajvide Lindqvist had a hand in. The interpretation shown at The Apollo in London’s Shaftesbury Avenue was originally the Dundee Rep Theatre‘s adaptation by Jack Thorne and John Tiffany.
The play focused on Oskar and Eli more than any other version of the story, with sparse yet striking set design and a chilly, snowy aesthetic. There was a balletic feel to it: Eli was graceful and fluid, nimbly scaling the apparatus and trees on stage, believably otherworldly – all without the need of a computer. Let the Right One In was something of a treat at the theatre.
The stage production was a direct product of the film, but logically so. Made in a way which wasn’t derivative, more acknowledging of the source it sprang from. Let the Right One In leapt back into life through it.
Lindqvist writes horror from reality
He scares through what he cares about: love, loss and the fear of loneliness. These are all evident in his other novels. To give an idea of the man’s mentality, here he speaks of losing track of his son in a forest:
“My thought at that moment wasn’t that a bad man had taken him or that he’d fallen and broken his neck. It was that he had actually disappeared. I never deserved to have him, and now he had been taken from me. He had just vanished”.
What the better productions of Let the Right One In did was pick out the humanity and strip the fat from the bones, leaving a lean, yet tasty and innovative film or play. The book is a very different experience to the screen and stage outings, but none does the other a disservice. Rather, they complement one another, much like Eli and Oskar.