Of a Different Feather

Let me begin by offering a pair of disclaimers. First, I’m not a big fan of Sandra Bullock, whose acting seems to range between bitchy yelling and the delivery of sarcastic zingers. Second, I’m the guy who always grouses that movies “based on the novel” never are as good as the book.

Which brings me to today’s release to Netflix’s streaming service, Bird Box, an adaptation of Josh Malerman’s harrowing 2014 novel. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Bullock gives a convincing and complex performance; she conveys both gritty determination and emotional vulnerability as a single mother, Malorie, desperately struggling to deliver her children to safety across a post-apocalyptic American scene (“landscape” doesn’t seem the right word here, considering that a good chunk of the film involves a rowboat journey downriver). And my concerns that I would have to title this posted review “Turd Box” thankfully proved unfounded. The film is a gripping and entertaining thriller, effectively dramatizing the sudden breakdown of civilization when the world is overrun by mysterious creatures that drive anyone who beholds them to a prompt (and often gruesome) suicide.

Still, the viewer fortunate to have read the Malerman book beforehand is likely to sense some missteps by the movie version. There’s no denying that the source text presented a difficult case for adaptation: readers are able to get right inside the head of the frequently-blindfolded “viewpoint” characters and share their fear of the unknown, whereas the medium of film automatically enforces a more externalized perspective. The fact that Bird Box‘s viewers are able to see what the characters cannot steers the experience from dread toward dramatic irony (the film attempts to address this dilemma by employing close-ups and random cuts to an occluded “I-camera” to simulate Malorie’s sightless perspective). A second area of difficulty concerns what to do with the monsters: unlike A Quiet Placewhere the grotesque predators are spectacularly visualized, Bird Box (in a wise adherence to Malerman’s approach in the book) never brings the suicide-inducing nightmares front and center. But how then to present an invisible menace? Shadows and swirled leaves are deftly employed, but the (over-reliant) resort to whispered temptations feels more hokey than horrific.

My major issue, though, is the sea change the filmmakers create by turning from suspense to action. The movie is filled with scenes of exciting adventure (e.g. the river here features roaring rapids), which while well-choreographed also give the proceedings a rushed feel despite Bird Box‘s two-hour-plus run time. Nowhere is this more regrettably evident than when Gary invades the plot. In the film, this obvious lunatic confirms our first impression all too soon, whereas the book wrings sweat from the uneasy reader because of the uncertainty of situation (Malorie’s mounting suspicion of Gary, and her indecision after realizing that her concerns about him are justified). In retrospect, a ten-episode series (cf. Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House) rather than a feature-length film would have made for a stronger adaptation. This would have allowed for a more natural development of characters (especially the supporting cast) and set-up of incident, and enabled viewers to have a keener sense of the housemates’ entrapment and their day-to-day difficulties of living in a world where willful blindness has become the first rule of survival.

In and of itself, Bird Box is an eminently watchable film, but those hoping for the height of terror are advised to migrate straight back to Malerman’s novel.

 

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