Books: Bird Box

Continuing with the theme of reading books that spawned movies I thought were terrible but had interesting concepts, I recently read Bird Box. I watched the film for Bird Box back in 2018 shortly after it was released on Netflix, and I wasn’t exactly fond of it. So much of the film just didn’t seem to make any sense to me, but I really liked the concept of creatures that would create madness in someone simply by seeing them. Given that I’ve been at home for nearly 10 months due to the coronavirus pandemic, now seemed like as good a time as any to finally read the book that the film was based on.

Right out of the gate, I’ll say that — much like with The Silence — I found the novel for Bird Box to be much better than the film. First off, the time frame for the beginning of the story is completely different. In the film, on the first day that Malorie and her sister Shannon hear about strange suicides, their entire neighborhood is in chaos. In the novel there’s a slow progression around the globe, ostensibly as the creatures travel further from wherever it is the came from. Malorie experiences shifts as people start taking the issue with increasing seriousness as reports of suicides come ever-closer to where they are, with things finally hitting home when she loses contact with her parents.

Similarly, Malorie joins up in the house with the other survivors not because of some action movie-esque mad dash after her accident on the way home from the doctor, but because she finds herself alone after her sister’s suicide several weeks into the story. From this point, the story diverges wildly between the film and the novel. The creatures, for example, play an almost entirely passive role. In the film they make sound, and they’re capable of tricking people by mimicking voices. Absolutely none of this happens in the novel, and it almost makes for a more eerie and terrifying experience as the consumer simply because you never know what might be around when the survivors venture forth even for routine tasks like fetching water from the well.

There also are no roving bands of people who are able to open their eyes without committing suicide due to the madness. Gary is the one exception to that, and he becomes the downfall of the entire house. Whereas in the film Gary was killed by Tom, allowing Malorie, Tom, and the children to continue living together for years, in the novel Tom dies with everyone else in the house aside from Malorie and the children. This absolutely feels like something that was done for the Hollywood trope of allowing the protagonist and her potential love interest make it further than the others. It also sets up for the trope of Tom making a sacrificial stand later on against an aforementioned band of people who can open their eyes because they’re already insane. I feel like the film made these changes in order to have some form of more concrete antagonist and strife, for reasons I’ll touch on a little later.

While the use of a car (in the novel just by judging distances on a map and then looking at the odometer) still seems extremely dubious, the overland dash that I criticized so heavily in the film doesn’t exist at all in the book. After making it through the part of the river that requires vision (more on that difference in a moment), Malorie and the children are immediately found by the other survivors and taken to the school. This means that Malorie doesn’t need the seemingly supernatural ability she had in the film to literally run through a forest while blindfolded, something that seems all but guaranteed to result in running face-first into a tree.

As another major difference, on the river Malorie doesn’t need to open her eyes in order to navigate rapids that seem to be right where they would want to land the boat regardless. Instead, she has to open her eyes to see where the river forks into 4 since she needs to take the second fork from the right, meaning that she can’t merely hug one of the banks.

On the whole, the story of the novel just feels much more cohesive than the disjointed mess that was the story of the film. That being said, having experienced the book I can understand (to a degree) why there were so many differences between the two and so many liberties taken to modify the story in the film. Being a visual medium, the film simply can’t replicate the same kind of terror invoked by the novel. For example, the most nerve-wracking scene of the novel to me was when Malorie goes to a bar a few blocks from the house in order to secure some equipment. Going into the bar blind, her dog Victor leads her to a cellar that, presumably from the smell, is filled with dead bodies. Suddenly, Victor’s behavior changes wildly, and it becomes clear that he is going mad.

Aside from how heart-wrenching it is that the dog begins to kill itself (seriously, what is it with horrible dog scenes in both Bird Box and The Silence?), the horror here is two-fold. First, Malorie is literally hearing her dog go mad, forcing her to tie its leash somewhere away from herself, blind, to prevent it from killing her. As she stays in the bar, she has to hear it gruesomely ripping itself apart as it tries to reach her. Likewise, this shows that animals are equally affected by the creatures, something that had been unknown up to this point. Even worse, though, Victor’s madness means that Malorie is not alone in the bar. Something is in the bar with her, and it’s something so terrible that if she were to glimpse it for even a moment it would drive her insane. Is it across the bar or literally right next to her? Is there only one creature or a dozen? Malorie and the reader have absolutely no way of knowing, and it’s hair-raising to think through the terror of being unable to see in that situation. I just don’t know how the same experience can be emulated in a film since not being able to see is what makes it so terrifying.

Does this change my opinion of the film at all? No, it doesn’t. While I now think the story of Bird Box is a challenging one to tell through a medium that focuses so heavily on what is displayed to the consumer, I don’t believe that changes the execution of the film at all. While the film feels like a bit of a waste, though, the novel was excellent, and it gave me some visceral chills that few recent horror stories have been able to do. I would highly recommend that any fans of the genre give it a read, though especially if you were disappointed with the film.