Thursday, April 9, 2009

Ruining the "Ruins"

If every film that were adapted from a book was to be viewed directly after reading the source material, then each one of those films would be doomed for failure. It’s inevitable that the reader has created a better film in their mind; storyboards that no doubt clash with the filmmaker’s vision of how that source material should not only look on screen, but be transferred to the medium of film. I’m sure that Carter Smith’s The Ruins, when isolated from its source material, is an adequate enough horror film; however, I cannot separate it from its source material because I happened to read the book written by Scott B. Smith (no relation to the director) in one sitting – then I watched the movie. Maybe I was too ambitious in thinking that I could go straight from reading the book to watching the movie, and perhaps I should have allowed myself a buffer zone; but I was eager to see the visualization of Smith’s fantastic horror novel.

It’s inevitable, too, that the reader will always nitpick the small changes that are found in book to screen adaptations. These tweaks are necessary sometimes, because setting something up in film (especially in a 90 minute horror film) is a lot harder than using the first 100 pages of a novel – so I don’t fault Smith’s film too much for messing with the story and abandoning all remnants of character development, but what does seem odd is Smith’s penchant for dropping characters and changing the situations that happen to specific characters so that they can fit into a more conventional (and profitable) horror prototype.

Smith’s novel is about two vacationing college couples (Jeff and Amy and Eric and Stacey) who meet a German named Mathias in Cancun, Mexico. They engage in small talk, and Amy even kisses Mathias in a drunken haze. They become chummy and then Mathias tells them about his brother who left with an archeologist to an ancient Mayan ruin. They run off to find him and in the process meet a Greek who doesn’t speak English; they take him with them as he leaves a note with a map to the ruin on it for his other two Greek friends who are sleeping one off.
Naturally they come across many ominous signs that should be taken as a warning, and Amy is the only one in the group to recognize them, she’s hung-over and not in the mood for a hike, so her boyfriend Jeff, thinks she just isn’t feeling good because of that. Jeff is a bossy guy, a med school attendee, he is the self-proclaimed leader of the group; he insists that they continue despite the bad feeling Amy.

Once on the ruins bad things happen as they become prisoners on top of the dig site because for some reason the local Mayan’s won’t let them leave the site. And their afternoon hike becomes a multiple day struggle for survival as they battle hunger, thirst, broken bones, and some scary ass vines. The rest of the story I dare not give away, because that is the joy and the exhilaration found in Smith’s horror novel; a novel worthy of being compared to something Stephen King would write. Smith’s novel does an amazing job of building and compounding banal scene after banal scene where the reader really does feel tired and sun-burnt and hungry and exhausted.

Smith writes the novel as one long sequence – there are no chapters in The Ruins and reading the novel is like having your entire body in a vise grip, you go from one scene to the next at a breathless pace; the characters don’t get any breaks for rest and neither does the reader.

I rarely read horror novels anymore, as most of the stuff I read I guess could be construed as ‘arty’ or ‘heavy’ books, but I wanted to give this one a shot because I loved Smith’s previous (and only other) novel A Simple Plan. I read Smith’s story in one sitting, and that’s not to say that the novel is comparatively lesser than the aforementioned types of novels I read, it actually means that the novel was extremely entertaining and utterly hypnotic. I zipped through it because I was like a madman wanting to see the novel to its end. The ending of the novel is something I knew the filmmakers wouldn’t have the conviction to keep intact, but I held out hope that Carter Smith’s version of the novel (scripted by the writer of the novel Scott Smith) would at least be serviceable in bringing to the screen a horror story that reminded me of the claustrophobic, everything-gone-wrong type of horror stories found in modern films like Bug, Deep Water, and The Descent.

The film version of Smith’s novel is a mess – and again I freely admit that I probably shouldn’t have viewed it directly after reading the novel – a herky-jerky gore fest that is not at all interested in the banal, slow build of dread that made the novel such an intense and horrifying read. Smith the novelist shows with his two novels that he is interested in this banal evil (especially in A Simple Plan which was made into a superb film by Sam Raimi) and how it plays with our minds. Perception is a big factor in the novel. Are these things really happening to these people, and did I just read that a vine was aping a cell phone ring tone? The film, however, is not all interested in building anything. It wants to show you gore and creepy vines that are more out of a monster movie than something ambiguous and frightening.

The film has decent enough acting, but inexplicably Scott Smith let the Carter Smith do whatever he wanted to with his story (reading about the film I found that the author apparently has no qualms about letting his work be manipulated by studios) turning it into more of a dead teenager movie or a vacationers go missing torture porn, than a truly horrifying film. Sometimes it’s okay for “nothing” to happen, because sometimes that’s the scariest thing (think Deep Water or some of the hopelessness found in The Descent.) The results of Smith the director tinkering with Smith the writers work is that for no reason, other than to plug in these characters into a more traditional American horror formula, Smith the director omits certain characters, changes events, changes the way some characters act, and has things happen to different characters.

There’s one scene that is truly horrifying in the novel: there is a moment when The Greek has his legs eaten by the vines (in the movie it’s Mathias, who is one of the central, and strongest, characters in the novel, who in the film is relegated to screaming) and one by one the characters happen upon it. There’s a slow buoild to the realization of why the Mayan’s won’t let them off the ruins, and that’s totally omitted in the film. Instead, we are left to see Mathias with vines wrapped around his legs and then the famous hacking off the legs scene.

The film wants nothing more than to try and shock you with gory moment after gory moment, all of which are laughably spliced together out of context and at rapid speed. The film’s opening should be ample warning for those who have read the novel: the vines are monsters that kill because they want to, not because they are feeding. For as laughable as the original premise is (what horror premise like this isn’t, really) at Smith the writer didn’t have his vines just eating people for the hell of it. In the novel it was only when there was blood (or in an odd and horrifying scene semen) is spilt that vines come out to play. And usually the vines were interested in mocking the inhabitants of the ruins in an attempt to drive them insane so that they would turn against each other. In the film, however, they suck you into the earth and stalk their prey hissing and moaning and grabbing at the hapless female victims (another insulting thing about the film version, they swap characters when it comes to all the bad things that happen – in the book Eric is the one who wants to cut himself open, not Stacey); the already laughable premise is heightened by the eye-rolling formulas that the films relies on.

The film was doomed for the start – in my own mind. I had envisioned a decent film that was predicated on of the most horrifying thoughts of all: the idea that nobody is coming to save you. Instead Carter Smith turns a great horror read into something yawn-inducing and predictable, a paint-by-numbers exercise that is horribly uninteresting when compared to the novel.


  1. Your review seems pretty much in line with the poor reviews I had read elsewhere. I would have been willing to give it a shot had you liked it, though, so thanks for allowing me to save the time.

    I think I'll give the book a try though...