Whether you watch it on the big screen or from the comfort of your living room couch, Annihilation is easily the first must-see film of 2018. This mind-bending sci-fi movie stars Natalie Portman as a member of an expedition exploring a strange, hyper-evolved realm called “The Shimmer.” And in the grand tradition of films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Interstellar, Annihilation goes to some pretty strange places before the end. (Read our Annihilation review.)
While Annihilation is based on Jeff VanderMeer’s book of the same name, writer/director Alex Garland pushes the story in very different directions. Now, with the film hitting Netflix internationally, we decided to take a look at just how much the source material was altered. Here are six key differences between the novel and film versions of Annihilation.
Warning: This article contains spoilers for both versions of Annihilation, but not the latter two books in the series!
Both versions of the story follow the same basic premise, with an all-female expedition being dispatched to explore a strange, uninhabited area full of unexplained phenomena. In the novel, this isolated landscape is simply known as Area X and has no visible barrier surrounding it. But in the film, Area X is the staging ground where the military launches its expeditions. The actual area they’re sent to explore is instead called “The Shimmer,” so named for the shimmering, bubble-like dome that surrounds it.
The film also diverges in terms of how long The Shimmer has been in existence. In the film, the military has been mounting ill-fated expeditions for about a year and has been largely able to keep The Shimmer’s existence under wraps. But in the book, Area X has existed for years and has claimed countless lives in the process. The scientists in the book believe themselves to be the 12th such expedition, though they eventually learn that there were far more than that.
The book purposely keeps the main characters at more of a distance, revealing little about their backgrounds or motivations for joining the expedition. In fact, the book never even provides names for these characters. It’s told from a first-person perspective, and each member is referred to simply by their job description – the biologist, the anthropologist, the psychologist, etc. By comparison, the movie gives each character a name and clear reasons for why they’d choose to risk their lives inside The Shimmer. In the end, though, Lena/the biologist is the only surviving member in either version.
The book also depicts a more openly hostile relationship among these characters. For example, the psychologist has imprinted a series of posthypnotic suggestions in the minds of her colleagues. A simple spoken word or phrase can cause them to slip into a suggestible trance during high-stress situations. In fact, the word “annihilation” causes the expedition members to commit suicide, hence the book’s title. The movie never directly references the use of hypnosis, though the scene where Lena can’t remember setting up camp or entering The Shimmer could be construed as her suffering the after-effects of hypnosis.
The two versions of the story differ in terms of the strange phenomena Lena and her team experience inside The Shimmer/Area X. In the movie, they encounter a number of “refractions,” plants and creatures mutated by The Shimmer and rewritten on a cellular level. In the book, these manifestations are generally more subtle. The biologist suffers strange physical effects from being inside Area X, and the group is sometimes stalked by an unseen, moaning creature. And because the story unfolds in as a first-person diary, readers don’t experience the deaths of the other characters firsthand.
The two versions of the story differ somewhat in their depiction of the relationship between Lena and Kane. The film establishes that Lena had an affair with her co-worker during Kane’s mysterious, prolonged absence. In the book, that affair never happened, though the two characters were dealing with a fraying marriage before Kane departed.
Kane’s own fate is somewhat different in the movie compared to the book. In the book, the biologist’s husband dies of cancer before the story begins. His death is what spurs her to venture into Area X in the first place. However, just as in the movie, it’s eventually revealed that the biologist’s husband never returned from Area X. Instead, it was his copy. The novel ends with the biologist electing to remain inside Area X in the hope that she’ll be able to find her real husband.
Whereas the movie is largely focused on the journey to the lighthouse and the revelations contained within, the book features a second major landmark inside Area X. The group discovers a staircase inside a tunnel running deep underground, a structure the biologist refers to as “The Tower” for reasons even she can’t quite explain. Inside, the team find what appears to be a religious passage written on the walls in plant matter (matter that winds up infecting the biologist). The words themselves are written by an entity known as the Crawler.
While elements of these Tower scenes are re-purposed for the movie, the Tower itself is left out of the story. That’s probably because Garland rewrote the story to function as more of a standalone film, whereas the Tower continues to play a big role in the later novels.
Given that Annihilation the movie is a standalone story whereas Annihilation the novel is the first part of a trilogy, it should come as no surprise that the two versions end in very different fashions. As with many Garland-penned sci-fi films, the movie’s ending proved fairly polarizing with audiences as it shifted the film in a much more surreal direction. Lena confronts a possibly alien presence that attempts to mimic her form before tricking it into detonating a grenade and burning the entire lighthouse to the ground. The Shimmer itself is seemingly destroyed, while Lena reunites with Kane and the viewer is left to question whether either of them is still human.
The book is comparatively straightforward. After the rest of the team are killed one by one, the biologist discovers her husband’s diary and decides to remain inside Area X to search for more traces of him.