Bird Box: Adapting from Debut Novel to Silver Screen
One of the many tools when writing horror is to utilize the universal fear of the unknown. An author who has mastered horror knows that readers fear most what they cannot explain, and oftentimes what is left unseen to them in a story can be the most horrifying. They can expertly wield cognitive dissonance and other literary devices in order to build stories around these aspects. In his 2014 debut novel Bird Box, Josh Malerman does just this, filling his readers with the fear of unknown “monsters” that become the harbinger of a worldwide apocalypse. In December 2018, Netflix released a cinematic adaptation of this novel, which has left fans of the original wondering: how well can this type of story translate to the silver screen?
This article will explore the elaborate reality woven within Malerman’s novel. It will also explore the fundamentals of what makes a good horror story absolutely terrifying. Finally, it will examine the novel in comparison with the new movie adaptation by taking into account the acting, the screenwriting, and the editorial choices. For those who have yet to read the book, or see the cinematic counterpart, this article does contain spoilers.
A Look at the Novel
Bird Box, written by Josh Malerman and published by HarperCollins (2014) 1 opens on Malorie, the protagonist, agonizingly trying to decide whether or not to journey with her young children to a safe haven upriver. She has two four-year-olds to protect in the midst of a worldwide apocalyptic event that has been wiping out the human race in masses. The world has been infiltrated by entities that, when seen, forces the seer to fly into a mindless, violent rage, killing anyone in their proximity, and then commit suicide. But the novel never references what these entities look like.
“What do you think people are seeing?” Malorie asks Shannon. “I don’t know, Mal. I just don’t know.” The sisters ask each other this question constantly. It’d be impossible to count the number of theories that have been birthed online. All of them scare the hell out of Malorie. Mental illness as a result of the radio waves in wireless technology is one. An erroneous evolutionary leap in humankind is another. New Agers say it’s a matter of humanity being in touch with a planet that is close to exploding, or a sun that is dying. Some people believe there are creatures out there. 2
This mystery leaves the reader wondering what something so horrific could possibly look like, and not knowing cultivates this strong fear of the unknown. To survive, Malorie, Tom, and the rest of the housemates decide to navigate their world outside while blindfolded. Throughout the novel Malerman forces his characters to leave the safety of their homes to blindly explore a hostile world, and their sight becomes a luxury.
A Look at Horror
What makes horror horrific, especially in print, is this fear of the unknown. Malerman expertly plays off this by writing a majority of his scenes without visual descriptions. He leaves his readers with merely what Malorie and the children experience while blindfolded on their journey, and what Malorie, Tom, and many other characters experience while inside the house. Although he describes their inside world in great detail, the outside world and what has become of it is left mostly an ambiguous mystery.
By playing with the timeline, he also creates a strong cognitive dissonance by essentially telling two stories in tandem. One being the beginning of the apocalypse before Malorie gives birth, right as the murders begin to take place. The second follows Malorie and her children as they leave the safety of their house, journey on the river, and eventually arrive at the supposed ‘safe haven’. This helps to keep readers on edge by making them constantly question where they are in the story. Again, supporting this fear of the unknown.
Malerman also utilizes literary devices such as repetition and rhetorical questions. In his writing style he repeats the same lines over and over, not so much as to become overused, but more so to encourage the same discomfort for his readers. For example, the line “How far can a person hear?” 3 is repeated several times throughout the text, as not only a reminder to the reader that hearing is imperative, but that danger is imminent. Asking “how far” prompts the reader to wonder if there is immediate danger just beyond the protagonists’ hearing capabilities. It is these elements that create such a strong storytelling experience, evoking both horror and terror within Malerman’s readers.
A Look at the Movie
The 2018 Netflix original film is directed by Susanne Bier and stars Sandra Bullock. 4 The movie opens on Malorie, Boy, and Girl preparing to make their journey on the river. Although this opening scene does quote the book when Malorie says: “Under no circumstances will either one of you remove your blindfold. If you do, I will hurt you. Do you understand?” 5 the similarities between the book and the movie seem to end here. The cinematic adaptation is a different entity in comparison with the novel, as Bier tries to convey the same elements but in very different ways.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Malerman admitted that he had no say in the movie version of Bird Box. 6 He also told Publishing Perspectives that if he had had the choice he “would have at least half the movie in complete darkness.” Nevertheless, he loves the outcome of the film, the screenplay, and Bier’s interpretation. 7
Rotten Tomatoes stated that the movie “never quite reaches its intriguing potential”, and they continue to give a 62% on the tomatometer. 8 Whereas Publisher Weekly called Malerman’s novel a “lean, spellbinding thriller that Stephen King fans will relish.” 9 Although the reviews are mixed, the story itself withstands the criticism and continues to rise in popularity.
Although Bier did a fantastic job in portraying the “monsters” without actually revealing them to the viewers, she still has to provide some sort of visual image on the screen. So she deviates from the book by providing wind and whispering voices to promote a similar fear. But viewers lose a bit of the terror that readers experienced because, by physically seeing it on screen, there isn’t much left to the imagination. Furthermore, something that was not thoroughly discussed in the book was a physical change that overcame anyone who “saw” the entities. The movie depicts this rapid physical change with dilating pupils, changed facial expressions, and a sort of Mad Hatter smile. This, too, removes that fear of the unknown because it is made known to the viewers visually.
In the movie, scenes of the present-day river journey are intermingled with scenes from past events in the house and before the apocalyptic events occur, contributing to the cognitive dissonance. However, it all just barely misses the mark in comparison with the novel. By dividing the book into very short chapters, and alternating the chapters in the timeline, Malerman creates a unique discordance that is at the same time cohesive; one chapter begins with similar elements mirroring the end of the previous chapter. The movie does not have this cohesion. Short scenes are clipped together to create tension, mimicking Malerman’s writing style, while graphic, outright brutal murders and suicides are shown blatantly trying to convey a “shock factor”. This, in turn, proves to distract from the overall atmosphere.
Another element from the novel that the movie lacks is Malorie’s rich inner monologue, especially on the river scenes. The movie is confined to visual and audio elements and can be restricted by the lack of the internal monologue it can incorporate. Thus, it loses a good bit of Malorie’s character development, leaving the audience with less information as to what is going on within her headspace. According to People Magazine, Bullock said that her performance in Bird Box was “a deep, emotional love story about what is family, what’s happening in the world, what’s making people harm themselves that’s so hard to look at.” 10 Although Bullock’s portrayal of Malorie is outstanding, her performance is hindered by the lack of this character arc.
With all this being said, it is perhaps the ending that is the most controversial difference between the cinematic adaptation and the novel. The differences boil down to the grotesque measures that Rick and the other survivors at Tucker resorted to in their early days.
“It wasn’t a matter of choice,” Rick continues. “We blinded ourselves with whatever we had—forks, kitchen knives, our fingers. Blindness, Malorie, was the absolute protection. But that was the old way. We don’t do that anymore. After a year, we realized we’d fortified this place enough to lighten this awful burden on our shoulders. So far, we’ve had no security lapses.” 11
This ending is dark and foreboding. The extreme measures that everyone at Tucker endures reminds the readers of what these characters would resort to in order to survive. Despite the safe haven utopia that Tucker conveys, there is a lingering fear that “something” could still happen. It implies to readers that safety is liminal.
The movie opts for a fairy-tale happy ending that most viewers could be dissatisfied with in comparison to the book. The closing scene shows Malorie, Boy, and Girl safe in an enclosed garden surrounded by people who are smiling and children who are playing. Malorie asks the children if they would like to release the birds they have been carrying with them in a shoe box (also not in the novel), and they watch as three little birds fly up to join a flock in the canopy overhead. There is sunlight, laughter, butterflies, and viewers are left with their happily-ever-after that is more or less satisfying. 12 But this candy-coated version loses that strong fear of the unknown that Malerman worked so hard to culture. The viewers are left to conclude that Malorie, her children, and the settlement are able to live out their days in harmonious peace. This could be satisfying for some audiences, but the whole story had been building towards a much grander ending and some of it was lost with these editorial choices.
It is these differences, these particular choices, these minute details that come together to create two very strong, but very different, works of fiction that tell similar stories. Although Bier utilized great editing, vibrant scenery, and a cast with strong acting skills, the cinematic rendition of Bird Box falls short of creating the same world as the novel. The movie, albeit intense and certainly terrifying in its own right, suffers without Malerman’s cohesion, and the lack of visual descriptions are lost in the cinematic counterpart. Because of this there is a certain level of horror that does not translate well from print to film. Elements such as the fear of the unknown and cognitive dissonance are also lost on the viewers due to particular editorial choices. Thus, fans of the book are left knowing that the novel Malerman originally created will forever remain the epitome of expertise in this genre.
- Malerman, Josh. Bird Box. United States, Harper Collins, 2014. E-book. ↩
- Malerman, Josh. Bird Box. United States, Harper Collins, 2014. E-book. 26 p. ↩
- Malerman, Josh. Bird Box. United States, Harper Collins, 2014. E-book. 18-19 p. ↩
- “Bird Box (2018).” IMDb.com, n.d. Web. Accessed 1 Jan. 2019. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2737304/ ↩
- Malerman, Josh. Bird Box. United States, Harper Collins, 2014. E-book. 10 p. ↩
- Browne, David. “‘Bird Box’: Meet the Indie-Rock Lifer Behind the Netflix Hit.” Rolling Stone, 23 Jan. 2019. Web. Accessed 27 Jan. 2019. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/bird-box-netflix-writer -josh-malerman-782645/ ↩
- Anderson, Porter. “Books to Film: Josh Malerman on Seeing ‘Bird Box’ Land on Netflix, 45 Million International Accounts Watch.” Publishing Perspectives, 25 Dec. 2018, Web, Accessed 27 Jan. 2019. https://publishingperspectives.com/ 2018/12/boosk-film-author- josh-malerman-bird-box-universal-netflix/ ↩
- “Bird Box.” Rotten Tomatoes. n.d. Web. Accessed 27 Jan. 2019. https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/bird_box ↩
- Jackson, Todd. “Bird Box.” Josh Malerman Official Website. n.d. Web. Accessed 27 Jan. 2019. http://joshmalerman.com/books/bird-box/ ↩
- Hohman, Muara, and Mary Green. “From Sandra to Sarah to That Blindfold: Everything to Know About Netflix’s New Thriller Bird Box.” People. 27 Dec. 2018. Web. Accessed 27 Jan 2019. https://people.com/movies/bird-box- everything -to-know-sandra-bullock-sarah-paulson/ ↩
- Malerman, Josh. Bird Box. United States, Harper Collins, 2014. E-book. 215 p. ↩
- Bird Box. Directed by Susanne Bier, performances by Sandra Bullock, Trevante Rhodes, and John Malkovich, Bluegrass Films, Chris Morgan Productions, and Universal Pictures. Film. 2018. ↩
What do you think? Leave a comment.