Adaptation Breakdown: No One Gets Out Alive

A while back, over on my other channel 13 O’Clock, I did a review of Adam Nevill’s 2015 chunker of a novel, No One Gets Out Alive, which I absolutely loved; it was one of my favorite horror novels in recent memory. Not only were the setting and the characters so vividly drawn that I could practically see and smell them, but the ever-escalating spiral of horror that our sympathetic protagonist had to endure was nothing short of excruciating.

Then, in 2021, Netflix announced that they would be producing an adaptation, and though I was excited about seeing it, for some reason I sort of forgot about it in the rush to watch other things, and it metaphorically fell between the dusty couch cushions that constitute my brain. Recently, however, I realized I hadn’t done an adaptation breakdown for a while, and since I had read the novel not too long ago and remembered it fairly well, and since I was still curious to see how the Netflix film turned out, I decided to give it a look and write a post comparing it to its source novel. Because of the nature of the comparison, this discussion will inevitably contain spoilers, so consider this your warning.

Directed by relative newcomer Santiago Menghini, the film is pretty solid and acceptably creepy, but it takes many, many liberties with the original book, so don’t go into the movie expecting it to be a slavish adaptation of the story, because it differs in a number of quite significant ways. While the broad outlines of the tale—desperate young woman in dire financial straits ends up staying in a run-down boarding house run by two sketchy dudes, and subsequently both human and supernatural monsters come into play—remain the same, pretty much all the fine details diverge wildly, and the final third of the book is not adapted to the screen at all. I’m also not entirely sure if the movie will make complete sense to you if you haven’t read the book, though perhaps I’m not the best judge of that.

Probably the largest deviation (of many) is in the location in which the story takes place. The novel, penned of course by the British writer Adam Nevill, is set in Birmingham, England, whereas the film adaptation transplants the story to Cleveland, Ohio. In the movie, the main character is a young woman named Ambar, who came to the United States illegally from Mexico after the death of her mother, who she had forestalled college to care for. Ambar has a job working at a sweatshop, but has a small lifeline in the form of a financially successful distant relative (a cousin of her mother’s named Beto), who has set her up with a job interview, even though he had never previously met her. Ambar, however, doesn’t have an ID, which promises to hinder her chances at getting a better-paying position, and also directly leads to the horrific living situation she finds herself in; in short, because she can’t produce identification, the manager of the motel she’s been living in throws her out, forcing her to seek cheap accomodations elsewhere.

In the novel, by contrast, the young woman is named Stephanie, and though she isn’t an immigrant to England, she has just moved to Birmingham, after essentially cutting most ties with her old life several towns away. Her father has died, and her stepmother, who always hated her, ordered her out of the family home. Stephanie also just broke up with her boyfriend Ryan, and has lost touch with the few friends she had; Ryan, as the story goes forward, plays a similar role in Stephanie’s ordeal as Ambar’s relative does in the film. Like Ambar, Stephanie also didn’t attend college, mostly because she couldn’t afford it, and has been working a series of low-paying temp jobs whenever she can manage to find one.

In both the book and the movie, the women answer an advertisement for a cheap room for rent in a boarding house that is billed as women only, and in both mediums, the house has seen much better days, though I’ll note that the house in the novel is far more disgusting and unlivable than the one in the film. The movie version of the house is clearly shabby, but not really all that bad, all things considered; it actually more resembles a faded Victorian beauty, whereas the book version is also Victorian, but more of a dirty shithole filled with a bunch of mouse poop and cheap, broken crap.

The proprietors of the boarding house also differ quite a bit in the film and novel. In the book, the house is run by two chavs, Knacker McGuire and his cousin Fergal. Knacker is a sleazy creep from the get-go: arrogant, trashy, condescending, and manipulative, and Stephanie is immediately wary of him, but doesn’t have many other options. In both book and film, the proprietor says he’s going to be fixing the place up, and deposit money is reluctantly forked over. Fergal, who we meet later, is essentially the muscle of the operation (as his equivalent Becker is in the film); Fergal is described as seven feet tall and freakishly skinny.

In the movie version, the Knacker equivalent is named Red, and although he comes across as a bit brusque and shady, he’s not nearly the field of obvious red flags as Knacker is, and at times comes across almost as slightly sympathetic, which Knacker absolutely never does. Red’s brother Becker (they were cousins in the book) is just a big, bearded hulk of a dude who is clearly dangerous and probably crazy.

Both the book and the movie have our main protagonist start to hear things the first night of her stay: women’s voices, creepy sounds that are seemingly coming out of the drain, and so forth. In the novel, Stephanie almost immediately asks for her deposit back so she can find another place to live, but of course Knacker won’t give it to her, and she doesn’t have anyone else she can really turn to. In the film, Ambar also asks for her deposit back, but she mainly does it because a coworker who had promised to get her a fake ID steals all her money, and she’s not going to have the ID ready for her job interview on the upcoming Friday. Red initially tells her he already spent it, but later softens and promises he’ll get it back to her. In the book, things play out a bit differently; Stephanie insists she isn’t sleeping in her haunted room anymore, and Knacker, pretending to be magnanimous, gives her a “better” room, supposedly with no strings attached, but he later uses this as leverage, telling her that she now owes him more rent for the nicer room he gave her out of the goodness of his heart.

In the novel, the supernatural story is absolutely there in the margins for the first two acts, but most of the horror comes from the very human monsters who run this house. It’s revealed that Knacker and Fergal are basically human traffickers, bringing desperate women into the house to pimp out and forcing them to comply if necessary, even beating them up and threatening to throw acid on their faces. By contrast, there is the only the very barest whiff of this in the movie, as Ambar meets two Eastern European women who specifically came to the house as prostitutes (though it’s implied they’re just there for Red and Becker); a similar thing happens in the book, though it’s made more clear that the two women, although they were aware that they were expected to be sex workers, were made a bunch of other promises about the living conditions that were not met. In the novel, Knacker also attempts to soft-sell Stephanie on the idea of becoming a prostitute, wheedling her by telling her how much money she’ll make and how she’ll be able to pay him back all the money she “owes” him; when she refuses, he eventually attempts to force her. In the movie, the threat of being forced into sex slavery is not really addressed, and Ambar is never approached by Red and propositioned in that way.

The house in the novel also has a very different back story than the one in the film. In the book, the house was once occupied by a Spiritualist group, and then later by a father-son team of pimps who were also murderers. Knacker tells Stephanie that he and Fergal inherited the house from their parents and are fixing it up, but this is a lie; they basically just took over an abandoned property after they got out of prison and are hoping to make some money by opening up a brothel in it.

In the film, it does appear that Red and Becker inherited the house from their parents, because there are a number of photos of their parents in the study on the ground floor, and a bunch of their things are still there. The parents were archaeologists studying Aztec artifacts (which plays into the monster big-bad at the end), and Red tells Ambar at one point that his father killed his mother. Ambar sees both ghosts, and witnesses this murder play out in the house, in what’s actually a pretty effective and spooky scene.

The film also makes it obvious that a stone box discovered by the archaeologists in the 1960s contained some type of monstrous demon; several of the characters have nightmares about this box during their stay in the house. At the end of the movie, you discover that all the women Red and Becker have lured to the house are being sacrificed to this demon—which is specifically the warrior goddess Ītzpāpālōtl, though I don’t remember if this was mentioned in the film—in exchange for Becker essentially getting health power-ups and healing every time he feeds a victim to the monster. The sacrificial women are tied on an altar down in the basement, and Ītzpāpālōtl, looking like a bizarre spider-moth-human hybrid, crawls out of the box and eats their heads, leaving the rest of their bodies intact. I was under the impression that the monster’s sustenance comes from the memories or thoughts of the people she eats, though I might be reading too much into it.

The house in the novel also has a monster, of a sort, but it’s much more of an English folk-horror type of deal, a kind of ancient fertility goddess dubbed Black Aggie. In the book, Knacker and Fergal know about the supernatural shit going down in the house, but it’s almost more a case of their actions being influenced by Black Aggie, so that she can feed on the misery of the inhabitants, than the men specifically and literally sacrificing people to a monster, as in the film. And as I mentioned, the whole Aztec connection is a film-only invention; the mythology in the book was very much more of a European pagan bent.

The end of both book and film also differ in drastic ways. In the film, Ambar is set to be sacrificed, but escapes, and is able to both kill Becker and feed Red to the demon, although her uncle Beto and several of the other women in the house ultimately perish. During the struggle, Ambar’s ankle is horribly broken after Becker stomps on it, but once Ambar gives Red to Ītzpāpālōtl, her injuries are healed. At the end of the film, Ambar pauses in the doorway of the house, and it’s left ambiguous as to whether she’s going to leave, or whether she’s decided to stay and feed the demon herself, continuing the cycle. I didn’t mind this ambiguous ending overall, though given everything we know about Ambar’s character, I find it hard to believe that she would even be considering staying on at the house and feeding the demon, no matter what benefits she might receive from it.

In the novel, Stephanie escapes from the house after a prolonged struggle, but then the story takes a hard turn and jumps ahead three years. In the interim, Stephanie has sold her story to the press and written a book about her horrific experiences, which have made her a millionaire. She’s changed her name to Amber Hare and has moved to an isolated compound in the south of England, complete with a bodyguard and the latest in top-of-the-line security technology. Stephanie is still fearful about Black Aggie and the ghosts who haunted the house in Birmingham, and it turns out that she was correct to be afraid, for the spirits of her past are absolutely not finished with her.

From a storytelling standpoint, I can see why the filmmakers chose to leave out this final section of the book; it is a large tonal change, and I’m not sure movie audiences would have been on board with it. Even in the novel, it was a strange twist that seemed out of left field, but as the final act played out, it became much more clear how it tied in thematically with the first portion of the tale, and it was an interesting study in contrasts, examining the differences between the vulnerable, desperately poor Stephanie who became embroiled in situations she had little agency in, and the wealthy but traumatized woman who seemingly had all her problems solved, but was nonetheless still in the thrall of forces beyond her control.

So was 2021’s No One Gets Out Alive a good adaptation of the novel? Yes and no. I will say that I thought it was a decent movie in its own right; the acting was solid, the cinematography was quite beautiful (utilizing that rich teal and warm amber combo that I always find so visually pleasing), and the appearance of the ghosts was mostly subtle and quite eerie (though I do think they were shown a bit too much and they started to lose their scariness after a while). I also appreciated the character of Ambar, who was in a bad situation but was still resourceful; and I liked the angle of making her an illegal immigrant, which made her situation that much more fraught, as she couldn’t go to the police for help, and she always had the threat of being reported hanging over her head. In the novel, Stephanie didn’t have that added difficulty, and arguably could have gotten out of a few situations more easily than Ambar could have.

All that said, though, I must point out that Knacker and Fergal were terrifying characters in the book, and the situation Stephanie found herself in was exponentially worse than what Ambar experienced in the film. As I mentioned, Stephanie was essentially locked up and threatened with physical violence if she didn’t agree to become a sex slave; Ambar had the hauntings to contend with and the later threat of being sacrificed, but was otherwise free to come and go, and was never threatened with rape. And even Red, while still unquestionably a villain, did seem to feel bad about what he and his brother were doing, and appeared to consider letting Ambar get away. Both Red and Becker in the film were awful people, obviously, but compared to the vile Knacker and Fergal, they were relatively mild.

Both film and novel examined the dire consequences of poverty, and how the lack of money can leave one open to all sorts of abuses; the book, obviously, came at this from a much more British, working-class perspective, while the American setting of the film delved more into the immigrant experience (and included an uncomfortable note of how some immigrants come to the country and succeed, but then shit on those who try to come behind them). In spite of these differences, the core theme of financial insecurity leading to exploitation was similar in both mediums.

While I do wish the movie had stuck more with the folk-horror vibe of the novel, and had worsened Ambar’s circumstances to be more akin to what Stephanie experienced, it was a decent movie overall, though if you’re a big fan of the book, you might be disappointed at the excessive number of changes made from the original text. The novel is miles better, and I would recommend that wholeheartedly, though keep in mind that the novel is far darker and more violent than the film, which definitely pulled its punches. It was an interesting take on the book, though, so I can’t be too mad.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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