The world is lousy with movies that take liberties with the books on which they’re based. My hands-down favorite would be To Have and Have Not, the Howard Hawks film with Humphrey Bogart and introducing Lauren “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve?” Bacall. The source novel was by Ernest Hemingway. The screenplay was co-written by Jules Furthman and William Faulkner, and as far as I can tell, almost the only thing they took from the novel was its title.
Hemingway fans had every reason to cry foul, but honestly it’s a pretty good movie and even more honestly it’s better than the book, which isn’t by any stretch top-drawer Hemingway. Again, though, comparison is pointless, since the book and movie have almost nothing in common.
I thought about this while previewing the HBO Max version of Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven. Because while the two versions do have more in common than a title, they also differ quite a lot.
I’m not going to spoil it for you, though, or not much anyway. Because honestly, I could tell you the whole story from the novel and you’d still have nearly the entire limited TV series to enjoy without knowing what’s coming next.
And herein lies a mystery: The novel has a gorgeous, meticulously worked-out plot; pivoting on the more or less present day, it goes back and forward in time to describe a world overcome by a deadly flu that makes COVID look almost picnic-like. To tell this story, Mandel sets four or five plot lines in motion and somehow, miraculously, the past, the present, and the future weave in and out seamlessly without ever tripping over each other.
Why, I kept asking while watching the first couple of episodes of the TV version, would you want to mess with something that works as well as this book does? Why would you want to make it more confusing, more random—in a word, worse?
One example: Early in the novel we meet Kirsten Raymonde, a child with a small role in a Toronto production of King Lear (in the fancifully conceived interpretation, Lear’s daughters are shown at the outset, before the play properly begins, as children). Off-stage Kirsten is friendly with the actor playing Lear, and in the book’s opening pages she watches him die of a heart attack on stage. This is the same night the deadly flu arrives in Toronto, killing most of the population within a few days, just as it has everywhere across the globe, and so thoroughly reconfiguring life that going forward everyone lives off the grid because there is no grid anymore. Kirsten’s introduction to the dark side of life is savage and swift.
Flashing forward about 20 years, Kirsten is now a member of the Traveling Symphony, an itinerant troupe of musicians and actors who travel along the shore of Lake Michigan, playing music and performing Shakespeare for the little improvised towns and communities that still exist along the route.
It is a measure of Kirsten’s determination that despite everything the world could throw at her, she grew up and fulfilled her childhood ambition to become an actor. Somewhere along the way she has also picked up a facility with knives. One of her wrists bears three tattoos, signifying the lives she’s taken. Those memento mori are painful reminders and the lives they symbolize wear heavily on Kirsten’s conscience, because that’s what killing does in the real world.
But here’s the thing: In the TV version, those tattoos are multiplied. Three just isn’t enough. And Kirsten is not just some mere defender of her troupe. She is like some full-on ninja who can take out multiple attackers when the need arises. Inflating her kills and her prowess, the filmmakers transform her from interesting character to cliché.
In the hands of a competent storyteller, there is an interior logic to the telling, with one action prompting another and circumstance dictating behavior. In Mandel’s novel, the characters in the post-pandemic world see their existence as defined by want: The string players in the Traveling Symphony are always on the hunt for resin for their bows or new strings for their instruments (band classrooms in abandoned high schools are their grails). Because this is a future where everything has run out, all the big engines that drive modern life have been silenced. Mandel has thoroughly imagined what such a future might look like and then vividly created a sort of Swiss Family Robinson world where everything is homemade and jerry-rigged. A big part of the fun a reader has with the novel is seeing how the characters cleverly make do with less, and it’s the lack of resin for the fiddle bow, for instance, that gives the narrative its piquancy and its vivid edge.
The TV version has no patience with that. In this version, cigarette lighters never run out of fuel. When musicians gather to play, all their strings are always shining bright and new. Nearly every little detail that makes the book so alive has been lost or ignored.
In their place are new details, new plot lines, new character motivations that in almost every case are less powerful—because they make less sense, because they are arbitrary—than the things in the novel that they replaced.
Viewers who come to the TV version without having read the book will watch another reasonably decent story of dystopia that looks and sounds like a lot of current TV fare: wilderness-survivalist stuff with plucky underdog heroes and heroines. There is some fine acting (Danielle Deadwyler, Matilda Lawler, David Wilmot) and an often brilliant score from Dan Romer (Beasts of the Southern Wild). And there is one episode so brilliantly written and acted and so self-contained that it almost seems like a heartbreaking little movie all its own, where adult Kirsten (Mackenzie Davis) dreams of watching her 8-year-old orphaned self riding out the flu apocalypse in a freezing cold high-rise apartment.
I did my best to see the TV version on its own terms. This is just another way to tell this story, I kept telling myself. Plenty of movies based on good novels are as good or better than the originals (Die Hard, The Queen’s Gambit). But if you’ve read a novel and loved it, it’s hard to unsee that vision, and Station Eleven in particular is a novel that sticks with you, a quiet epic that elates you with its adroit storytelling even as it leaves you seriously unsettled (I read it after the pandemic set in for good, and many times since have said, At least we don’t have it that bad). The filmmakers could have slavishly copied the plot of that book and had a perfectly fine TV series. But they didn’t, and they don’t.