Ginger Nuts of Horror
By Tony Jones
“How much of the Adam Nevil novel made it into the film version?
Adam Nevill's The Ritual hit the UK cinema on Friday the Thirteenth, this hugely anticipated movie has been met with with a fantastic critical response, and Ginger Nuts of Horror's Tony Jones brings us or first of many reviews of this film. However rather than just going for the obvious plain review of the film, Tony has reviewed the film as a comparison to the novel itself.
Be warned there are spoilers ahead!
“The Ritual” finally hit over 300 cinemas last Friday to an enthusiastic response from critics and horror fans. At the time of writing the film has a very respectable 73% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, a relatively high score for a horror film and one which it deserves. Rather than add yet another review to the internet pile Ginger Nuts of Horror examines the film in relation to the 2011 Adam Nevill novel. Like many in the UK horror community, Ginger Nuts is delighted to finally see one of this fantastic writer’s creations arrive on the big screen. The film should breathe new life into the book which is now in its fourth reprint and currently on promotion in the UK superstore ASDA.
Having been a fan of Nevill for many years and have reviewed his work widely, I still recall excitedly buying “The Ritual” for double the UK price while holidaying in Ireland after finding it lurking in a Cork airport bookshop long before the UK release. I’m sure Adam Nevill is pleased with this strong version of his novel which in many ways stays pretty faithful to his text, albeit with a couple of major alterations. It is not perfect, but well worth watching whether you have read the book or not. One thing is for sure when Adam Nevil first put pen to paper about a disastrous trip with university friends to North Wales in 1993; he would never have imagined what he originally called “The Blasted Heath” would hit the cinema so many years later.
I will try not to give too many obvious spoilers, but a few are inevitable… The central background plot which leads to the group of four old friends trekking in north Sweden is significantly different providing a recurring guilt theme which is absent from the book. The latter features four old university friends who meet up to relive the glory years of their youth; the problem is Luke has been much less fortunate in life than the other three which causes recurring friction and ill feeling. In contrast, the opening sequence the film brutally kills off a fifth friend (Bob) who interrupts a shop robbery whilst accompanying Luke who has dragged him into the shop for a carryout.
Luke hides and does nothing to help his friend, ducking behind shelving before he is spotted by the robbers. Although nobody says anything, Luke is secretly blamed for not helping and suffers from what looks like posttraumatic shock which recurs in a few dream sequences with Bob's death scene replaying powerfully throughout the film. This is a smart variation from the novel, as it almost certainly gives the backstory more bite than the original idea of Luke feeling less than just because he has a crap job in a shop. Instead, these tensions have considerable intensity, the elephant in the room, a feeling that is present but not spoken about until tensions finally bubble over and Luke punches Dom, as he does in the book. As a film is a much more immediate experience that a book nobody can argue with this clever alteration.
The book has a terrific atmosphere which the film tries hard to recreate, succeeding to some extent, but the true horror which lurks in the woods is way more terrifying in the novel than in the film. Recreating Nevill’s vision of a dark, foreboding forest is near impossible, especially when the sounds and the full descriptions are added into the mix. These descriptions are so real the forest can almost be touched and smelt after the first dead animal is found and the ancient pagan runes start appearing. Instead, you have four guys wandering around in “The Blair Witch Project” territory, which is nothing new, but very well done with a solid pace to proceedings. The film uses a very effective soundtrack of cracks, grunts and echoes with no real music to authentically recreate the book’s dark atmosphere and makes a decent fist of a near impossible job.
Once the four friends take the shortcut to hell, the film follows the same pattern of the book for some distance. Dom hurts his knee and starts to whine, and there are some pretty intense sequences very similar to the book, particularly when the group discovers the cabin and what awaits upstairs with the dream sequences which follow.
Of course, many horror fans who have not read the book will most likely think of “The Evil Dead” as soon as the cabin is discovered. Like most horror films you can tell who is going to live and die from pretty early in the film, and faithful to the book the killings are in the same sequence which was a nice touch. Only the third kill deviates majorly in style.
The novel obviously has more time to develop the characters and their backstories. In the book, for instance, Dom is way more unlikeable than he is in the film and it has the added dynamics of the fear of them quickly running out of food and water. Neither has the film time to hark back to the supposed wealth of the other three and the wives and kids they have left behind. The film adds in the discovery of an old tent equipment and wallet which ups the ante in the realisation of the deep level of crap the friends have found themselves in.
Another noticeable similarity was the fact that in the book the first three characters are killed off-screen, and this is almost the same in the film, with the death of Dom the major difference. After the death of Hutch and Phil, the film and book begin to differ leading to a final third which is majorly different from the book, called “South of Heaven” and a probable nod to thrash metal band Slayer. As the film moves further away from the book, I wonder whether Adam Nevill was disappointed to see “Blood Frenzy” chopped completely from the film version? Personally, I was not surprised to see the filmmakers replace the two Black Metal fans Loki and Fernis with a mini-community of old god/demon worshippers.
As I work in a library, I regularly recommend this author and chat to readers afterwards. The shorter second part of the novel “South of Heaven” concerns these two heavy metal fans who dream of playing a gig at the Camden Underworld one day, but meantime are preparing a fresh sacrifice to the ancient demon god with the help of an old woman with hooves for feet. More than a few readers found these two guys irritating and felt they killed some of the atmosphere in the final sequences of the novel. However, these two dudes are necessary to invoke “The Ritual” of the title, but something about them just did not quite gel and so perhaps the cult-like village of weirdos which capture Dom and Luke was a solid replacement? Of course, you are welcome to disagree.
In Nevill’s free collection of writings “Cries from the Crypt” he says somewhere that he once wrote to the Scotsman newspaper and the journalist who reviewed “The Ritual” and mixed up the different sub-genres of heavy metal music, something which was essential to get right in the novel. So there was no mention of Black Metal or Satanic Metal anywhere, but hey, you cannot have everything, I am sure Adam has softened over the years as the status of the novel has grown, but it is obviously an interest of his and notes his sources in the notes which precede the novel.
It is also worth noting that Nevill’s 2016 short story collection “Some Will Not Sleep” includes a story called “The Original Occupant” which is set in a remote Swedish forest and most definitely has a waft of an idea which germinated into “The Ritual”.
The film wisely keeps the creature hidden for the majority of the film, and it is only revealed fully towards the final ten minutes. Ultimately it was a disappointment, sure it may scare kids who watch “Shaun the Sheep”, but I really don’t think my twelve year old would bat an eyelid at it. Portrayed as a giant grotesque variation of a giant moose which can mutate to stand on two legs, this ancient god did not impress me too much. Did it need a big ‘reveal’ at all? Probably, most viewers would have felt short-changed otherwise. The novel cleverly reveals the beast exquisitely slowly, and nobody creates horrific creatures supernatural better than this author, so my imagination invoked something much nastier than this CGI monstrosity. However, then again, I do not like CGI too much and am probably being too picky for a relatively low budget film.
The film pulled in at a tight 94 minutes and did not overstay its welcome at all. Ultimately it is a solid genre horror film which does little we have not seen before, but it is very well acted, beautifully shot and heavy on atmosphere. I doubt I would enjoy it as much if I had not been such a fan of the author and was looking for his influences on the screen version. Watching a film is easy, that is why I often shake my head at the many horror fans who watch films but don’t read the books. Sure films have their place, but the descriptions of getting lost in this dismal remote Swedish forest in the novel can never be replicated in any film, no matter how good, scary or atmospheric. Reading the book is signing a pact to go on a journey with the author, and although the book tops the film, it is still a journey well worth taking and is pretty authentic version with the exception of the back-stories and the disappearance of Blood Frenzy, which were both clever alterations.
It’s also worth noting that my wife of many years is Swedish and I have walked in numerous Swedish forests and whenever I do I always think of that bloody book and its menacing descriptions. So after being optioned three times and after five years in development we finally have a film of an Adam Nevill novel. Go see it!
Stay Tuined for more reviews of this film form the Ginger Nuts family