We Need to Talk About Kevin – only half the story?

This is a bit of a break from tradition for the Literary Kitty – so I hope you’ll all allow me…I just wanted to give my thoughts on the film version of We Need To Talk About Kevin. I fell in love with this book in February of this year (yeah, I know, I’m so behind the times) and I was pretty keen to get down to the cinema for the film.

So I settled down with my friend Ryan and an oversized bag of pick and mix (because I’m greedy and I can never quite judge how many foam bananas and fizzy peach rings I’ll be able to eat in an hour and a half without feeling sticky-mouthed and sick) to see whether Lynne Ramsey had managed to recreate Lionel Shriver’s masterpiece on the silver screen.

Things started off well, with a haggard-looking Tilda Swinton embodying the post-disaster Eva Katchadourian to perfection and Jasper Newell playing a disturbingly good child Kevin – all creepy, half-smirking stares and an undercurrent of knowing malevolence. I continued to be impressed when Newell changed seamlessly into the teenage Kevin, played by Ezra Miller. Mother and son looked exactly as I had imagined them from the book. Dad Franklin, played by John C. Reilly, was less suave than I’d imagined him in his early days, but hey ho, that’s life.

However, as the film went on my frustrations increased. So much of what was great about the book wasn’t covered by the film. Eva and Franklin’s life before Kevin was swept over in an almost wordless montage that mainly involved Eva dancing in the rain with long hair. I know that films can’t cover everything that books do (which is why watching a film almost always renews my appreciation for the wonders of the novel) but there was something unsatisfactory about the way we hardly got to see Eva before Kevin.

I’d read the book so I felt I already had the inside scoop but I wondered how I would have felt if I hadn’t already read it. Could I have identified with Eva in the same way if I hadn’t known what she lost with the arrival of Kevin? Could I have understood her if I hadn’t been made aware of her deep reluctance to become a mother and the social pressure applied relentlessly to her from Franklin, amongst others? Would I have been as haunted if I hadn’t known what her relationship with Franklin had once been like?

Don’t get me wrong, the film was beautiful to watch. Seeing Eva scraping the red paint from the front of her house day after day was poignant and Swinton played her role impeccably. She can make you feel a world of pain with one tiny, almost imperceptible movement of her face. Likewise, Ezra Miller captured Kevin’s restless malice with little more than a dart of his dark eyes. As a visual spectacle, the film really worked and it captured the essence, I thought, of Shriver’s fantastic book.

But….this wasn’t quite enough. Underneath it all, I still felt like I was connecting with the book’s characters, in their visual form. I still had Shriver’s letters running through my head and I still felt like most of the poignancy came from what I already knew.

I’d be interested to know what someone who hadn’t already read the book thought of the film. Did it feel complete to you? Did you connect fully with the characters or were there unanswered questions for you? Did you wonder why Eva and Franklin ever got together in the first place? Did you wonder what exactly happened in the school gymnasium?

I suppose the issue is that, for me, the devil is in the detail. If you’re like that too, I think you’re best off reading Shriver’s fantastic book, and saving the film as a kind of visual dessert.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “We Need to Talk About Kevin – only half the story?

  1. Lisa

    Fantasticly disturbing book, I haven’t seen the film and probably won’t as I’m a terrible pedant when it comes to book to film adaptations. Infact, I appreciated your review all the more for that! 😀
    I may have to reread it though, it’s been a couple of years. Only because I remember severely disliking Eva, even pre Kevin – finding her hugely selfish and distant…you seem to have seen something in her so different that I’m going to have to go back and at least read the start again…

  2. I’d definitely be interested to hear how the second read goes! 🙂

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