Annihilation differences

Alex Garland‘s weird, wonderful adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer‘s Annihilation hits theaters this week. Anyone who read the novel and watched the trailers could’ve guessed Garland took liberties with the source material. Below, we examine some of the major Annihilation differences between book and film. There are a lot of them.

Major spoilers for both book and film follow.

Let me be blunt: almost everything in Alex Garland‘s film adaptation of Annihilation is different than the book. I could literally go through nearly every scene in the film and point out how much was changed from VanderMeer’s novel.

On the surface, it seems Garland took the basic concept of the book – a team of female scientists venture into a strange area – and formed his own story. Whether or not this is a good thing is up to you to decide. I loved the film – it’s unapologetically weird and frequently terrifying. But at the same time, I found myself a bit confused as to why Garland made so many changes. Changes from book to film are part of any movie adaptation, but the changes here are extreme. Extreme to the point where one can’t help but wonder why Garland didn’t simply craft his own original story instead of attempting to adapt VanderMeer’s book.

During a recent Q&A, Garland commented that he read VanderMeer’s book once, and never went back to it again while working on his adaptation. He simply adapted it all from memory. If you’re curious about some of the major changes from book to screen, I’ve put together a handy list below. Again, these aren’t all of the changes, but rather the most prominent differences. If you have yet to read the book or see the film and are wary of spoilers, turn back now. Otherwise, follow me into Area X below. Or should I say The Shimmer?

annihilation the shimmer

Area X and The Shimmer

In the Annihilation book, the strange events of Area X are, for the most part, well-known. The main character, the Biologist, is well aware of them before her husband ventures across the border and vanishes. In the film, however, Natalie Portman’s character Lena has no idea about the phenomena. She believes her husband is going on some sort of top secret mission to another country. She only finds out about the border and Area X after he mysteriously returns after vanishing.

Speaking of Area X, the film curiously redefines what it is. In VanderMeer’s book, Area X is the “infected” area the characters venture into. In Garland’s film, Area X is the location just outside of the afflicted area. “The Shimmer” is the term the characters use to describe the mysterious zone they travel into – no such term is used in the book.

The film’s depiction of Area X/The Shimmer is vastly different than the book. VanderMeer comments early on that the characters are trekking through “pristine wilderness,” and for a large portion of the story, they don’t come across anything outwardly strange. In sharp contrast, the film presents Area X/The Shimmer as a strange, unearthly area where everything is warped. There are also mutated animals, including a huge alligator and a terrifying bear-like creature, that attack the team very early on. Nothing even slightly resembling this happens in the novel.

annihilation team

The Outside World

Garland’s film adaptation has a lengthy section set in the outside world, where we meet Portman’s biologist character and the rest of the team before they venture across the border into Area X/The Shimmer. VanderMeer’s book forgoes all of this, and opens with the characters already in mid-mission, traveling through Area X. The Biologist character, who narrates the book, will occasionally bring up events that happened in the outside world before the expedition, but they are few and far between.

annihilation cast

The Team

In Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, we never learn the names of the main characters. They’re simply referred to by their particular fields – Anthropologist, Surveyor, Biologist, and Psychologist. There is also a never-seen member of the team, a Linguist, who backs out before they cross into Area X.

The film changes this considerably. For one thing, we learn the names of all the characters. For another, almost all their specific roles have been changed. The only two who remain the same are the biologist (Natalie Portman) and the psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The rest of the team now consists of a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez), a physicist (Tessa Thompson) and a magnetologist (Tuva Novotny).

VanderMeer’s book keeps most of these characters – save the Biologist and the Psychologist – mysterious, but the film fleshes them out and gives them a bit of backstory. The film also keeps most of them alive much longer than the novel. In the Annihilation book, the Anthropologist character dies almost immediately and the Psychologist vanishes. After tracking the Psychologist down, the Biologist is attacked by the Surveyor, and forced to kill her. Nothing even close to this happens in the movie.

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