The Ruins is a novel by Scott Smith, that was released in July 2006. The novel is set in Mexico and tells the story of a group of tourists, who while exploring rural Yucatán accidentally find themselves trapped on top of a hill, where they are hunted by an unexpected predator.
The film of the same name was released in 2008 and is relatively faithful to the novel. However, where the novel received high praise the film has been criticised. This is a good example of situations where a story is better told via a novel or other written media as opposed to a visual storytelling media. This is mostly because the film had to leave out a lot of the detail that the novel portrayed easily. It is the level of detail in the novel that grounds the reader deeply into the story.
By staying deeply inside the heads of the main characters as they try to understand their situation and devise a means of escape, Smith effectively creates a tense and terrifying atmosphere. This atmosphere simply cannot be reproduced in a solely visual medium.
As said above the story focuses on a group of tourists who are exploring rural Yucatán in search of one of the tourist’s brother, who went missing recently. They find themselves on top of a vine-covered hill, where they are kept by armed villagers. Whilst they are trapped the vines that cover the hill reveal that they are no ordinary vines, being capable of independent movement and mimicry (mimicking voices), and a voracious appetite.
What was changed
I’m not going to cover every single change between the book and the film, I’m only going to focus on the changes that I felt affected the story for good or bad.
One of the most obvious changes is the setting, the book constantly refers to the setting as a hill, however, in the film our protagonists find themselves trapped on top of an ancient Mayan temple. I believe this change was put in place to make the setting more dramatic and it works to an extent. As I said above, the film struggles to ramp up the tension, but this very dramatic and visually interesting setting certainly helps it. I can only imagine if the film had chosen to stay true to the novel setting of a hill, it would have felt far duller.
The pacing changed from book to film. The book is a slow burn, especially at the beginning, whereas the film puts our protagonists onto the temple very quickly. Again, I don’t disagree with this change since if the film had had a slow start, I feel it would have only bored the audience. Whereas in the book this slow start helped increase tension. There’s one scene in particular where, in the book, the protagonists are walking through a Mayan village and time is spent there noticing how eerie the setting is and how the locals react to the protagonists a.k.a. by completely ignoring them. This gave me vibes of Bram Stoker’s Dracula when Harker is on his way to the castle and the locals are acting very strangely towards him. You get the same build-up of tension here, you know something is wrong, you know something is coming, but at this point, you don’t know what.
In the book the body of the missing brother is located relatively quickly, as well as signs that there is something deeply wrong here (the piles of human bones are a dead giveaway). Our protagonists also notice that the group that the missing brother was with were trying to warn other travellers away from the hill, which again serves only to ramp up the tension as we have no idea why they have died or why they would warn people away from this location. The attempt at warning also signifies that their deaths were not instant or even particularly quick. They had time to think about what was happening to them and to rationalise that they wanted to protect other people from this fate, and also that they had given up on escape themselves, which again builds a lot of tension. While this is touched on in the film it is not explored in the same way. The book is a lot more about the slow burn and rising tension, as well as a sense of dread and inevitability, as opposed to rapid sudden danger which the film focuses on.
In the book one of the tourists suffers a very debilitating injury, he breaks his back, and, as anybody in that situation would, he is incredibly vocal about how much this hurts. His screaming goes on for days. It put me in mind of the movie The Beach where a fatally injured individual wouldn’t stop screaming and was carried by the other islanders to be out of earshot so they wouldn’t have to listen to him as he died. However, in this book moving the injured tourist is out of the question and our protagonists simply have to endure his screams. Again, this drives home the feelings of doom and inevitability, this man is going to die and there is nothing they can do about it, they can’t ease his pain or end his suffering. It gives the story a feeling of oppression and tension. In the film, there is no screaming. While on one hand, I can understand why this was cut, practically having somebody scream through the majority of the film is not a wise idea. But from a creative standpoint, it is another opportunity for the tension not to be raised, and the atmosphere suffers for it.
The film also includes a scene where one of the villagers, a child, comes into contact with the vine causing the villagers to freak out and shoot the child. This scene is not in the book and was inserted as a way to demonstrate just how frightened of the vine the villagers are, that they would go so far as to kill a child. However, while the scene was probably designed to increase tension and make the audience question what on earth is going on, all it did was feel like gratuitous child murder. It felt clunky compared to the books slow burn and constant rising tension and a rising feeling of inevitability. It was a clumsy way to try and achieve the same end and ultimately it failed to stop
The vine itself is far more threatening in the book. In the book, it is made pretty clear that the vine is self-aware, it plots and schemes, such as when it effectively causes the accident whereby the tourist breaks his back. There is also the business of the vine mimicking voices, which is done far more in the book and to greater effect. This action is done to confirm that the vine is self-aware because it is selective in what it mimics. The vine thinks about what words and phrases are going to be most effective in mentally breaking down its prey. To do this it has to understand human language, with all its subtleties and nuances, which it couldn’t have if it wasn’t an intelligent predator. This in my opinion this elevates the vine as a threat. It shows that the vine is more than a simple overgrown Venus flytrap, this is a thinking, self-aware creature that is out to hurt and kill these people. It’s not a mindless animal, it’s actions are deliberate. I also couldn’t help but get a sense that the vine took a perverse joy out of torturing these people, why else would it choose to repeat the American tourist calling the German tourist a Nazi?
Overall, the book gave a very otherworldly feel to the vine, it didn’t feel like a plant. I can only think to compare it to The Happening, a film in which plants release pollen which causes humans to fatally self-harm. In that film the plants still felt like plants, the pollen released was triggered by sound vibrations, it was not deliberate, there was no malice behind it. It felt far more like a defensive attack. Whereas the vine in The Ruins, at least in the book, feels very different this.
The ending was also changed, in the book there was no happy ending. Characters are murdered during the night; characters are shot when they try to escape and the lone survivor at the end purposefully puts herself at the bottom of the hill as a warning to others before taking her own life, rather than let the vine kill her. Even worse, as she is dying the vine moves her, preventing her intention of acting as a warning, and reinforcing the fact that the vine is very aware of what it’s doing. This also reinforces that the vine is malicious as it moved her before she died, it made sure she knew that she had failed.
In the film, one of the characters survives, escapes the vine and effectively wins. Though the ending is a bit abrupt and feels unsatisfying, especially if you’ve read the book. While I was expecting the ending of the film to differ from the book, as the majority of films tend to veer more towards a ‘happy’ ending, with at least one survivor who can escape and contact the authorities to potentially put an end to the threat, I was disappointed. I confess that part of me was looking forward to watching the authorities return with flamethrowers and burn the vine alive.
Read the book, it is better.
While the film isn’t bad it is mediocre, especially if you watch it after reading the book. The book builds tension better, has a far more compelling atmosphere and has far more extensively developed characters. The slow burn of the book is incredibly effective, to the point where, when the vine is revealed, is genuinely scary. It is an inescapable, inevitable doom. The fact that a plant is made to feel this way shows that the book is effective.
Unfortunately, the film does not build tension in the same way, can’t build tension in the same way due to its medium and thus the story suffers as a result. There’s no real sense of buildup, the vine as a threat doesn’t feel convincing and the ending is unrewarding.
Read the book, you’ll thank me later.