It ain't easy being king – let alone being the "King of Weird Fiction," as The New Yorker once dubbed Jeff VanderMeer.
If you happen to be the Floridian writer, there are many expectations to be met: from insatiable fans of your Southern Reach trilogy of novels, from movie studios eager to adapt your bizarre and delightfully hard-to-categorize work, from curious journalists hoping to get a glimpse inside the VanderMeer ideas factory. But the 49-year-old monarch of the surreal takes it all in stride, including the increasing interest in Annihilation, both his first book in the Southern Reach series and his first to be adapted for the big screen, with a Natalie Portman-starring head-trip hitting theatres this Friday.
As moviegoers unfamiliar with VanderMeer's work prepare to encounter Annihilation's wonderful and so-very-weird world – one in which a group of scientists encounter all manner of mutations inside the mysterious quarantine zone called "Area X" – the novelist spoke with The Globe and Mail over the phone about the expectations of adaptations and genre.
Did you ever have a desire to adapt Annihilation yourself, instead of having writer-director Alex Garland take it on?
No, because this particular novel is based on very personal experiences of hiking in north Florida. I'm too close to do it as an active translation. Alex was very kind to talk with me and bounce ideas off of me, but my role was to be affirmative, to give him the freedom to pursue his vision. I wasn't interested in a faithful adaptation, and I had seen [Garland's previous film] Ex Machina and was blown away. I just let him do his thing.
It's not hard to watch someone else translate your vision?
There is a period of adjustment. You intellectually understand it, and then you emotionally catch up. I think it was complicated by the fact that I visited the film's set, which I'd never done before for anything. So when I saw the rough cut, I had my hiking experiences in my head, the novel I wrote in my head, the fan art that came after that, and the set visit.
You said you wrote the Southern Reach novels right after waking up, inspired by dreams. Would you say Alex's version has captured that dream-like essence of the books?
Definitely, and the thing about dreams that's not really expressed is that they have a terrible clarity to them. They are actually very detailed, and that's what this movie has. It also has the juxtapositions of beauty and horror, where it's not just frightening things, but awe-inspiring things. The fact it's intertwined is true to the books.
You've previously said that it would be antithetical to give the Southern Reach novels traditional closure, yet would you not say there's some of that in the film?
The movie definitely has a traditional three-act structure. The thing is, the surreal elements in the books are on the page, and much more in-your-face in the movie because, well, it's a visual and requires that rate of the strange versus the familiar. It's the same question you deal with as an author, asking yourself where can I be surreal, where does the reader need an anchor? I do think because of the various eruptions in Area X in the books, there's no particular reason why they couldn't do more movies and explore more of the books if they wanted to.
The release of Annihilation is unusual, in a way, because it's a fairly big-budget science-fiction movie that isn't about a familiar, easy-to-sell brand. What are your thoughts on the current sci-fi movie landscape?
This is harkening back to the glory days of the late sixties, early seventies – that whole era of treasures. And you have the bar for high-quality conceptual work set so high thanks to television now. There's so much good stuff out there that you miss things. Netflix has Dark, which is a brilliant show that's right in my wheelhouse. And the company just optioned my next novel, Hummingbird Salamander.
And Paramount also optioned your novel, Borne, too. But do you have plans to return to the Southern Reach world?
That's slowly taking shape. I have zero interest in cashing in on the popularity of Annihilation, that seems antithetical to the themes of the books. But I have these questions in my head about that world, like: What happened on the ground when Area X's border first went up? What actually happened to that first expedition? I'm working on two separate narratives, one might be a book, the other a novella. I don't like narratives that explain everything, but I think there are some interesting things to explore still.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Annihilation opens Feb. 23.