A Tale of Two Vampire Films
Hardly a more honored vampire film has ever been released as “Let The Right One In” (2008) based on the novel by John Aljide Lindqvist. So beloved did this film become that news of an English-language version, made less than two years after the first, sparked howls of disgust. Yet when “Let Me In” (2010) debuted, it received nearly universal positive reviews. Amongst diehards, though, the debate continues. Search message boards or YouTube channels and see for yourself. In particular the latter film stands accused of being a shot-by-shot remake of the first (tellingly, this accusation came out long before anyone in the general public had ever seen anything but a trailer).
To be fair, let us compare them.
Most obviously, one takes place in Sweden and the other in New Mexico. This impacts things quite a bit, not least the amount of open space available. Never having been to Sweden, nor to that area of New Mexico, I can only look at the films to find a difference. Blackeberg looks fresher, more modern, more crowded, yet paradoxically more barren. Los Alamos on the other hand looks like a small suburb begun to go to seed. Wilderness appears close by, where murders can occur without interruption. More–and again referring to location–the American film has a sense of being surrounded by something whereas the Swedish feels as if it takes place in the remotest inhabited corner of the Earth. The body language comes across differently as well, in all kinds of subtle ways. People talk about God in LMI, not so in LTROI. Bullies call their victim ‘piggy’ in Sweden, but ‘little girl’ in America.
On one level, the two films do look like mirror images of each other. Watch them back to back and this screams out. The coloring of the two leads is switched. A startling number of shots look turned around–where Eli looks right, Abby looks left. Oskar stabs a tree left, Owen does the same right. It gets a little eerie. Likewise (and this is thematic rather than geographic) Oscar’s bedroom wallpaper is a forest, while Owen’s is the barren surface of the moon. One tends to wash out its colors. The other floods everything with dark, rich tones so even the snow sometimes looks made of gold (the result of sodium public lights).
Deeper, one sees much more substantial differences. The caretaker in LTROI remains ambiguous. Some (like yours truly) looked at him and saw a pedophile in love (which matches up to the novel). Others saw him as an earlier version of Oskar. In LMI this becomes explicit–he definitely was once is exactly the same boat as Owen. We know this beyond doubt. As a result, while Eli seems to pity her caretaker, Abby apparently grieves over what they once had, a relationship that withered over time. Eli herself seems to be a vampire all the time, both vampire and little girl but who longs to be that little girl still. But Abby comes across as different from the vampire, as if she were possessed by this terrible thing that forces her to do things–and her vampire looks different. VampEli resembles a crone of some kind, while VampAbby manifests as a bestial goblin. Although both have a certain androgyny, Abby clearly comes across as more feminine.
Whether Abby is in fact a castrated boy never is addressed. She seems rather girly though. But then, so does Owen.
Turning to Owen and Oskar–these are two fundamentally different people. The Swedish boy has a morbid streak, even a violent one that really feels attuned to Eli. His reaction to her nature is not so much moral upset as fear–one reason he feels so much more acutely the relatively mild bullying he endures (as opposed to vicious stuff Owen endures from boys much bigger than himself). Unlike Owen, Oskar has a pretty good relationship with his mother, one he is out-growing however. In his father, Oskar has an unreliable friend rather than a parent or protector. But Owen’s parents aren’t there for him at all. Physically absent father, emotionally absent mother, coupled with larger and meaner bullies. Both are lonely, nearly desperate yet from differing causes. Between the two, Owen is nicer and in fact braver. Oskar has his issues (don’t we all) which leads him to find a soul-mate in Eli. We have little difficulty imagining him killing for his blood-drinking girlfriend, just as we suspect this might be the first time Eli has ever found a companion like Oskar–someone her own age, who loves her for herself rather than for what she is. But Owen probably has a harder road ahead–he won’t want to kill, even for this dazzling creature he adores. He’ll be very, very reluctant helper. In time his innocence will die, or he will leave Abby.
In terms of plot, other variations abound. Everything about the close circle of drinking buddies vanishes in LMI, replaced by a police detective trying to solve a series of bizarre crimes. Virginia commits suicide in one film, is accidentally destroyed in the other. The business with the cats–gone. Mention of events in the outside world–present in LMI but not so in LTROI. A murder occurs in an underpass in one film, in a tunnel in the second. Between the two different things get said or unsaid. “I don’t kill people” says Oskar, not Owen. “But you would if you could, for revenge” points out Eli, not Abby. “Would you have died?” asks Owen, not Oskar. “I knew you wouldn’t let me,” answers Abby, not Eli.
Exact reasons for the differences cannot help but remain speculation, but some clues offer themselves. The screenplay of the first film was penned by Lindqvist himself, attempting (successfully in most eyes) to distill a more sprawling and even more disturbing novel into a dramatic medium. No easy task. Matt Reeves wrote the second screenplay, which means a different filter, a different lens with which to see the story. More, the two writers hail from varying cultures. Reeves grew up in a country settled by his own people less than four centuries past, in lands that were frontier a single human lifetime ago. Lindqvist’s home has thousands of years of history, with all the scars and memories that entails. Both may seem very similar when compared to, for example, Japan or India. From our viewpoints, though, the differences shine out.
As in these two films. Each follows the same plot, adhering faithfully to the same book (and some critics who harp on similar scenes might as well say each version of “Hamlet” is a ripoff because they all have a guy talking to a skull). Both contain nearly identical incidents, mostly (again) gleaned from the novel. Yet the similarities can also function to bring out their differences into much sharper relief.
Makes one wish to see a third version, actually.