Last year at FrightFest I went to a panel hosted by Rosie Fletcher titled ‘From Page to Scream’. It was a fascinating discussion about the way in which horror works within the different realms of literature, video games and film, and the ways horror can be adapted for each format.
On my way out I was given a free book, ‘The Silence’ by Tim Lebbon. It had a film poster cover as it had just been turned into a Netflix movie and so I stuck it in my bag and dumped it on my shelf when I got home. I really don’t like books with film poster covers, especially when I know the film is not a good or, in any way, faithful adaptation. I avoid buying them, even in charity shops and the legendary Last Book Shop on Park Street in Bristol – the two places I get most of my literature.
But isolation came and I decided, out of everything I own, to pick ‘The Silence’ up as I hadn’t read anything scary in a while and it looked like the kind of thing I could read pretty fast. It was. And while it wasn’t hugely terrifying, it was well written, contained some tense ‘set pieces’ and had an interesting end-of-the-world vibe that seemed somewhat relevant at this point in time. It reminded me ever so slightly of the excellent ‘Passage’ trilogy by Justin Cronin only less epic and horrifying. I do have a soft spot for apocalypse literature.
The book centres around a young teenage deaf girl, Ally, and her family as they attempt to negotiate the fallout of a caving expedition in Moldova that accidentally set loose a horde of killer creatures. These ‘vesps’ as they come to be known have lived in an underground caving system for thousands of years, cut off from the earth’s surface. Upon their release they attack and kill any and every living thing, gradually making their way across the world, and to the UK.
Ally lives in Usk, Monmouthshire (of all places) with her mum, dad, brother and nan. She lost her hearing in a car accident that killed her other grandparents, and so the family have developed their own kind-of-personalised sign language which comes in very handy when they discover that the ‘vesps’ are blind but hunt using sound. Together with their dog Otis and their ‘uncle’ Glenn they head north towards Scotland but end up in the Lake District.
It’s all very standard apocalyptic stuff; filling cars with food and supplies, heading for the country, people fighting over vehicles and weapons, lots of walking etc. But the novel is interestingly told from two points of view, that of Ally and an omniscient narrator.
Understanding Ally’s thoughts and feelings really brings all parts of the novel together. She doesn’t have many friends, but cares very much for the ones she does, she loves her grandmother and knows something is wrong with her but isn’t sure what (she is dying from cancer), she has a special relationship with her father and together they discuss stuff separately from the rest of the family, and her dog Otis has been unofficially trained to be a hearing dog so she depends upon him to know when the phone is ringing or alarms are going off. This understanding of what it is like to be deaf is crucial both for the family and for the reader so motivations and decisions are made clear.
I won’t reveal much more of the plot (but there are SPOILERS below), suffice it to say there is a lot of drama and death. Neither of which are dealt with well in the film… Now I don’t want to rip the movie apart but I do want to point out some of the differences and why they may or may not work as effectively as the novel.
As is the case with many literary adaptations (and foreign language ones), the setting has been changed to the US. And so Usk becomes Montclair, New Jersey for some reason (bizarrely the location of the live Instagram TV gig I had been watching just before the film – shoutout to Pinegrove!)
In this film, location seems not to matter all that much other than that the family must get out of the noisy city and head somewhere quieter. In the novel thy end up in the Lake District, but I have no idea where the family end up in the film. In fact, I really don’t think I would have understood much of what was going on had I not seen many end-of-the-world movies before, and read the book. There is no focus on time or place here.
The whole film zips along at quite a pace so it never gets boring, but it never stops to actually say something about anyone or anything. For instance, Stanley Tucci’s character Hugh (Ally’s dad) is seen for two minutes at work for no reason other than to introduce Glenn who will re-appear moments later to join the family in their escape. What do they do and does it matter? No. Why is he known as ‘Uncle Glenn’? Is he Ally’s uncle? Not in the biological sense (as far as I can tell). This isn’t how Glenn is introduced in the novel. He is given an actual character – he likes women, owns livestock, and is Huw’s (note the difference in spelling) best friend. In the movie he is just another body for the body count.
Ally is ostensibly the central protagonist of the film, though it is her dad who makes most of the decisions and becomes the ‘hero’ of sorts. To understand her thoughts Ally’s voice is heard in voiceover at the beginning but then this device is apparently dropped. Unfortunately this dual point of view is one of the strengths of the novel and so by losing it in the film all that’s left is a straight family-on-the-run storyline with very little emotion or characters to care about.
The performances are fine. Ally is played by the new Sabrina, Kiernan Shipka, while her mum Kelly is Sabrina’s aunt Zelda, Miranda Otto*, but Tucci is really phoning it in. It’s a weird thing when a film can last 90 minutes and have no memorable moments of action or character beats. The actors have so little to do, I’m now struggling to remember whether anything at all happened! And considering how integral Ally is to the story of the novel it is crazy how much she is underused. The aspects of the novel that draw the reader in and help to identify with Ally and her family are lost, including how she keeps a scrapbook on her ipad of events happening around the world and every day has a private ‘briefing’ with her dad. This is how the family learn about the vesps and keep as up to date as possible with their movements and the mayhem they bring, as well as how father and daughter maintain their special bond. In the film this is but glimpsed.
This film feels like a montage of apocalyptic scenes that could be happening to anyone. And while the novel does have a lot of cinematic set pieces there is much more meat on the bones connecting them.
The two main action scenes the film chooses to focus on are 1) an unfortunate moment where Glenn’s car crashes and there’s no saving him, and 2) when a creepy reverend and his ‘flock’ attack the family’s refuge with ringing mobile phones. In the novel, both scenes are tense and emotional.
However, Glenn’s death in the movie, when he sacrifices himself to allow the rest to escape, means very little given that he has no character and basically does nothing up until that point. The novel gives some background to Huw and Glenn’s relationship and the reasons he is so close to the Andrews family that give his death some meaning. In this scene the group spend a lot of time sitting in a car trying to be quiet, hiding from the vesps, and the explosion of Glenn’s car distracts them enough for the family to get the hell out of there. But there’s never any tension – and horror films like this need tension. It feels like the director was unaware of how to use sound design in a film that requires a lot of silence and could have plenty of really effective and tense moments. This is one of many reasons The Silence sits uncomfortably in the shadow of A Quiet Place.
If there is one positive thing to say about this whole scene it is the change to the way the dog dies – no one wants to see this happen on screen. Having Hugh quietly let Otis out of the car to his (unseen) death is an excellent change to the action of the novel where Huw strangles Otis to death with his shotgun which seems unnecessarily brutal.
The whole thing with the reverend is creepy in both the novel and the film, it feels very Walking Dead. After the family find a safe place to hide out, Ally and Huw bump into a strange man dressed in a reverend’s uniform who communicates by writing on a pad. Clever. But he’s also cut out his tongue. Nasty, and pretty crazy. They ignore his call to join him and his followers and they leave him behind. A while later he turns up at the family’s refuge and asks for Ally. In Lebbon’s novel he wants her to teach him how to sign, which makes sense. In the film he holds up his pad on which he has written something about Ally being ‘fertile’. The action remains the same, but the change of motive turns a creepy character wanting to learn how to survive into a much more disturbing one with thoughts looking much further into the future. (This is something the novel does throughout, and the ending certainly looks forward with an open-ended sense of hope.) The need to protect Ally from him in both instances is strong for Hugh and Kelly, but the threat of the film is on a different level, perhaps explaining why the reverend’s fate is more severe in this case.
Maybe I’m now repeating myself, but I find it hard to understand how a film based on a novel about a DEAF girl chooses never to focus on how she and her family are able to use their personally adapted form of sign language to stay one step ahead of both the vesps and other groups of humans. Being silent is the crucial piece of knowledge the family have but the film seems to take it for granted that they are able to communicate silently. I would have liked to have seen this explored further and not just used as the most basic plot device. In fact, it hardly seems like Ally is deaf. Audible arguments, screams, warnings and threats are all observed on the family’s travels through the book as other groups of survivors succumb to the vesps, and these moments serve to reinforce how important it is that the Andrews can do these things without speaking. The film skips along so fast however that this is barely registered, nothing seems important or troublesome.
Obviously not all elements of the book could be included in detail or at all, such is the nature of adapting a novel into a screenplay. But for me the film of ‘The Silence’ did not do justice to its source material. This is compounded by the not-so-great CGI of the monsters. The threat of the vesps is so important, and while they don’t need to be seen too much for their presence to mean something, the set pieces involving them were not horrific or tense enough. Indeed, the bad CGI distracted from every scene they were in. The vesps are everpresent and this presence needed to be felt. A smattering of roosting shots like in The Birds, where they are waiting for the next noise and to attack their next prey, could have been used very effectively.
Because of the bad CGI, the whole film seems cheap (which it probably was), but I can’t help thinking that if the film-makers had stayed closer to the novel it would have made a much better low budget Brit horror which kept its original setting and premise. If this had been a Neil Marshall film…
But it’s not, and so it stands as a pretty poor entry in the apocalypse, monster, survival horror movie genres. And as an adaptation.
*I wonder whether, much like Joan Cusack being in everything Netflix make these days, they both have dedicated contracts with the streaming service?