Note: It’s another guest post. It’s still horror-related. We now have ten days left until October, aka the Devil’s Month, so this is an appropriate topic for me to keep writing about. Just take my word for it.
I’m normally not the kind of person who consumes different versions of the same story in quick succession. I actually rarely do it at all - if I watch a movie I’ll almost never read the novel it was based on and I tend to choose between an original manga or an anime and then just stick solely with that. There’s no particular reason for this beyond, I guess, having no real need or desire to experience the same story twice.
But I recently picked up Adam Nevill’s The Ritual, a 2011 horror novel that I understand won its author some decent acclaim when it was first released. Just before I started reading it, I happened to notice that there exists a moderately well-reviewed horror movie of the same name that was released last year; wouldn’t you know it, the movie is an adaptation of the novel. Just for a change I decided to read the book and then immediately watch the movie, thinking it might make a good exercise in compare-and-contrast.
As it turns out, The Ritual and The Ritual (2017) are ideal candidates for this kind of exercise because the film, while partially faithful to the book, makes some key changes that affect how it functions as both a story in general and as a horror story in particular.
In both cases the setup is more or less identical: four friends decide to go on a multi-day hiking adventure in northern Sweden, become lost and stumble across a sinister entity in a primordial forest that starts picking them off one by one.
You would not, at first glance, think that this is the kind of setup that needs to be changed from one medium to the next, which is why I was surprised to see that the movie makes a few key alterations from the book.
In the original story, the four friends are the entirety of a small group that coalesced during their university years but have since grown apart somewhat. Luke, our viewpoint character for most of the book, feels particularly isolated from the others due to his decision to forego the traditional middle class British aspirations in favour of a nebulous concept of ‘freedom’ that sees him still sharing a flat and working in a music shop for subsistence wages into his thirties . (If the book had been written now I suspect Nevill would have felt the need to amend Luke’s backstory to make him a bit more of an outsider given that legions of thirty year olds in London now find themselves in the same situation.) The hiking trip is an opportunity for them all to reconnect and rekindle their friendship.
In the movie, we’re introduced to Richard, a fifth member of the group who is killed by a pair of thieves during a botched off-license robbery. Luke manages to hide just as things in the shop really start to go sideways and is plagued by guilt over not doing more to save Richard’s life. The trip is explicitly undertaken in memory of Richard and the primary source of conflict between Luke and the others is over the question of how much responsibility he should feel for Richard’s murder.
At first I was surprised that the filmmakers felt the need to make such a dramatic change to the setup. After all, what we see in the book seems easy enough to adapt into a script, and if anything the tension between Luke and his more traditionally middle class friends has become even more timely since the book’s publication.
But having watched the movie to the end, I can see why they probably felt the need to include a more straightforward source of conflict. In the book the disconnect between Luke and two of other members of the group builds over time and becomes severely exacerbated when they realise that they’re well and truly lost. You could depict all of that in a movie, but it would probably be hard to do it in a way that didn’t feel rushed.
Perhaps unwisely, however, someone decided to have Luke hallucinate aspects of the off-license incident at frequent intervals during the film, which undermines one of the more effective aspects of the story: the horrifying isolation of being lost in the wilderness for several days on end.
The forest, as described in the book, is a primordial nightmare, a vast swathe of completely untamed woodland into which our hapless protagonists stumble while trying to take a shortcut back to a nearby town. Their downfall plays out in a series of small but catastrophic decisions, each one taking them deeper into the forest: first they take the shortcut, then they keep going even after finding an animal’s carcass inexplicably hanging from some tree branches, then they camp for the night in an abandoned house with a freaky pagan effigy in the attic, and finally they decide to push onward after the house incident rather than just taking the safer option and retracting their steps.
The book vividly depicts just how suffocating the forest becomes and how far from civilisation the characters really are. The movie, by featuring a scene in London at the beginning and then having a character flash back to it at regular intervals, undercuts a lot of the sense of isolation. It also doesn’t help that in the movie we see the forest from above before the characters make their way into it, giving us a concrete sense of its size. I realise that people can and do get lost in relatively small tracts of woodland all the time, but the area we’re shown doesn’t look that large or impenetrable, and I couldn’t help but wonder how a fairly large monster could hide out there without being found.
Because of course there’s a monster in the woods, and of course it starts whittling the group down as they try to escape from it. The movie, like the book, wisely decides to keep the monster relatively hidden from the viewer until right at the end. We know that the creature is large, animalistic and fast, but we don’t get a good look at it for a long time. (The first time we see it in the movie is during a stellar scene in which Luke rests against a tree and spots what looks like a strange human hand clinging to another tree in the distance, but far too high up on the trunk to belong to a normal-sized person. The way the scene plays out, and Luke’s immediate realisation that he’s caught a glimpse of something very wrong, is a good way of ratcheting up the tension.)
But the monster itself isn’t really the source of a lot of the story’s horror, at least not for me. What I found more unsettling are the implications that the group has stumbled across the remnants of a pre-Christian society that worshipped the monster as a god and, in all likelihood, sacrificed humans to it up until relatively recent times. (Again, what we see of the forest in the movie doesn’t really seem big enough or isolated enough for something like that to have remained a secret for so long.) There’s even some implication that the people who made up the society weren’t themselves entirely human, or at least not the same kind of Homo Sapiens we know today. How else to explain the diminutive pews in the proto-church that the characters stumble across or the child-like ‘white figures’ encountered by Luke in the last third of the book?
Oh yeah, about that last third: this is where the movie diverges most dramatically from the book, and probably for good reason. (Spoilers ahead, obviously.)
In the movie, Luke and Dom (who most directly blames Luke for the off-license incident) stumble away from the monster and into one of the ramshackle buildings that seem to be scattered throughout the forest. There they are held captive by a group who worship the creature and provides it with sacrifices in return for a form of immortality. Dom dies, Luke escapes. It’s all fairly standard and about what you’d expect for a story like this.
In the book, things go down very differently. Luke is the only one to escape the monster’s final attack, although he’s left with a serious head wound. He collapses, his strength gone, only to wake up in the bedroom of a house somewhere in the woods. There he learns that his ‘rescuers’ are a trio of sociopathic heavy metal musicians from a band called Blood Frenzy who worship a bastardised version of the Norse pantheon and are out to summon a ‘god’ as part of their ill-defined quest to get in touch with their true heritage. They are assisted (sort of) by an ancient old woman who seems to be one of the last remnants of the society that lived in the forest.
It’s…quite a direction to go in, let’s say, although it’s significantly less goofy in execution than it sounds when you just summarise it. The Blood Frenzy stuff acts as a culmination of certain themes that the story has toyed with up until that point, with the murderous band members acting as a kind of extreme version of Luke’s desire to shrug off the stifling trappings of modern life. For him that means working at a job he enjoys despite its low pay and never allowing himself to be enmeshed in a long-term relationship; for the Blood Frenzy members it means murdering immigrants and gay people and trying to summon an ancient god, which they believe to be an incarnation of Odin, in a spooky forest. Ultimately we’re left to wonder what Luke will become if he escapes the forest (it’s left ambiguous whether he does or not) and whether the same violent force that could make Blood Frenzy murder their supposed enemies or the forest-dwellers sacrifice children to the monster could have lurked within him all along.
This is probably not the kind of plot development you could away with in a horror movie with aspirations towards any kind of mainstream success, but I have to applaud Nevill for not only attempting it but actually making it work. The ending to the movie feels predictable; the ending of the book is anything but.
So which version should you go for? As I’ve said previously, the book sells its premise better largely because the forest is left up to the reader’s imagination, where it is no doubt darker and more oppressive than any kind of woodlands you could easily shoot a movie in. I’ll admit that the ‘lost in the woods’ sections have more urgency and narrative drive than anything that happens after Blood Frenzy shows up, but that part of the story does feature some wonderfully creepy imagery of its own. The movie is competently put together but feels slight by comparison; try it out if you want some nice cinematography with your horror, but don’t go in expecting anything you haven’t seen before.
Incidentally, I’ve read one other Nevill novel (Apartment 16) and I can at this point recommend him as someone to try if you’re looking for some good horror reading. His books are inventive, they play with familiar tropes in interesting ways and they’re actually scary in places, which 99% of horror fiction for some reason is not. Thumbs up from me.