Bird Box v. Elevation

‘Tis the season to watch movies, if you’re my family, anyway. According to questionable figures uncharacteristically released by Netflix, we were hardly the only ones streaming their new post-apocalyptic thriller Bird Box starring Sandra Bullock. The film is technically split into three timelines but predominantly follows two: the beginning of an epidemic in which people commit suicide when they see some kind of unidentified creature(s), and five years later, when Bullock’s character Malorie is rowing her two small children, all of them necessarily blindfolded, down a river to a survivors’ compound. In classic narrative-hook fashion, the film opens in the latter timeline, with Malorie barking orders at the children that they aren’t to take their blindfolds off, no matter what.

The film is adapted from the 2014 novel by Josh Malerman. I haven’t read the book, but according to its Wikipedia synopsis, major changes in the adaptation would seem to include the third timeline, which, immediately preceding the river-journey timeline, is introduced a bit later in the film. In this thread, Malorie and the children are still with Tom, one of the survivors from the first timeline, who in the book is apparently killed with all the other original survivors at the climactic point of that timeline, when Malorie and one of the other original survivors give birth. There are two reactions one might have to seeing the creatures–instant suicide, or, if you’re already crazy (in what some have pointed out is a problematic depiction of mentally ill people), remaining alive to try to force other people to look at the creatures. In the first timeline, before this distinction has become apparent, the original survivors let a man, Gary, into their house who turns out to be one of these crazy people and kills them all by exposing them to the creatures. In the movie, Tom kills Gary and survives with Malorie, developing a romantic relationship with her, while in the book Gary kills Tom and escapes, leaving Malorie alone with the children–who then apparently that same day gets a call from a rando telling her about the survivors’ compound. The change of keeping Tom alive would definitely seem to increase and contribute to the acute tension, as it’s his eventual death, in the third timeline (which is also, in the movie, when they get the call about the compound) that drives her to take the risk of the river journey, risky not just for navigating a river blindfolded but because she can’t be sure the compound isn’t inhabited by the insane people. Developing a deeper relationship between her and Tom also creates a greater emotional impact when he dies saving her and the children. 

One major aspect of the film reminded me of a new novella, Elevation, that I’d just read by Stephen King, who also happens to have declared himself a fan of Bird Box. Neither of these texts offers an explanation for the mechanics of their central premise: Bird Box never explains what’s caused the shadowy beings that psychologically manipulate people into suicide upon sight to appear at this particular point, and Elevation never explains why its protagonist Scott is undergoing a rapid weight loss that manifests physically (he feels lighter) but not visibly (he doesn’t look lighter). Both texts instead position themselves as more interested in the consequences of these premises than in the literal logistics of them. 

Bird Box pulls off this lack of explanation more effectively than Elevation because it actually provides something in the way of chronic tension for its main character. The first scene in the timeline where the epidemic starts shows us a pregnant Malorie working on a dark painting that she tells her sister is “about people’s inability to connect,” at which point her sister tries to convince her that she will, in fact, be able to have an emotional connection with her own baby, which Malorie doesn’t seem to believe. Interestingly, the closest we get to an explanation of what exactly is going on with the creatures is when one of the original survivors, Charlie, describes (in something of a stilted heavy-handed speech) similar occurrences of such creatures in different mythologies that “take[] on a form of your worst fears or your deepest sadness or your greatest loss,” which include:

…the Surgat from ancient Christian occult beliefs that made pregnant women encounter their unborn children as other creatures such as lobsters or spiders.

Something in the movie that doesn’t seem to be in the book (synopsis) is when Malorie tells the kids on the river that one of them is going to have to look when they get to the rapids if they’re going to be able to navigate them, and that she’ll be the one to choose who looks. We’re set up to think that she might be inclined to choose the child who’s not actually hers to consign to certain death, but when it comes time to choose, she decides that nobody is going to look after all, indicating that she’s forged a comparable maternal connection to both kids. (Maybe this wasn’t in the book because it seems unlikely a four-year-old would have been able to help her navigate rapids blindfolded any better without a blindfold than with one.) 

Via Tom’s death and the call from the survivors’ compound, the movie’s third timeline contributes to the narrative’s acute tension, thus justifying its existence, but it goes further by continuing to develop Malorie’s chronic tension. Before Tom dies, we see a contrast in their approach to parenting the kids: Tom wants to give them hope for a better life, while Malorie wants them to never forget the harshness of their reality. Not only that, she seems to be using the harshness of that reality to forego forging a stronger emotional bond with them herself–why bother when they could lose her at any second or vice versa? This lack of connection is underscored by her not giving them names but instead referring to them as “Boy” and “Girl,” while they call her not “Mom,” but “Malorie.”  

In the climax of the action, their boat is overturned in the rapids, but everyone manages to make it to shore (extremely unlikely, but the general premise has already asked the audience to suspend its disbelief in the unlikely, and by this point we sure as sh*t don’t want those kids to die). Stumbling blindfolded around the woods trying to find the compound, Malorie trips, falls down a hill, and gets separated from the kids. The creatures start calling out to the kids in Malorie’s voice that it’s okay to take their blindfolds off. Malorie gets back to Boy and starts calling for Girl, but Boy tells her that Girl is scared of her, inciting Malorie to call out a litany of all the things she’s done wrong by way of apology, and Girl comes to her before the creatures get her. This is a satisfying climax because the events of the acute tension have led to a moment that forces the protagonist to reevaluate her understanding of the chronic tension–she confronts that her harshness and attempts to forego an emotional connection for the sake of pragmatic rational survival attempts (“Every single decision I’ve made has been for them,” Malorie defiantly declares to Tom. “Every single one.”) have essentially made her as scary as the creatures they’re trying to escape. She has to reckon with the fact that her means of protection have almost cost her the very thing she was trying to protect. In a way, she’s confronted her worst fear without having to actually look at the creatures who were supposed to show it to her.

Contrast this with the plot of Elevation: our protagonist, Scott, is losing weight inexplicably without actually seeming to. The closest thing Scott has to chronic tension is an ex-wife, and while we don’t necessarily need an explanation of the weight-loss phenomenon, we could do with something in the way of an explanation for the breakup—but we don’t get anything there, either. What we get is something that seems to amount to chronic tension for the town where the story is set, Castle Rock, a King standby. A married lesbian couple has opened a restaurant in town, and the predominantly closed-minded conservative population doesn’t like it. Scott himself, who is their neighbor, never has a problem with it, though the lesbians, or one of them, anyway, has a problem with him, seeming to take his mindset for granted as an extension of the rest of the town’s. When this woman, Deirdre, a former pro runner, aims to win the annual Turkey Trot so she’ll have the privilege of lighting the town’s Christmas tree, Scott makes a bet with her that if he wins, Deirdre and her wife will have to have dinner with him, while if she wins, he’ll never bother them again. Since Scott presents externally as overweight and out of shape, Deirdre considers this a safe bet, but, thanks to his condition, he’s able to gain on her in the final yards of the race. When she trips and falls, he helps her up and lets her win. Deirdre and her wife have dinner with him anyway and become his confidants (Deirdre felt the strange phenomenon afflicting him for herself when he helped her up, since part of it is that anything he touches becomes weightless). Scott’s gesture of goodwill, compounded with something of a misleading picture in the local paper, results in the town’s acceptance of the lesbian couple and the unmitigated success of their formerly threatened restaurant. As Scott becomes increasingly lighter, he enjoys the goodwill of his new friends, then, at the end of the book when his weight has dwindled to nothing, lets himself float peacefully away into the atmosphere. 

The New York Times Book Review characterized the book itself as “light” in its subject matter, offering it as something of an anecdote to the heavy times we live in. Which could be another way of saying it lacks any meaningful substance and is essentially designed to manipulate warm feelies, as per so much meaningless mass appeal entertainment. While it tackles “the weight of closed-mindedness and prejudice,” as the Review puts it, this aspect of the book felt more preachy than integrated into a coherent narrative. King’s books often elevate plot over character, but in a book that actually focuses primarily on a single character as opposed to King’s more typical sprawling casts, Scott is woefully lacking in development due to that absent chronic tension. The change Scott undergoes is all surface–his weight. This acute tension cries out for a concurrent chronic change: what has this inexplicable experience of losing weight caused him to confront about himself and/or his past? What deeper change parallels the surface one? Nothing. Without this parallel change arising from the inexplicable circumstance, the lack of explanation of that circumstance becomes more glaring. You can only get away with not explaining such strange circumstances if the reader’s satisfied with the exploration of the consequences of those circumstances, and in this case, there are no meaningful consequences to explore. 

This is not to say that the preachiness of the Elevation’s prejudice aspect might not ultimately do some good for the readers who are satisfied with getting surface rom-com-type warm feelies rather than more substantial character development (and/or who think Stephen King is the second coming of Christ). I happen to be a recently engaged lesbian myself, and over my annual holiday sojourn, a family member suggested I was getting married to “make a statement.” (This was the same family member, incidentally, that I bought Elevation for as a Christmas present and the reason I happened to read it in the first place after seeing how short it was.) So I couldn’t help but be struck by the depiction of the town’s small-mindedness and hope that it might call my family member’s attention to her own small-mindedness: 

“If those women had kept it on the down low they would have been fine, but they didn’t. Now there are people who think they’re trying to make some kind of statement.” 

Lastly, I wanted to note Bird Box‘s use of an objective correlative, the box of birds the movie’s named for. The birds first appear in the movie in the earlier timeline, when a group of survivors makes a run to a grocery store. Why a cage full of birds would be in a grocery store is something else that you’ll have to suspend your disbelief for, but per Robert Boswell’s spandrel rule, the scene in which they’re introduced doesn’t exist solely to introduce them—it makes logical sense that the group would need to make this risky supply run, and we also see an exchange that starts to show us the effect seeing the creatures has on “crazy” people. The birds turn out to be an alarm system for when these crazy people and/or the creatures are around, which is why Malorie takes a box of birds with her on the river trip. She’s also been told to follow the sounds of birds to get to the compound once she gets past the rapids, and has to listen for them over the psychologically manipulative sounds of the creatures. The birds in the box survive being overturned in the rapids (suspend your disbelief again), and make it to the compound with Malorie and the kids, at which point Malorie asks the kids if they should let the birds go be with their friends. The kids agree, and the birds—three of them, not incidentally—fly up out of the box and away. This emotional culmination of the birds’ use as an objective correlative provides the narrative’s resolution: Malorie and the kids have attained their goal of making it to the compound, where it’s implied their quality of life will be vastly improved as they reconnect with other people, and the birds flying out of the box that symbolizes Malorie’s previously circumscribed existence drive that point home—not least because a story Tom tried to tell the kids earlier that Malorie refused to let him finish turned out to end with him climbing a tree to discover a nest of birds that then flew away. And not to mention this is also the point that Malorie finally gives Boy and Girl their real names, Boy after Tom and Girl after her real mother. Cue the waterworks.

I’m by no means claiming that Bird Box is a masterpiece of literary craft–The New Yorker‘s movie critic Richard Brody outlines several reasons that it isn’t, including that its world-building is “thinly and lazily conceived”–but compared to Elevation it’s a much better crafted piece of mass entertainment, predominantly because, to a certain extent, at least, it lets the character carry the plot rather than the other way around. Elevation’s conclusion of the weightless Scott simply drifting away could be read as a literal manifestation of the latter.


Stiller v. Thurber: The Feeling of Real

Technique tracked:
plot arc–short story v. film


Film adaptations of fiction can provide interesting insight into plot structure. What scenes have been added, left out, or reordered, and why? But Ben Stiller’s 2013 adaptation of James Thurber’s 1939 short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is one of the most divergent “adaptations” of a work I think I’ve ever seen. Stiller was inspired by the short story to create a character who escapes real life through occasional fantasies of heroism; that and the character’s name are pretty much the only similarities.

In the original, we do not even know Walter Mitty’s occupation. The entire story takes place over the course of one day that he’s running errands with his nagging wife, and is composed in almost equal parts of his fantasies and real life. In the sections of “real” life interspersed, he is being belittled, having memories of being belittled, or struggling to remember the mundane details life has called him to, like the fact that his wife asked him to pick up puppy biscuits. In the literal world of the story, Mitty and their wife are on their way to running errands, then they diverge for separate ones, briefly reunite and then separate again. We both enter and leave the story, though, through Walter’s fantasies. The story opens with “‘We’re going through!’ The Commander’s voice was like thin ice breaking.”), a fantasy of Walter in war, and then end with him facing the firing squad for execution, “inscrutable to the last.” The war offers an astute entry point that makes the reader’s subsequent entrance into the “real” world as jarring as Mitty’s, while the firing-squad fantasy provides a sense of closure despite the fact that the fantasies have no coherent throughline, only the common theme of his heroism and/or participation in action.

The fantasies are often connected to physical gestures from Mitty’s real life: when his wife orders him to don a pair of driving gloves, the next fantasy begins with him removing gloves as a famous surgeon. We see how the fantasies are a direct product of his interactions with “real” life, reinforcing how they are, in the larger sense, an indirect product of tedious circumstance. The climax is a declaration to his wife, again nagging him about something he hasn’t done: “I was thinking,” said Walter Mitty. “Does it ever occur to you that I am sometimes thinking?” She continues to dominate him, however, telling him to wait for her while she runs into a store for just “a minute,” at which point he returns to fantasy, letting us know that this state of affairs will continue. But we’ve learned that the only time Mitty will really defend himself, the circumstance under which he will come closest to resembling his fantastical doppelganger, is when the fantasies themselves are threatened.

While Mitty’s psychological landscape is plenty rich enough to propel this compact story, the subdued narrative—this glimpse of a day in the life of—does not, on first glance, seem like it would make the most riveting movie. The plot is there is no plot, this non-plot revealing precisely why Walter Mitty needs to depend on fantasy, which becomes a kind of plot. But, someone trying to make a full-length feature might need to add some more material. The story was written several decades ago, so it makes sense that a retelling would be modernized. But Stiller’s version I would venture to call corrupted, as he spins an elaborate plotline barely anchored to the kernel he took from the original.

First major difference: we do not enter the movie in a fantasy of Walter’s. We see him in “real” life, tentatively checking out a dating site on his computer. Second difference: he does not have a wife, but is on the prowl (though he might be too timid for such a phrase, and Stiller’s acting as such is enjoyable enough to watch if you like that sort of thing). The first fantasy doesn’t occur until he’s waiting for a train, on the phone with an eHarmony rep about an issue with his dating account. Walter can’t send someone a “wink.” Instead of helping him with the problem, however, the technician starts to try to help him fill out his profile’s empty fields, forcing Walter to admit that he’s never been anywhere or done anything interesting—at which point, a fantasy finally intercedes. The problem for me is that this world feels utterly false before we break from it for the fantasy. The world became Hollywood false the second the eHarmony rep started talking to Ben Stiller like he was an actual person instead of a customer. The “real” world of the movie is itself a feel-good Hollywood fantasy. So the fantasies are left to assert themselves as any good Hollywood blockbuster should, through a big special-effects budget. Narratives in whatever medium require a suspension of disbelief and all that, but this film is not asking me to believe this is a separate world with its own parameters, where people can fly or whatever it is—for this story it’s especially important that it’s our world, that spinning bowl of drudgery from which Walter Mitty so needs his escape.

Third big difference: we know Walter’s job. He works in “negative assets” for Life magazine, “negative” referring to photos. (Having him work for Life is admittedly a clever touch.) As soon as Walter gets to work this day he’s got a problem: they’re shutting down the print issues of the magazine, and the negative of the image they want to put on the final cover—Walter’s department—is missing. The photographer has traveled all over capturing extreme images, and this missing one is supposed to be the quintessence of life itself. Walter, bursting into random fantasy here and there, usually around his office love interest (Kristen Wiig), must eventually go track down the photographer out in Iceland to try to get another copy of the image. Now Walter’s “real” life begins to resemble the fantasies, as he navigates rugged obstacles to track the photographer, always on his heels but never catching him. He gets fired from Life for being unable to recover the negative and in frustration throws away the wallet the photographer sent him as a birthday present, engraved with inspirational life-living messages about “looking inside.” Eventually Walter finds out the negative was in the wallet, that the photographer meant “look inside” literally. Luckily his mother rescued the wallet from the garbage. The cover image is Walter himself, sitting outside a building, examining negatives: this is the “quintessence of life.”

Full disclosure: I only watched the first twenty minutes, and then I read the Wikipedia summary, because I could already tell what the problem was: in this version Walter Mitty gets the opportunity to live his fantasies. It seems a logical enough leap, that such fantasies might eventually galvanize the person having them into being the person he or she fantasizes he or she is. But it’s pure Hollywood fantasy—even though Walter doesn’t catch the photographer and gets fired, this is just a momentary setback—while Thurber’s remains true to the human condition. Thurber’s story is about the fact that the fantasies are all Walter Mitty has. They’re not about helping him engage with the “real” world, but about helping him escape it. He is offered no opportunity to better the circumstances that drive him to fantasize. They allow him just enough freedom to be able to continue fantasizing. Stiller’s narrative sugar coats the love story by resetting it to the character’s pursuit of a love interest: things might not look so rosy for Wiig and Stiller after twenty years. Thurber’s Mitty probably loved his wife when he first met her too, but things have gone downhill, as things will do. Except in Hollywood, unless it’s the initial part of the character’s arc before the upswing. The ending, with the photo of pre-real-adventure Mitty symbolizing life’s quintessence, is true to Thurber’s concept, but Thurber actually depicts this quintessence while Stiller violates it, then pays it lip-service.

The people who live and work in Hollywood might be under the impression that dreams come true, but for the rest of us, this is just a carrot stick Hollywood’s dangling for the rest of us to chase through another day.