I Am Not a Serial Killer: Observations -- from book to film
I Am Not a Serial Killer is a 2016 Thriller, based on the 2009 Thriller/Horror novel of the same title, by Dan Wells. I so looked forward to this film since I heard it was going into production. What made me even more excited was hearing it would star Max Records (Where the Wild Things Are) as the main character, John Cleaver.
As well as Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future among many notable films) as Mr. Crowley.
If you've read the novel or seen the film -- which as of winter 2016 is streaming on Netflix -- or both, this talk should have something for you. I do not want to give a formal review of the film here, but talk a little bit about the biggest challenge the film faced, and how it ended up tackling it. Spoilers to be expected. So, without further ado, let's put on our Story Goggles and take a look.
A Tough Challenge for a Film to Face
The movie adaptation of I Am Not a Serial Killer faced an uphill battle from the start -- as an adaptation. The John Cleaver series by Dan Wells is told from a first person POV. The books are heavily character driven from the eyes of John Cleaver. Normally, transitioning to a third person POV for a film is not a big deal. However, I Am Not a Serial Killer's main character is a sociopath, and conveying mentally complex character motivations through third person can be a challenge when you are denied direct access to the character's thoughts.
I simply can not imagine reading the novel from a third person POV.
Would it be possible?
Would it be good?
Dan Wells is a skilled storyteller and knows what he's doing. However, it would not be the same novel written in third person. Recently on the last podcast of Writing Excuses (Episode 12.1) -- where Dan Wells is a joint host -- he spoke briefly about why he chose first person for the John Cleaver books, mentioning immediacy, and depth. The immediate first person POV we get in the John Cleaver novels delivers not only a sense of immediacy for suspense, but also let's us directly into John's head. Our understanding of why our main character does what he does would instantly become more shallow if the books were written in third person. This could -- potentially -- cause a great deal of damage to the story. Because John Cleaver doesn't act or think like most people, it's important to understand why he does what he does.
In cinema, we rarely get a good representation of first person POV. Occasionally some film trying too hard to be edgy will use the cameras to represent the character's eyes -- I'm looking at you DOOM you piece of utter filth. Other than that, first person in film usually means narration. Few good films open with narration -- in my humble opinion.
So the film had a challenge to overcome. The audience needed to understand why John made the decisions he did, and simply understand that he's a sociopath. But, they had to express John's sociopathy and rationale with the limits of a third person POV. Otherwise, the audience is left wondering things like, "Why the hell did this kid start chasing a serial killer? I mean, I know he's obsessed with them, but seriously. That's stupid." or "They said he's a sociopath but, what does that mean? Why does it matter?"
Other than telling us he's a sociopath, the movie had to show us so we can believe it.
How'd they do it? And, did they do it well?
There was some slight compromise I noticed in the film vs. the book(s) -- although I'm not sure how intentional it was.
John expresses more emotional range in the film, than he did in the book. This was subtle, and some people might argue they didn't notice, or disagree with this assessment entirely. But what I noticed, was that in the film, while they still call John a sociopath, and that's still the diagnosis his shrink gives him, John shows deeper and more vivid emotions than the book describes. Again, this could be a totally unintentional or even arguable thing I noticed. But for me, it made a difference. A slightly wider emotional range for 'movie version John', allowed my mind to question less, his motives.
But the key thing that sold Movie John's character and allowed me believe that this teenage boy was a sociopath, and wanted -- maybe more so needed -- to go after the serial killer, was the other characters.
Dialogue. Body language. Beats.
The supporting actors nailed it all. At the end of the day, when we couldn't get into John's head to see his sociopathy for ourselves, the characters around him sold it. And they sold it well. Which was interesting, because of course they should, right? But the supporting characters are the last thing I was thinking about going into this film. In the novels, because of John's disorder, they're nothing more than set pieces, and John struggles to describe their emotions and reactions to him. He does it, but the impact isn't there because John's POV doesn't understand other people very well.
The supporting characters around John sold him as a character in this film. (Full cast list here)
Because the character of John Cleaver couldn't sell himself with his own internal voice, the supporting cast had to. If they hadn't, the movie would have fallen flat.
If you enjoyed the book(s), see the film. It's fun.
If you enjoyed the movie, go read the books. They're an absolute blast.