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Sometimes it’s easy to predict the classic stories that will be adapted over and over and over again. Nobody bats an eye at the latest take on War and Peace or David Copperfield, or the latest production of Hamlet.
Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Låt den rätte komma in isn’t necessarily the most obvious choice as 21st century Shakespeare, but the haunting 2004 vampire novel keeps being adapted in different forms and I somehow keep loving the variations and permutations. The book is already a dazzling revision of classic vampire lore and Tomas Alfredson’s 2008 feature Let the Right One In is a masterful mixture of horror, suspense and coming-of-age drama. Matt Reeves’ 2010 American take, with its name tweaked to Let Me In, is one of the most successful of unnecessary remakes, effectively echoing Alfredson’s film and adding just enough original interpretation to make it top-notch on its own. A British stage adaptation in 2013 was an innovative piece of stagecraft.
Let the Right One In
Cast: Demián Bichir, Madison Taylor Baez, Anika Noni Rose, Grace Gummer, Ian Foreman, Kevin Carroll, Nick Stahl, Jacob Buster
Creator: Andrew Hinderaker, inspired by the book by John Ajvide Lindqvist
Showtime’s new Let the Right One In is easily the safest incarnation to date, jettisoning many of the darker elements of sexuality and gender fluidity that make the source material so potent. Even in what is also the loosest adaptation of the material to date, creator Andrew Hinderaker is still able to use it as a platform for some new undercurrents that I found interesting, if not wholly successful.
Described as “inspired” by the novel, Hinderaker’s Let the Right One In focuses on Mark (Demián Bichir) and his 12-year-old daughter Eleanor (Madison Taylor Baez), who return to New York City after leaving 10 years earlier when Eleanor was 12. See, Eleanor doesn’t age. She has an insatiable appetite for blood. And when she attempts to enter a domicile without permission, very bad things happen. Together, Mark and Eleanor have an elaborate system to cope with her vampiric urges, all while Mark has been on a decade-long quest to find the creature that turned Eleanor and hopefully to find a cure.
Part of what has brought Mark and Eleanor back to New York is a series of recent, gory homicides that Mark thinks may be vampire-related. As part of a nod to the source material, they’ve moved into an apartment complex with an evocative courtyard, where Eleanor strikes up a tentative friendship with aspiring magician and general outcast Isaiah (Ian Foreman). As part of the coincidence to end all coincidences, Isaiah’s mother, Naomi (Anika Noni Rose), is the detective investigating those recent murders and his father (Ato Essandoh) is a recovering drug addict who may have ties to a not-tangential plotline involving a dying pharmaceutical mogul (Željko Ivanek), his estranged daughter (Grace Gummer) and a son (Jacob Buster) who goes up in flames watching a sunrise in the show’s first scene.
Each adaptation of Let the Right One In has had progressively less interest in (or ability to) directly tackling the thoroughly twisted relationship at the center of the book, wherein the little girl vampire is very definitely not a little girl and the adult male who’s protecting them and keeping them fed is very definitely not their father. It’s a core that could be as provocative as a storyteller wants to make it, be it a really warped portrait of deviant sexuality or a scathing commentary on the way ignorant people lash out against difference, all set against a chaste-but-sweet (kinda) love story (maybe) between preteens, one of whom isn’t a preteen.
On that front, Let the Right One In appears to have sanded off every possible rough edge. Critics have been sent the first five episodes plus a very strong origin-story episode from later in the season, and all signs point to Mark and Eleanor being basically what they appear to be — namely, a horrifyingly devoted father and the daughter he’s willing to do anything to cure. Think Lorenzo’s Oil with a little undead twist.
Reducing the tenure of Eleanor’s vampirism has the effect of making her a 22-year-old trapped in a 12-year-old’s body. That offers some discomfort to the budding closeness with Isaiah, but this Eleanor is not the preternaturally solemn character with hundreds of years of loneliness and appetites of all kinds. Baez’s interpretation of the character, in turn, is shaped by trauma, but lacks the same post-adolescent melancholy that has been part of prior tellings and that clearly influenced how AMC’s current Interview With the Vampire is handling baby vamp Claudia.
My initial reading of Isaiah’s character introduction was that he might be trans, which felt like a very smart variation on the story’s existing themes and would have given Let the Right One In a thoroughly organic place in timely conversations. But I don’t believe that is intended to be the case.
But building Let the Right One In around a more straightforward father-daughter story has resonance. He’s every single father unable to understand the changes his young daughter is going through, both still coping with the absence of the other female figure in their life (Fernanda Andrade, used effectively in flashbacks). This is matched with Isaiah as a boy raised by a single mother, with both narratives given a layer of richness from racial specificity. Having Mark be a former chef adds little — though Kevin Carroll as a former colleague and Eleanor’s godfather is great — other than a juxtaposition of his roles as food-provider, but having that character be Mexico City-born is a gateway to giving the story underpinnings of Catholic ritual and Catholic guilt. Plus, giving Mark snatches of Spanish dialogue underlines which parts of this world he’s able to blend in to and in which parts he’s automatically an outsider.
Bichir grounds Mark’s torment and regret, and he and Baez are able to capture a sad but loving relationship. Baez gives Eleanor hints of unsettling maturity and some malevolent dark-eyed menace, but I’m already curious what the series is going to do about having an 11-year-old leading lady playing a character who can’t age.
I’m already not convinced by how Hinderaker is handling the need to expand this story. Rose and Foreman are both very good when they’re doing their mother-son scenes, but efforts to make scenes with Naomi and her partner (Jimmie Saito’s Ben) play into observations about racial dynamics in urban policing thus far haven’t paid off. I’m similarly unsure that I buy the third storyline meant to unambiguously tackle the Sacklers and America’s pain epidemic, though credit to that subplot for giving Nick Stahl a touching comeback role informed by the actor’s well-publicized history with addiction and recovery.
In lieu of preexisting subtext related to sexuality and associated appetites, I can see how Hinderaker is going for something paralleling the parasitic drug companies with vampirism (draw your own conclusion about how the NYPD and community policing would fit into that as well), but nothing in the Sackler-esque storyline ever feels urgent or essential. With Seith Mann leading the directing team, Let the Right One In is more unnerving than scary, and for all the changes to the book and movies, the parts I found scariest were mostly parts carried over from other versions.
The Showtime series probably shouldn’t be anybody’s introduction to Let the Right One In as a text. Read the book and see both movies first. Once you know the story and accept that this isn’t definitive, its complementary merits have some value, even if the show doesn’t offer the devastating variations on a fertile theme that I would have hoped for.
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