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arrakiswitch

A Spoopy Love Affair With Books

Jean, 39, lover of sci-fi, horror and fantasy, reader of comic books, conqueror of genre fiction.

Currently reading

Wytches Volume 1
Scott Snyder, Jock
Progress: 45 %
The Girl with All the Gifts
M.R. Carey
Progress: 36/403 pages
Bad Moon Rising
Jonathan Maberry
Progress: 160/534 pages
The Immortal Iron Fist: The Complete Collection Vol. 1
Dave Lanphear, Derek Freidolfs, Tonci Zonjic, Jelena Kevic Djurdjevic, Clay Mann, Dean White, David Aja, Khari Evans, Roy Allan Martinez, Victor Olazaba, Francisco Paronzini, June Chung, Nick Dragotta, Mitch Breitweiser, Javier Rodriguez, Stefano Gaudiano, Dan Brereton, M

Z for Zachariah: Book vs Film (or how an accidentally feminist work can be interpreted through institutionalized misogyny)

— feeling question
Z for Zachariah - Robert C. O'Brien

"Despite all the changes we've made, I feel like we're still dealing with a lot of the same themes, images, ideas, that O'Brien had." - screenwriter Nissar Modi

 

But are you? Because what I felt is that I've experienced two different stories, in two different media, with maybe exact opposite themes and ideas. I read the book a couple of months ago, and never reviewed it, because it was a lot to think about. It's rich with symbolism, and has more imagery than it does a story. I was aware that the movie they'd made was drastically different; for one thing, they added a third character, where the book sets the stage with only two. But the differences go far beyond that, as I'm about to talk about.

 

First, the book: Presented in the form of 15-going-on-16 year old Ann Burden's journal, the book takes place after the end of a nuclear war. She lives alone in a valley that has somehow been spared the fallout; the line is visible, with everything outside of it dead and withered. Ann's parents had considered it their responsibility to try to find survivors, and predictably never returned. Ann has been left alone with her cousin's dog Faro. She's learned her boundaries, learned how to survive, and has gone about it with single-minded Yankee practicality.

 

Into the valley arrives a man, suited in an experimental radiation suit. Ann is understandably suspicious. Though she is clearly lonely, she understands the dangers and wants to protect what she sees as her own. She hides out in a cave where she can see most of the valley, and watches him as he explores, waiting for him to leave. But he bathes in the river that comes from outside the valley, and she makes the choice, after some thought, to help him when he contracts violent radiation poisoning.

 

Half the book consists of her nursing him back to health, and frankly, it gets boring. This is why I gave it four stars instead of five, because the book dragged here for me. There was no tension, just Ann's day-to-day as she realizes she doesn't want to be alone anymore. In her very young, naive way, she starts to think of the possibility that they might have a relationship, if the man, Loomis, survives. Marriage, in that abstract way girls have; sexuality doesn't really come into it until later, when Loomis literally tries to force it on her. She also learns from him, in his delirium, that he killed a man in the scientific bunker he'd been trapped in, to take the experimental suit. She considers this for a long time, and decides that, if it had been self-defense, well, how can she judge him?

 

He does recover, and Ann begins to notice that something is... off. Things she'd been happy to do for him when he was ill he now expects of her, sitting paternally by the firelight while she reads to him. He also begins to cast his mind to what they can do to improve the valley, make it more livable. Ann notices that, on his own, he's walking without a cane, while he still pretends to lean on it heavily in front of her, and he watches her a bit too greedily as she works the farm. His power plays are small and subtle, and therefor more unsettling, as he hides the keys to the tractors so that she has to ask him for it, and many little things like that.

 

Ann feels things coming to a head, and sleeps with her clothes on, only Faro waking unnaturally giving her any indication that she's about to be attacked. They say rape is a control thing, and it definitely feels like what Loomis is using it for as he tried unsuccessfully to force himself on her. She runs away from him, and hides.

 

The rest of the book is a struggle between the two of them for control not just of the valley, but over Ann's own life and person. There's no mistaking the symbolism of the fresh-faced, inexperienced 16 year-old girl living in the untouched, lush, virgin valley that is invaded and forcibly controlled through manipulation and force, by a 35 year-old man.

 

Now, onto the movie: It's hard to ignore, compared with the book, how paternal the movie feels. The filmmakers, unsurprisingly men of Loomis' age or older, see the whole thing as a relationship drama; they talk about how they're two people, Ann and Loomis, who would never really associate in ordinary life and how their initial interactions are like a romantic relationship in fast forward, the strangeness of their situation necessitating their bizarre courtship.

 

Loomis is portrayed (excellently, I might add) by Chiwetel Ejiofor as a rational, scientifically levelheaded man, while Ann is naive and too trusting; aging her up (presumably to Margot Robbie's natural age) changes the character completely, making her someone sheltered, never having left home, instead of a young girl looking forward to college and the English degree she plans to earn so she can be a teacher; it changes the entire dynamic of the character. It shows someone who is stagnating, even at her young age, instead of someone ready to see the world.

 

Their relationship is tentatively romantic. We get the male fantasy of the sexually inexperienced girl throwing herself at the man and then crying as he delicately comforts her that, no, she didn't do anything wrong. That she just doesn't understand how it will change things, and she'll understand her own body and her urges when she's ready. Ehhhh.

 

It is obvious that this Ann does come to care for this Loomis, perhaps even love, even if she isn't in love with him. And in their clash of faith versus scientific progress that he's correct, and she has to get over her silly superstition and let him demolish the church her father built so he could build a water wheel.

 

The book holds no such debate. If anything, the clash between Loomis and Ann is one of science versus art. Loomis sees no value in the books that she'd like to bring back from the library of a neighboring town, where he wants her to get more texts that will help them survive; her interests are seen as silly and frivolous. And he gets angry at her when he learns that she went to the church, out of a sense of feeling lost and desperation, to pray while he was going through the worst of his radiation poisoning. Really, there is no merit in anything that doesn't directly benefit him, in his own opinion.

 

But science is the benevolent force for goodness in the movie, while Ann's faith holds progress back, and she eventually gives in because, hey, Loomis always knows best.

 

And, thus, any sense of menace from the character Loomis is gone. The movie, arguably, is about the character of Loomis, not, in fact, Ann, as he guides her, and falls in love with her. 

 

And, into this mix, they add a third character, Caleb. This was touted as the biggest change from the novel to movie, and while it would have impeded Ann's self-reliance and growth in the book, I don't see it as the worst deviation from the source material.

 

Caleb (Chris Pine, putting in the movie's third superb performance) is obviously a liar; his story has more holes in it than Swiss cheese, but he's a nice country boy, and though he, too, is much, much older than she is, Ann finds herself more easily relating to Caleb than she could Loomis, and the attraction is instantaneous.

 

Without really any explanation on the movie's part, right after 'I love you's are said between Ann and Loomis, Ann goes to Caleb and the two have sex. Because? She tried to explain to Loomis the next day, and he and Caleb have yet another pissing contest. But they're working, they're getting that water wheel built, and when Caleb slips, Loomis catches him. At first. When Caleb goes down, this time, Loomis makes certain he stays down. 

 

Well, it's implied. The movie cuts away, after Caleb's knowing an accepting look, as if he's saying 'I understand.' And then Loomis is telling Ann that Caleb left, and the movie ends. It just... ends. I'm all for ambiguity. Truly! The book is ambiguous enough, as Ann ends up stealing the radiation suit to leave the valley and strand Loomis there. She does, and she goes in search of greener pastures that may or may not still be out in the world. But the movie just literally stops.

 

I watched the interviews on the DVD, where the actors liken the act to protecting their own, what is theirs, which horrendously reduces Ann to an object, a piece of property for two men to fight over, who has no agency or say in her own fate. If this were the actual lesson, I could be down with that, but it's not. We're left with a simple portrait of the brutal things men do in... semi-survival situations to keep control of what they have, fairly or unfairly, eked out.

 

I wish the movie had ended with Ann leaving. Since Caleb is wearing the radiation suit when working on the water wheel, presumably when he dies, and the story is that he took it with him, Loomis is forcibly stranding Ann in the valley with him without any of the scary menace his struggle for control in the novel exudes. 

 

On its own merits, I really enjoyed the movie, until its very anticlimactic ending. Rarely have I seen an adaptation that so astoundingly missed the point of its source material, and in fact, presented something so contrary to it, but on its own merits, its a beautifully made indie with three extremely strong performances and some interesting character interaction. I'd probably give it 3.5 or 4/5.

 

The book is a fascinating portrait of a young girl coming of age in extraordinary circumstances that explores things that I think every woman who reads post-apocalyptica or dystopia thinks of at some point: what is our place, will we be expected to take traditional roles again, and what if we meet that one man who tries to force it on us? I'm shocked that people actually accuse the book of being sexist, with these themes laced within each line of prose. Yeah, she isn't Katniss, shooting at her problems; it's a  realistic and sensitive portrayal of a young girl in a difficult situation, deciding she wants something larger, something better, and rejecting the forceful patrimonial control of an older, allegedly more wise but also unhinged man. It drags terrible towards the middle, and that knocked it down to 4/5 stars.