With a viewership allegedly reaching over 45 million households two days after it’s release, the Netflix Original Movie, Bird Box, is the streaming giant’s most successful movie to date – despite mixed critical consensus. In the month that has followed, the internet has been filled with memes and questionable challenges inspired by the movie. Whether you loved it or hated it, Bird Box has been impossible to ignore. So I was excited (though not at all surprised) to learn that it was based on a 2014 novel of the same name.
Would some of the qualms I had with the film be rectified in the novel, or would it come with it’s own set of issues? Or, would it be an entirely different monster all together? I just had to “see”.
See what I did there? Anyway…
Bird Box (Film)
I initially watched the Netflix movie during the Christmas holiday. Bird Box is a 2018 film directed by Susanne Bier and starring Sandra Bullock. It follows the story of a woman named Malorie, played by Bullock, who must navigate a post-apocalyptic world, decimated by the arrival of a creature that turns people suicidal simply by looking at it. She must do this with two five-year old children, completely blindfolded so as not to fall victim to it’s influence. Over the course of the film, the story pistons back and forth in time as we follow Malorie rowing the children down river to a safer location and the events that lead up to that point.
As a film, I didn’t find the execution of the story to be particularly memorable. This may be due, in part to timing, as the release of the film, A Quiet Place, in which a family struggles to survive in a world where even the slightest amount of noise will cause them to fall prey to a monster, came out earlier this year to much critical praise.
Though the concepts have similarities, they are very different. One could argue that a story like A Quiet Place lends itself more to a visual medium, like film, than Bird Box does.
For example, A Quiet Place is able to make use of sound (or the lack thereof) to create a feeling of unease and anxiety in the viewer. The lack of sound forces the viewer to remain quiet and can be very jarring. Thus they are transported into the world on screen. However, Bird Box revolves around the unease of wandering around in the dark. This can be done, and is done, very well in short bursts, and holds very deep symbolic meaning – the fear of wandering in the world, unsure of where you’re going, fumbling in the dark, and (specifically in this movie) trying to navigate motherhood with no help – alone and adrift in a world full of danger.
However, film is a visual medium, so the viewer needs to see something. In order to keep viewers engaged, scenes of the world going mad; huge explosions on suburban streets and crazed militia men hunting people in the woods, were written in to add excitement to what is, by concept, a very quiet introspective film. Despite the themes of darkness and isolation that the premise implies, we viewers actually see quite a lot.
It becomes a little disjointed and frustrating for a viewer to watch a movie where people constantly navigate blindfolded, even though we (the audience) can see so much. So when the film, understandably, doesn’t show a physical creature, it’s frustrating. We see everything else? Why not the monster? Conceptually, never seeing the creatures makes sense. However, it makes more sense, storytelling-wise, to limit the audiences ability to see most of the world. This way, they feel just as alone and confused as the character.
Bird Box (Novel)
This isn’t a problem in the book, since it’s not a visual medium.
The book, “Bird Box” is the debut novel of author Josh Malerman. Released in 2014, the post apocalyptic novel tells the same story as the Netflix movie that followed, though it focuses more on mood than character.
In fact, the book focused so much on suspense and mood building and so little on character, it was more than a little disorienting. When compared to the cast of the Netflix film, the characters were very hard to differentiate. Everyone was a twenty-to-thirty-something, white guy or girl, with sandy brown hair (except Malorie’s – who hair is black). The children aren’t described much at all outside of their superb hearing ability. More than once while reading, I found myself wondering: who is this person again? Oh that’s the dog? My bad.
But what it lacks in characterization, it makes up for in it’s crafting of the world and it’s slow deterioration into madness – both outside their makeshift safe house and within. Because the characters cannot see outside, Malerman doesn’t go into much detail describing how things look. Rather he pays special attention to the sounds of things, the physical feeling of things, and Malorie’s inner monologue.
From this we understand the characters anxiety when venturing outside for even the most simple or mundane tasks. We also piece together a very clear image of Malorie as a woman who feels lost, confused, and constantly questions whether what she is doing and how she is raising her children is correct. She is harsh, often cruel, but there is no question as to whether she is up for the challenge of being a mother or her allegiance to her children. Contrast this with Sandra Bullocks character who is portrayed far more like a woman who has had motherhood forced on her and seems unsure of whether she wants it. Her cruelty comes across as far more unsavory. The children call her by her first name, and she is hard on them, despite having had Tom in her life far longer than she did in the novel.
Where the film must insert action filled moments, the novel is entirely introspective. With the exception of one chapter that focuses on Tom and Jules venture around the block to look for dogs and supplies, the story is told entirely from Malorie’s point of view, both in the present and in the past. All the information she has, is heard second hand. In fact, we do not even see exactly how all of her housemates died since she was giving birth at the time. We know only the aftermath. Although it can be frustrating at times, I believe this works well considering the nature of the story being told.
For me, Bird Box is a movie with a lot of potential, though it falls short creatively. It could have taken a few more artistic chances given the nature of the story, to become something very memorable. It falls short is in it’s decisions to “play it safe”.
The novel, on the other hand is able to flex it’s stuff in a medium that is not dictated by the idea of “show, don’t tell”. It successfully portrays the anxiety of living life blindfolded but suffers with a serious character building issue – as everyone, with the exception of Malorie, Tom, and possibly Don, has zero defining characteristics, and no one has a particularly strong personality.
Yet, despite these grievances, I still enjoyed both just fine. The reason for this is originality and relatability in concept. Malorie is a bland character in the novel, but because of that, you can easily fit yourself into her role. The fear of having to raise children and survive in an environment where you literally cannot see the danger around you, where you are blind, helpless, and adrift – is something that anyone, especially a parent or potential parent ,can relate to. It is this universal story that makes Bird Box work, even if it is not executed the way we wold like.
Plus, the meme potential is just too good.