Bonds of Blood: Two Adaptations of a Vampire Story

(Last Updated On: February 15, 2017)

* * * Spoiler Alert * * *

For some reason, one of our readers took me to task for reviewing the film, Le tout nouveau testament. One of the titles he suggested I review instead was Let Me In (2010), a British-American film directed by Matt Reeves. In the mean time, a good friend of mine told me about a film he had just watched called Let the Right One In (2008), a Swedish film written and directed by John Ajvide Lundqvist. When Pip informed me they were based on the same story, I was curious why there were two similar films produced in such close succession.

I had hoped to find a clue in some interview, but Matt Reeves’ explanation was not forthcoming. He knew that the Swedish film was about to be released. Did he not think there would be a dubbed English version in due course? The main motivation of the story revolves around a 12-year-old boy being bullied and hoping—but being too afraid—to get his revenge. In a roundtable interview, Reeves explains:

Sure. Well, I was bullied. And I grew up at that time, and my parents went through a very painful divorce. And I identified with that sense of being incredibly confused and the sense of humiliation and the sense of isolation. There’s tremendous shame with being bullied. I think there’s a level at which you think that there’s a reason that you’re being singled out, that you’re being chosen. As a kid, I was always mistaken for a girl. -Reprinted by Michael Leader, November 4, 2010

A telling difference in the two versions of the film was that Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) was called “piggy” (such an insult does not suggest fatness as it does in America) while Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) was called a “little girl” and in the latter film the violence of the bullying was more explicitly violent and humiliating.

Apart from a teaser in Reeves’ version which the filmmaker must have felt was necessary to interest an American audience in the movie, the two films follow the story almost word for word. The story begins in the early 1980s with an older man and a young girl—also appearing to be 12 years old—moving in next door to a boy who lives with his divorcing mother. In Reeves’ version, the mother is especially religious. Those observing this scene are supposed to assume the man is her father with the peculiar fact that the girl is walking around with bare feet even though it is outside.

Matt Reeves and John Ajvide Lundqvist – Let Me In (2010) (1)

In Lundqvist’s novel and film, the girl is called Eli (pronounced “Ellie” and played by Lina Leandersson) and in Reeves’, it is Abby (Chloë Grace Moretz). They first meet when the boy is sitting in the courtyard. She appears behind him and immediately tells him that they cannot be friends. He is playing with a Rubik’s Cube and invites her to try it. He comments that she smells funny, apparently a trait of vampires who need to feed. Due to some bad luck, her caregiver was not able to secure her some blood and she has to fend for herself this night. He gives her the puzzle to play with and later finds it sitting in the courtyard, mystified that she solved it so easily.

John Ajvide Lundqvist – Let the Right One In (2008) (1)

Matt Reeves and John Ajvide Lundqvist – Let Me In (2010) (2)

John Ajvide Lundqvist – Let the Right One In (2008) (2)

Despite the girl’s admonition, a bond does seem to form. Her caregiver has noticed this and strenuously advises her not to see the boy anymore.

John Ajvide Lundqvist – Let the Right One In (2008) (3)

Matt Reeves and John Ajvide Lundqvist – Let Me In (2010) (3)

Since the two live next door to each other, a kind of Morse Code is created so they can communicate through the wall. Still unaware of the girl’s true nature, the boy offers her some candy. At first, she declines, but she wants the boy to like her and tries one piece. It does not agree with her and she is momentarily sick.

John Ajvide Lundqvist – Let the Right One In (2008) (4)

Matt Reeves and John Ajvide Lundqvist – Let Me In (2010) (4)

Matt Reeves and John Ajvide Lundqvist – Let Me In (2010) (5)

The Swedish film is more subtle in its presentation which is why I favor it slightly. In fact, the revelation of what is happening is all implied and depends on our own understanding of vampire lore. Lundqvist’s version does not even mention the word vampire throughout the film. No stranger to violence, the girl advises the boy that he needs to hit back hard, even though he is outnumbered. All the while, he fantasizes in the privacy of his bedroom that he confronts his aggressors with a knife.

John Ajvide Lundqvist – Let the Right One In (2008) (5)

Matt Reeves and John Ajvide Lundqvist – Let Me In (2010) (6)

On a field trip, the bullies once again threaten him and tell him he will end up in the frozen pond. To defend himself, he finds a stick. When confronted, he explains that it he will use it to hit back. Given his track record, the other boys do not believe him and he suddenly lashes out and strikes the leader on the side of his head, giving him a serious injury. The adults unaware of the context of this attack come very close to suspending him. Upon his return home, he explains to Eli/Abby what he has done and she says she is proud of him. After another night of feeding, the girl appears on Oskar/Owen’s windowsill and asks to be let in. The boy is half asleep, but she explains that she must be invited in—another vampire trait which the boy does not immediately catch on to. She disrobes and gets into bed with him. She still has blood on her face so she tells him not to look. He comments that she is ice cold and wonders why she is naked. She asks if he finds that gross but he does not object. He decides to ask if she wants to go steady but she does not really understand. She finally agrees based on the promise that there will be no basic change in their relationship and it is a way to get him to like her.

Matt Reeves and John Ajvide Lundqvist – Let Me In (2010) (7)

John Ajvide Lundqvist – Let the Right One In (2008) (6)

Matt Reeves and John Ajvide Lundqvist – Let Me In (2010) (8)

In the Reeves interview, it was explained that the decision to change the title in the English version of Lundqvists’ novel was because the publisher though the American audience would not be sophisticated enough to understand the metaphor of the original title. New editions have since changed the title back to Let the Right One In. Of course, the correct title offers a greater depth of meaning. Not only does it refer to the requirement that vampires be invited in, but also refers to the risks of inviting a new person into one’s intimate personal life.

Meanwhile, the caregiver has made a serious mistake and his capture is imminent. To avoid being identified, he spills acid all over his face, a shocking clue to the his devotion to the vampire girl. Was his advice to the girl more about keeping her out of trouble or was it a form of jealousy? Eli/Abby learns he is in the hospital under top security. She finds out his room location and visits him from the windowsill. Because of his injuries, he cannot speak and invite her in. In one last act of love, he extends his own neck out the window so he may offer her one last meal.

John Ajvide Lundqvist – Let the Right One In (2008) (7)

Matt Reeves and John Ajvide Lundqvist – Let Me In (2010) (9)

This turn of events has brought her closer to the boy and she decides she must risk revealing what she is. He hesitantly accepts her but not until she makes a most extraordinary leap of faith. She visits his home and asks to be invited in. He teases her about this ritual and asks if there is some barrier preventing her from entering. She walks in without the invitation and shortly begins convulsing in pain, blood seeping out. The boy rushes over and urgently tells her she is welcome to come in.

John Ajvide Lundqvist – Let the Right One In (2008) (8)

Matt Reeves and John Ajvide Lundqvist – Let Me In (2010) (10)

He lets her take a shower to get cleaned up and offers her one of his mother’s dresses. Now Oskar/Owen begins to assume the role of helping the girl get food. In both films, a man investigating the peculiar happenings of the town is lured into the girl’s home and ambushed. The boy is shocked by the viciousness of the attack and walks out in distress. She comes out afterward and tries to show her gratitude with a little affection.

John Ajvide Lundqvist – Let the Right One In (2008) (9)

Matt Reeves and John Ajvide Lundqvist – Let Me In (2010) (11)

Eli/Abby, not being able to stay in any one place too long, informs the boy that she must leave soon. In the mean time, the older brother of the lead bully is planning revenge and manages to draw the coach away from the swimming pool where Oskar/Owen is working out. He is told that if he can stay underwater for three minutes, he will be spared, if not, he will have his eyes gouged out. We then see him underwater with the brother’s hand firmly grasping his hair while he does his best. Suddenly, there is a lot of commotion and we see bloody severed body parts. The boy emerges to see that he has been rescued by the vampire girl.

John Ajvide Lundqvist – Let the Right One In (2008) (10)

Matt Reeves and John Ajvide Lundqvist – Let Me In (2010) (12)

John Ajvide Lundqvist – Let the Right One In (2008) (11)

In the final scene, the boy is sitting on a train accompanied by a large trunk on the way to a new hunting ground, the two communicating with each other with the knocks and scratches established earlier in the film.

John Ajvide Lundqvist – Let the Right One In (2008) (12)

Matt Reeves and John Ajvide Lundqvist – Let Me In (2010) (13)

I know I am not the first to make this observation, but the whole development of the vampire idea had as much to do with the terrors of sexuality as with that of violent murder and the metaphor of consumption. This plays very well in this film since there is ongoing tension about the ambiguity of the relationship. Presumably when one is infected, one keeps one’s appearance forever thus Eli/Abby is both a little girl and yet very old. But despite her long life, she still has some naivete regarding matters of love since she would not have had much occasion to practice and learn. There is also a strong accent on the morality of a vampire’s violent lifestyle versus the hateful bullying that children can inflict. A society might frown on a vampire feeding on its citizens, but is it really any worse than the psychological trauma and humiliation that bullied young people suffer? So it is ironic that Oskar/Owen should find affection not from the warm-blooded denizens of his neighborhood, but from the icy embrace of a vampire who understands and appreciates him.

6 thoughts on “Bonds of Blood: Two Adaptations of a Vampire Story

  1. Great article, Ron, though you did neglect to mention the main difference between the two films, and the reason why I think the American version was made.

    ***************************************Spoiler******************************************

    In Let the Right One In there are constant hints that Eli did not begin life as a girl. The first is the character’s name. ‘Eli’ is pronounced like a girl’s name, but it’s spelled like the boy’s name Eli (Ee’-ly). The second clue is that Eli kind of has a boyish face. The third is when the two kids are lying in bed. Eli says to Oskar, when he asks her to be his girlfriend, “I’m not a girl.” Of course, the viewer, knowing what they know, takes this to mean that she is trying to tell him that she’s a vampire, and there’s an element of that, but there’s also a deeper hint here at Eli’s history as a boy. The biggest clue, however, is when we get a quick glimpse of Eli’s body after her shower. You have to look fast, but there’s evidence that Eli has no genitalia, and that the gap left by its removal has been sewn up.

    This, of course, adds a whole new dimension to Eli and Oskar’s relationship, including the aspect of the bullies questioning Oskar’s masculinity/sexuality. One I think many American viewers weren’t ready for, or which simply escaped them. Hence, I feel the main reason the American version was made (I mean, aside from Hollywood’s usual need to capitalize on good foreign source material) was that little aspect of Eli being a eunuch as well as a vampire. It adds a resonance to the story that doesn’t really exist in the American remake. It is never revealed definitively that Eli was a boy so it’s open to interpretation, but it’s an important point nonetheless.

    The American version pretty much avoids all of that outright. First, the vampire is given the decidedly more feminine name of Abby (could be short for Abbott, but it’s unlikely), cast a more feminine-looking actress and never shows what’s between her legs. If I remember, she still says to him in bed, “I’m not a girl,” but that’s about the only clue you get to the character maybe being a eunuch rather than a true girl, and it’s really not enough to point you in that direction.

    I prefer the European version too, this being one of the main reasons. Europeans generally don’t shy away from getting into sexual weirdness, including things that blur gender distinctions. Americans tend to be more squeamish about that stuff, and that’s quite evident in a comparison of these two films.

    • There is a lot that could be said about these films and I have to draw the line somewhere and just get the damn thing posted. That is the value of our readers who can offer fascinating tidbits that I did not discover in my own research. That being said, I must admit to not considering the possibility of Eli being a eunuch. I also did not think to take that close a look at the actress’ anatomy, altered or otherwise. Now that I think of it, there was another small clue when Oskar asked her name and when she asked for his, he at first repeats hers as if he did not hear it right. It is as if she said it a little funny that sounds a little like the masculine version to the Swedish ear. I think it would be nice to hear from someone who has read the novel where things like this might be easier to put together. If this had been Lundqvist’s intent, then the novel could bear this out easily.

      I don’t about the Swedes being more sexually perverse, but I would like to think that their artists are more tolerant and thoughtful. I imagine kids there still get teased and tormented in the schoolyard. If not, where would Lundqvist have gotten the material from; there would have to be a personal component involved.

      • Ha, yeah, I get that. There are plenty of times when I could’ve explored a subject more deeply but decided to just put the thing out there. And there may be others where I explored it exhaustively and it came across as anemic. It’s a balancing act. In this case, though, I think it’s a fascinating dimension that gives the story even greater power. It alienates the main characters even more from society, and there is rich symbolism in the idea.

        Another thing is that Eli’s keeper in the Swedish version (Håkan) is intended to be a pedophile. It is what bonds him to Eli. I guess the book is more overt about this too, though I haven’t read it. That’s another aspect that is downplayed in the American version (though, to be sure, it’s pretty subtle in the Swedish film too).

        Let Me In Wiki (Abby/Eli)

        • The motivation of the caregiver adds just another dimension as you say and yet, isn’t the audience supposed to like the protagonists in the end? The writer/director is really asking us to accept a lot, perhaps too much for an American audience at this point in time. I rather thought that Håkan was an interesting mystery and that perhaps we were witnessing history repeating itself. Were we witnessing what has become Eli’s MO? If so, that would add another layer of unpleasant cynicism to Eli’s character; it makes us question how sincere she was in the film. The pedophile angle is also ambiguous because, like Oskar, we don’t know when they first got together and if that is not mind-bending enough, Eli is really supposed to be much older and puts the label of predator unequivocally back in her lap.

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