Stephanie Meyer is famous (or infamous) for sparkling vampires, and whether her Twilight series is the stuff of legends or nightmares has been the source of more than one class-ending debate among my fellow English majors. The central themes of those debates revolve around either the semi-helpless heroine or her willingness to completely invent her own mythology (sparkling vampires and egregiously shirtless werewolves). When her stand-alone novel Host came out I was willing to give it a shot. After all, anyone who was willing to use their debut novel to completely rewrite Western culture’s most enduring occult tropes was courageous enough to churn out something interesting.
I didn’t read Host in one sitting only because I was working full-time and going to school full-time. The spirit was willing but the flesh was sleepy. I did not, however, accomplish anything until I reached the end of her excellent novel. From a literary perspective Mrs. Meyer put every lesson she learned writing Twilight to good use here. Host uses some of the most tightly-woven prose I have encountered in months, and she does it with such grace and flow that I didn’t realize that every word revealed the world or developed the character. I fell in love.
I fell in love with the idea of her aliens, because once again Mrs. Meyer has taken a familiar fiction trope (body-snatching aliens) and woven it into something bold, unique, and forty-degree tack into the wind of endless repetition. Meyer’s thesis is that a parasite alien that invades your mind is no callous demon (Stargate: SG1) or emotionless robot (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), but a creature that views itself as bringing harmony and peace. This is the most terrifying sort of enemy to a more adult audience. C.S. Lewis pointed out that tyranny of the benign is far more terrifying than tyranny from a bully (I think he used the term robber-baron) because the bully’s desires can be fulfilled, and he will eventually sleep. But Meyers’ aliens (tellingly and self-righteously called souls) represent that most relentless of nightmares, the predator that will never stop because they genuinely believe it is for your own good.
Then I fell in love with her aliens despite myself. Mrs. Meyer doesn’t just grasp the truism that no one is the bad guy in their own mind. She drew me into it and filled me with compassion. Wanderer becomes our window into the dozen-some worlds that the souls have conquered, and her description of them does more to teach the nature and goals of the souls than any lecture could have done. The worlds Mrs. Meyer flings into the great beyond, relayed through stories between souls, are delightful gems of imagination. I grew to understand what the souls wanted, to feel what they felt, and when I realized that Mrs. Meyer had drawn me into the point of view of the end of the world and made it comfortable as a sofa, that easy sympathy turned to a slowly rising horror at the sheer seductive nature of evil.
Then I reached chapter three…
I can count on three fingers the authors who have been able to sell me the idea of two characters, complete and separate, sharing one body: Jim Butcher’s Lasciel from The Dresden Files, Stephen Gould’s Leland De Laal in his superlative novel Helm, and the soul named Wanderer in Host. This is hard to do. So much of what we think of as a person is tied up into body image, sensory impressions, and in books like this with more than a touch of romance, sexuality. More often than not one character becomes shallow and static while the other is dynamic, vibrant, and fresh. But Meyer pulls it off. I fell in love with Wanderer, the compassionate, brave, and experienced soul who volunteered for a problem body, the hero among her people for many reasons, and Meyer shows you those reasons again and again. At the same time I fell in love with Melanie Stryder, the brain in the body is everything that Twilight’s Bella is not. She is bold, daring, outspoken, fierce, and such a fighter that even the body-snatching alien cannot handle her completely. Melanie carries all the instinctive attraction of the underdog. She’s fighting her own hopeless battle inside the body that has been taken from her, and her raw defiant spirit makes her a compelling heroine.
The supporting cast of characters is wonderful and unique, which I will now expect from Mrs. Meyer from now on. The crazy uncle whose eccentricities have saved part of humanity from extinction fulfills the roles of mentor and magician all the same. Thirteen-year-old Jaime perfectly captures the power of the drive to protect our loved ones, and nicely captures a character hovering on the brink of participation and childhood. Once again the mandatory love-triangle is between two strong, courageous, and admirable young men so that it is a genuine struggle. Mrs. Meyer has never given in to the romantic trope of a heroine drawn to a schmuck while the good-hearted hero nearly loses out, and I’m glad because I have a hard time respecting or caring for any woman who cannot decide between a saint and a Hell’s Angel.
The Seeker, Melanie/Wanderer’s opposite number, should be used in college film classes for years as a perfect example of the Jungian archetypical Shadow, the enemy who represents the rejected or unfulfilled aspects of the hero’s own nature. Impossible to say more, I will only risk saying that as the story progresses this only becomes more true. She was an inspired villain and I take my hat off to Mrs. Meyer for the accomplishment of characterization.
There isn’t room to describe everything delightful about the novels. I will say that the reason I will come back to this story again and again is because of the love. I’m not talking about romance, not really. Mrs. Meyer’s second story, just like her first series, depicts the bonds of love that transcend family and kind and forge something that survives and conquers despite the odds. The first romance is between Wanderer and Melanie, who begin as enemies and discover that the other is a person, and a heroic one at that. They’re united by instinct to protect Jamie and Jared (the first love interest) at all costs from the Seeker, a truly well-written antagonist (also a rarity from romance authors.) Familial love keeps Wanderer alive in Melanie’s body in her uncle’s sanctuary. Brotherly love gives little Jamie the key to deliver Wanderer from captivity, proving that what kids lack in brawn they can make up for in the power of their hearts to change lives around them. Romantic love both forges a bond between the heroines, who both love different men from within the same body, and provides for solid emotional interplay as the tension between them increases.
Without the relational aspect, the inventive nature of the human resistance, the risks they take, and the path they find to freedom fuses some of the best post-apocalyptic plots with the horrific perfection of a world no longer ours. There are no unbelievable characters in the story, no unbelievable action. I wanted to believe Mrs. Meyer’s world from start to finish, and then I didn’t want it to end.
With so much internal and relational material tied up in this story, how were they going to make it into a movie?
When I saw the first trailer for Host I was overjoyed for all of forty-three seconds before the question, “How in the world are they going to make that story into a movie? Half of the book takes place in between a single set of ears!” stole my joy.
I needn’t have worried. The choices made for the movie adaptation were just as bold as the choices Mrs. Meyer made for the original story.
The first and most obvious choice was to ditch about 40% of the story. There simply wasn’t time to explore worlds outside of earth, or show Wanderer’s success as a college professor teaching alien history to souls in stolen human bodies. The story of the human who seized control of his own body from the soul and tried to cut it out of his own head adds a necessary tension to Wanderer’s dilemma in the book, but that couldn’t ever really fit the movie. Gone also were several scenes involving the Healer soul named Fords Deep Waters. The story zooms in on the immediate threat to Melanie and the resistance, a directorial choice that was inspired because it made the rest unnecessary, and even out of place had it been included.
The post-apocalypse of sanitation and harmony stayed, and it turned into a never-ending presentation of eye-candy. Modern-style architecture (yes, that mid-20th century abomination that has been popular ever since Battlestar Galactica used it Caprica City on SyFy) and wide-open desert roads combined to give the illusion of a world full of people but scoured clean of humanity. There are some delightfully fun jabs at Wal-Mart/sam’s Club (I mean, Store) that seem almost unchanged by the alien invasion apart from shorter check-out lines. The trees, the cars, and of course all the actors are beautiful.
There’s some characterization missing and summed up, superfluous extra characters pruned.
William Hurt did a fantastic job as Uncle Jeb, producing with a few lines and solid acting all of the meaning you could hope for from such an accomplished screen veteran. He became the resistance on-screen, carrying moral authority and wisdom as well as a slightly crazy sense of wonder and fun. Hurt’s performance brings through a strong Everyman, the voice of our old long-gone world that provides a great connection to the audience.
Another fine supporting role mention must go out to Chandler Canturbury, the young actor who played Jamie. He only had one scene worthy of the name before reverting back to moving scenery, but the plausibility of the second half of the movie revolved around Jamie’s refusal to accept this his sister is dead, and his joy and pain when he makes the discovery that she isn’t. Kid saved about 20% of the movie in a scene played off of glow-worms, and deserves his props.
Another critical minor character was Scott Lawrence as Doc, who had most of his participation cut out of the film and managed to convey nearly the same significance through 15-second cut scenes and non-verbals. It’s difficult to be 100% sure since I had read the novels ahead of time, but I think he pulled it off nicely.
Not all of the performances were great. Both male leads (Jake Abel as Ian and Max Irons as Jared) committed no acting-based felonies, but they didn’t reach beyond their character very well.
The closest thing to a failure was Diane Kruger as The Seeker. It is difficult to say whether the fault lay in the script, the director, or the actress, but the intricate, perfect foil to Melanie/Wanda just came across as a barely-restrained psycho. When she does snap, it seems inevitable instead of revelatory, which is a true injustice to Mrs. Meyer’s book.
Saoirse Ronan played Melanie/Wanda, and her performance will probably not be nominated by an Oscar, because the Oscar nomination people are hopeless snobs. She had to play against herself in voice over, in non-verbals (filmed separately at different days) and put them both together to reproduce 50% of the original book with 10% of the original material. If she had not performed above all expectations there simply wouldn’t be a review for this movie, and she pulled it off. I hope for great things from this young actress based on her performance in this picture.
Director Andrew Niccol’s eye provided a stunning palette of nature visuals, low-tech survivalism, and high-tech polish that are almost worth renting the movie apart from the story. Erin Benach’s costume design for this project was a real treat, allowing fit and attractive young actors to be strong and beautiful without any of the sometimes cheap emphasis that dotted the Twilight series. The visual effects were politely understated and frankly beautiful, and I’ve never thought of a car wreck as pretty before this film. Combined with Antonio Pinto’s solid musical contributions and some nice tunes, the movie Host is an aesthetic pleasure and a solid sci-fi experience.
Read the book first for maximum enjoyment.