I don’t usually read something if I’ve seen the screen adaptation, I prefer to read the book first, to create my own world and people it with my imagination. Reading Let The Right One In really reminded me why. I saw Let The Right One In a few years ago and really loved it, so it was incredibly hard to read the novel and not compare the two. I do think it is interesting though that John Ajvide Lindqvist wrote the screenplay for the movie, because the things I didn’t like about the book are also the things that didn’t seem to make their way into the movie.
Set in the early ‘80s, it features a 12 year old boy named Oskar whose alcoholic father and overprotective mother are divorced. Oskar is an outcast and is badly bullied by other kids in his class. He meets Eli, a twelve year old girl who just happens to also be a 220 year old vampire and a sort of adolescent romance is played out against a backdrop of death, madness and paedophilia.
As a vampire story, it’s a great one. It is gruesome and horrific and not at all romantic about the vampire life. The murders are frequent and disturbing and there are some fantastic set pieces involving cats, acid and underpasses. But what strikes you when reading it is the pain and isolation of the vampire for whom all choices have been distilled into the need for blood to survive.
As Eli says to Oskar;
If you could wish someone dead and they died. Wouldn’t you do it then? Sure you would. And that would be simply for your own enjoyment. Your revenge. I do it because I have to. There is no other way
Eli’s isolation as a vampire corresponds directly to Oskar’s as a victim of bullying and what the novel does beautifully is use the vampire myth as a metaphor for that human isolation. Eli and Oskar are children who have been let down badly by the adult world. Oskar’s father is a drunk, his mother distracted and his teachers uninterested. Eli’s ‘father’ of sorts is her procurer of blood, in thrall to Eli and her pre-pubescent body due to his paedophilic tendencies. This is a town full of lost boys, with missing, dead or ineffective father figures. The town the novel is set in was manufactured for communities, but
Something went wrong. They thought all this out, planned it to be…..perfect, you know. And in some damn wrinkle it went wrong, instead. Some shit.
The community has folded in on itself, left itself open to the outside evil. The novel becomes an existential character study about “outcasts” living on the fringe of society. Drunkards, disaffected glue-sniffing teens, everyone trying to escape their reality while true horror creeps closer and closer. This for me is where the book didn’t work so much. It is sprawling. Each chapter introduces a new character, a new viewpoint which in some way detracts from the central story of Oskar and Eli. A narrower focus would have made for a more engrossing read.
The relationship between Oskar and Eli is poetically told. He reminds her of what it is like to be a child while she becomes his rock, his way of becoming someone new and teaches him to stand up for himself with devastating consequences. The scenes of bullying are as difficult to read as the scenes of barbarity and the friendship that materialises between the children is based on an understanding and loyalty so horribly missing from the rest of the story. They find each other when they are both achingly alone, and it is the ordinary fact of their loneliness rather than their extraordinary circumstances that makes the book more than the sum of its gory set pieces and genre status.
What is ultimately haunting about Let The Right One In is not the subject matter of vampires, blood and fear, but the way in which ordinary people can treat each other when they lose hope and the pain that can come from trying to make your way through the world when you are in any way different. All Oskar wants is to be loved for himself, to not always be the victim;
For a few seconds Oskar saw himself through Eli’s eyes. And what he saw was……himself. Only much better, more handsome, stronger than what he thought of himself. Seen with love. For a few seconds.
Let The Right One In spells out its message with a bit too much force for me. The film was more subtle and left more to the imagination, but this tale of Oskar and Eli is hard to shake off and the ostensibly happy ending raises more questions that it resolves. Has the right one been let in? How does Oskar, or for that matter, anyone, ever know?
I read this as part of the Estella Project and will be reading Geek Love for this challenge later in the summer.
So, do you like to read the book before you see the movie? Are there any adaptations you can think of that improve on the book?
Next up for anyone who wants to read along, The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
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