There’s a Friends episode where the characters Rachel and Joey exchange their favorite books to show each other how great their choice is. Joey’s favorite book is Stephen King’s The Shining while Rachel’s is Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Both end up enjoying the other’s pick, but there’s a funny scene where Rachel has to put The Shining in her freezer because it’s so scary. That’s what Scott Smith’s book The Ruins always reminds me of—a freezer book—because it is just that scary. The first time I read that novel, I would have to close the book at times and physically put it away from me to keep me from reading more. It wasn’t because the book was bad or the plot was lagging; it was because the story was so scary that I would need a little recovery time.
I’ve avoided watching the movie version of The Ruins for a while. Smith’s first book A Simple Plan was made into a devastating movie of the same name that was directed by Sam Raimi, one of my favorite moviemakers. Both of those works have the power to depress me for days after reading or seeing it, and I think that shows how well Smith is able to tap into the human psyche and show the darkness that exists within. Maybe I was afraid the same would happen with The Ruins, but that instead of depression, I would just experience pure adrenaline from fear for days on end. Or maybe I was just frightened that the movie wouldn’t live up to the book.
In The Ruins, a pair of American boyfriends and girlfriends (the girlfriends are best friends) are on vacation in Mexico, after graduating from college. It’s their last hurrah before settling down to jobs or graduate school and the serious task of being a grown-up. While on vacation, they meet people of different nationalities but similar age and become a loose-knit group that parties together. The German among them has lost track of his brother, with whom he came on vacation. They had a fight, and his brother chased after a female archaeologist that he became infatuated with and followed her to a dig site at some ancient Mayan ruins. He wants to go find his brother. The Americans decide to help their German friend find his brother, along with another who they simply call the Greek in the movie (real Greek, not fraternity Greek), and they think maybe they’ll have a little adventure along the way.
What makes the book work so well is the idea of a stranger in a strange land and what can happen when the strange land doesn’t play by the same rules as the strangers. When the Europeans and Americans go to the Mayan ruins, which are looked over by bloodthirsty plant life, they lose their usual tools—cell phones and other technology—and the plant life actually ends up using those against them. They also come across ancient rites and rituals that they don’t understand and fall subject to without knowing about them. In the movie version of the book, this concept is muddy and comes out wrong. Rather than the group coming across as naïve innocents who stumble into becoming a sacrifice, they’re portrayed as—well, spoiled Americans. At one point in the movie version of The Ruins, one of the characters says with righteous indignation, “Four Americans on vacation don’t just disappear,” and immediately I didn’t want to root for these people.
Another big flaw in the film, I think, is trying to physically portray the evil plant life, a vine with poppy-like flowers that creeps and uses mimicry to play the characters off one another, dividing and conquering. The special effects don’t come off as very terrifying—instead, the vines end up looking silly, like they were taken from a scene in the 1970s’ version of the TV series Land of the Lost. This is too bad because the plant is horrific in the book version; it’s what made the book so scary and eerie.