Oskar. Poor Oskar. A sociopath in the making, Oskar hides a secret scrapbook of newspaper clippings that highlight murders and murderers. He uses a styrofoam square he names Pissball to hide his pants-wetting problem. He has no true friends. His dad lives elsewhere; his mom is spinless. And he is hopelessly hounded by the class bully, Johnny. He is alone.
Then along comes Eli, a child-vampire, who forms a fast friendship with Oskar. Theirs is the desparate friendship of two creatures who are equally alone. It is both sweet and twisted, innocent and sinister. In one of my favorite moments, Eli kisses Oskar in the bushes under her apartment window:
For a few seconds Oskar saw through Eli’s eyes. And what he saw was…himself. Only much better, more handsome, stronger than what he thought of himself. Seen with love.
For a few seconds.
It’s difficult for me to talk about the book without also mentioning the movie. I saw the movie first, and after reading the book not only am I undecided about whether one should watch the movie first or read the book first, but I am also conflicted about deciding which is better. I might have to cop out and say that they are both equally good, but in different ways.
I would say that overall, the movie has more mass appeal. Though dark and somewhat grotesque, it is artfully filmed with some of the most original and unique camera-work I’ve seen. The characters of Eli and Oskar were perfectly cast, and they have remarkable chemistry. In addition, Lindqvist has a very unique take on vampire-lore, very refreshing in the current Twilight era of swoony, perfect vampires who don’t eat meat.
One strength of the movie is that the author, John Ajvide Lindqvist, also wrote the screenplay. His story hasn’t been manipulated or watered down by another writer’s personal interpretation. Lindqvist smartly edits out aspects of the novel that don’t translate well to film. As a result, the movie is an equally awesome, condensed version of the novel. The starkness of film is a perfect compliment to overall themes.
In comparison, the book is less user-friendly when it comes to the casual reader. While the movie is softer around the edges, the book delves deeply into human depravity, and focuses on some very sinister aspects of the human experience. Motifis of murder, bullying, pedophilia, mutilation, castration, and assexuality underscore the loneliness experienced, on some level, by each of the major characters. They also underscore the other major theme: what makes a monster a monster?
Negative reviews of this book focus on the depravity, stating the book itself is inherently evil and stating that such base themes are inappropriate, especially in such high concentrations. They argue that none of the characters have any redeeming qualities. And on some level, they are correct.
Almost none of the characters have redeeming qualities, even Oskar in some ways, but each of the characters is sympathetic in some way. And each of the characters has a very solitary exisitence. Without giving too much away, Håkan misses his pre-Eli life, despite being a suspected pedophile. He is transformed into a literal monster, where he is both an embodiment of his worst sin, and also victimized worse than a piece of meat. Lacke is a drunk and a free-loader, but his best friend and his lover both leave him. Göste is a stinking animal hoarder who allows his cats to inbreed, but then again, his cats are his only companions for much of the novel (and one of the awesomer scenes in both the book and movie involves his cats). Oskar has no one, until he meets Eli. And Eli, as is made apparent, would not exist without some assistance. Eli is also one of the only vampires left, and poignantly asks Oskar if he would ever consider becoming a vampire.
Another complaint is that much of the novel focuses on the ancillary characters, and not enough time is spent with Eli and Oskar. I would agree, up to a point, that too much time was spent with secondary characters. While many scenes do enhance the suspense, others seem unnecessary. For example, a few pages are dedicated to a squirrel who observes Håkan, but no new value is added because of the scene. In another a man is on the way to an internet date and gets into a car accident. While these side-stories built suspense for the most part, I wish the number of side-stories, or cut-aways, would have decreased, rather than increased, as the novel neared the climax.
Overall, I think the common complaints are rooted in surface-reading…you know, people who read the novel at face value, and don’t try to understand the deeper meaning and purpose of the novel. Several people also expected to read a love story, only, or a vampire story, only. Therefore, their expectations of the novel were not met for obvious reasons.
Finally, I would definately recommend both the novel and the movie. I might actually suggest that you watch the movie first, as the book definately requires a certain type of reader. Plus, I only have two disappointments in seeing the movie first:
- I wonder how I would have imagined the very last scene in the novel had I not seen the movie. Who would I have pictured in the train?
- Sometimes I found myself speeding through the book to get to the next Oskar/Eli scene so I could mentally compare it with the movie. I had to consciously slow myself so I could better appreciate the rest of the novel.
(BOOK AND MOVIE SPOILER) The characterization of Håkan is an intersting difference between the book and the movie. As you watch the movie, you begin to assume that Håkan used to be just like Oskar. That he and Eli met when he was a lonely kid, and Eli recruits him to be her blood harvester. It is implied that she befriends Oskar so that he can take Håkan’s place. In the book, however, Eli recruits Håkan as a middle-aged adult. She knows Håkan is a pedophile and entices him to kill and harvest blood on her behalf in exchange for some night-time fonding. As you can see, not easily stomached by the average book audience.
by Chris at Park Benches & Bookends