I came to own this book through something of a happy accident. I had ordered a copy online for a birthday gift, but it hadn’t arrived in time. In order to get my friend’s gift to her, I bought a copy at the bookstore and kept the one that was in the mail. I was curious about the book, but a little wary of it. Vampires and horror really aren’t my thing, and I’d heard this was a particularly bloody one. Ew.
As novels go, this one certainly delivered what it promised – blood galore. But what made it palatable was that the whole thing was just so damn stylish. John Ajvide Lindqvist created such a tight, easily visualized setting and sequence of events that you could almost see the movie in your head as you read along. Instead of being creepy, it was an exhilarating read. I was surprised at how much I grew to love the book.
While the story is very character-driven, very little is revealed about the characters themselves. We know that Oskar is bullied and a strange kid with divorced parents. We know that Eli isn’t all that she seems. We know just enough about the minor players to identify them when they appear throughout the chapters. Each character, however minor, serves a purpose in moving the story along, almost to the extent that the novel feels more like true crime account and less a work of fiction.
Like the other great Swedish import, IKEA, there are no frills to this book. Everything you get on the page is everything you need to understand what you’re reading, nothing more.
In the past, I’ve been disappointed in writers who produce barren, lifeless stories. In a surprising turn of events, I’m praising Lindqvist for writing a colorless one. Literally, there is almost no color, as we see Sweden in the waning days of autumn, a time of year rife with grey skies and plenty of snow. The only pops of color come with the icy blues of water and the lively red of blood. The theme of colorlessness is echoed in the pages of the book as major divisions in the book are separated by ink-splattered pages with spidery script while the rest of the pages are your standard unadorned black-and-white.
Truly, some brilliant aesthetic decisions were made not only in the writing of this book, but the physical design of it as well. I do wish the cover hadn’t been a film tie-in, but that appears to be the only version available in the US.
When watching the film, I found that the visuals were everything I had expected them to be. Tomas Alfredson did a beautiful job in capturing the stark winter whites and the muddy greys, greens, and browns. True to what I had imagined in the book, only the blood truly popped, occasionally accented by blue water.
While the visuals were stunning, I felt that the plot left much to be desired. All the squirrely subplots I enjoyed in the book were eliminated, most likely as a time and clarity consideration. The primary story of Oskar and Eli was quite faithful, but at the expense of Oskar’s relationship with his tormentors and Eli’s relationship with Håkan, her keeper.
Everything that was carnal and creepy about the book was either removed or glossed over in the film. One of the most memorable scenes, in which the newly-turned Virginia bursts into flames in her hospital bed, lacks the majority of its backstory. Yes, we see Eli attack Virginia, so we have some idea that she’s a vampire. But the film completely skips the torment Virginia endures as her mortal soul and infected soul battle for control of her body; similarly absent is the self-mutilation that keeps her alive without having to kill others.
Also missing from the film is Håkan’s life after his failed blood-collecting. The damage from his self-inflicted acid attack is disgusting, but pales in comparison to the details in the book. Håkan also plays a much bigger role post-hospitalization than the film portrays, which is so disappointing because that subplot provides much of the underlying terror for the second half of the book, leaving the movie to rest too heavily on the relationship between Oskar and Eli.
When I finished reading, I was worried that the movie would have just as much carnage. It didn’t, and I was actually disappointed. The book was so unsettling that I was almost looking forward to being scared out of my mind (but maybe that’s just my way of getting into the Halloween spirit).
Taken separately, both versions of Let the Right One In are good. Lindqvist was thrilled with Alfredson’s vision of his story, which certainly beats the alternative. Had I seen the movie prior to reading the book, I may have found that sense of terror I was looking for since the book provides so much more detail and depth. Both are good for what they are, unlike Revolutionary Road, which felt disjointed on film while the book was a very clear, straightforward read.
And that’s how I choose to recommend it – movie first, book second, enjoy both.
[Ed. note - I cannot issue a ruling on the American version of the film, re-titled Let Me In, since I haven't seen it, but what I've read about it doesn't give me high hopes. The new filmmaker changed one crucial detail that will forever bother me.]