Welcome to Abibliophobia, the monthly column where Katelyn Nelson digs into the connections and influences buried deep within the world of the written word and its far-reaching tendrils across media. Focused broadly on horror and the ways it sneaks among the pages, each month will explore a new book or series and its impact on our culture, through the lens of history, the relationship between film and literature, and what varying adaptations have to say about how we understand and recreate stories. So curl up by the fire and crack those dusty covers open. We have a lot of exploring to do.
Translation is a funny thing. Whether it be across cultures or across media, every attempt at translation is an act of transformation. Every addition or omission is the chance to capture the essence of a subject anew. Adaptation across media is one of the most unique forms of translation out there, I think, not least because of the various barriers faced creatively when going from one art form to another. The Ringuseries has always been good at tracing the impact of technological evolution on consumption patterns and grappling with the limitations that come with struggling to adapt from one outdated form to one more current. The entire premise of Ringu, after all, hinges on the curse being as accessible as possible so it may spread to the most people and continue its growth.
It’s interesting to consider, alongside these internal conversations on shifting media and the ways we spread story, the things that get left out in the process. Book-to-film evolution is one of the most potentially drastic forms of change possible to perform across media. Whether because of different types of regulations in each field, differing artistic interpretations, or simply that it takes much less time to show something in film than it does to describe it in text, every choice made is another skin shed. We saw in Ringuthat the original core motivation of Koji Suzuki’s literary Sadako—that she was killed and tossed in the well upon discovery that she was intersex—did not make it to any but one now forgotten (though accessible on YouTube) version of the film. She was, however, still assaulted in all cases and blamed for her ethereal beauty (something the book makes a point to assert is widely credited as a marker of androgyny).
Ringuspends a great deal of time describing the body with gendered adjectives at nearly every turn or reckoning with the tension between beauty and masculinity. So, too, the trend continues in Suzuki’s novel sequel, Spiral, albeit in somewhat odder ways—most notably the repeated description of the deceased Ryuji Takayama’s testicles as “cute”.
Spiralpicks up by introducing us to Dr. Ando, a medical examiner reeling from the death of his young son and the resultant divorce from his wife. He is also, we find, an old college friend of Ryuji Takayama, the brilliant and headstrong philosophy professor and friend (or ex-husband, depending on whether you’re talking book or film) of Ringu’s reporter Asakawa. At the end of Ringu, Ryuji dies unsure of how he’d failed to break Sadako’s curse from the tape. In Spiral, Dr. Ando is enlisted to perform Ryuji’s autopsy, and soon finds himself consumed by a mystery and convinced that his old code-loving friend is trying to communicate with him from beyond death. What unfolds is a dark twist in Sadako’s quest for vengeance and an even darker look at the unstoppable power of virality.
From Ringuto Spiral, we shift away from the idea of viral passage by way of communication and quickly into the realm of literal virality as disease spread. What you get from watching Sadako’s tape isn’t just a death sentence to be whispered about and a chain-mail-style curse. It’s an actual virus—a mutated version of smallpox, long since irradicated and back from the dead to claim new life. This brings us one step closer to inhabiting Sadako’s tragic end, as in the novel she was raped and murdered by the last known smallpox victim. That we are told the structure of the virus resembles the shape of a wedding ring is yet another sinister twist; til death do us part.
The book-to-film conversation of Spiralis an intriguing one for all its choices. It would be a fraught book to adapt on its own thanks to all the threads it tries, in novel form, to successfully balance. From Dr. Ando’s personal trauma and how it factors into the spread of the curse, to the role of Ryuji and the prominence of code-breaking, to Sadako’s new role as possessor-turned-seductress, to the discussion of the differences between VHS and novel spreadability—not to mention the emphasis on medical and scientific examination of the literal manifestation of the curse—Suzuki posits many, many new layers to just how dangerous Sadako’s curse is and how determined to survive. Trying to effectively shove all that into a single film would be overwhelming, to say the least.
While each element is hinted at to varying degrees, only a few are pursued in depth in the film adaptation: Ando’s struggle with his personal loss, Ryuji’s communication and the discovery of the curse-as-mutated-smallpox, and a version of Ando’s complicated budding feelings for Ryuji’s mourning girlfriend, Mai. All the fleshed-out pieces work well enough together, but reading Spiralspotlights just how much is left out of the film. As a result, it takes a lot of the sting out of the tension building.
Not to say the film isn’t a good time. Indeed I’d be hard-pressed to find a Ringfilm that wasn’t at least fun to watch. But perhaps this is another instance of either not reading the book before seeing the film or don’t go into the film expecting a play-by-play of the book. Much like Perfect Blue, these are two separate beasts that complement each other best as companions rather than competition.
Two of the best elements the book builds on that are all but cast aside in the 1998 film are the continued role of Sadako’s intersexuality in the curse and its continuation and the final form the curse takes to spread itself to a wider audience. Spiralthe movie completely removes Sadako’s rape as a story element. That would be fine on its own had the original movie not made it a plot point that marked the seed for the greatest burst of her rage. Instead, it chooses to focus on Sadako’s relationship with her family, assigning her death at the hands of her father who discovers the strength and intensity of her power. The novel, meanwhile, of course keeps her intersexuality (though still somewhat scandalized) and the original circumstances of her death as vital elements to explain her rage and her survival. She knows she’s powerful—that’s the whole point.
Perhaps my favorite of the myriad Spiralthreads is the new path the curse takes to spread itself exponentially, and the resultant culpability of the audience. Noting that VHS tapes can simply be destroyed and therefore cut Sadako’s transmission method off at the knees, Ando spends a chunk of the novel trying to figure out the next mutation it could take on. How are people who have never even seen the tape still dropping dead?
The answer, much to my delight, is books.
At first Asakawa’s thoroughly documented journal of his whole experience up to the end is only in manuscript form and in the hands of medical professionals trying to solve the mystery both of how he got to where he is and how he has survived, albeit in a coma, up to this point. Then Ando discovers a family member is planning to publish a fictionalized version of the account as a novel. And so we are back to humanity’s voracious need to consume scandal and dread in as palatable a form as possible. It’s much harder to destroy a bestselling novel with thousands of copies in the world with one printing than it is to destroy a few videotapes.
This is brilliant for any number of reasons I could gush about all day. But most significantly it plays the same card the criminally-underseen YouTube-accessible original does at its end by showing us the tape contents in full and abruptly ending. By saving the reveal of novels as the new transmission method for near the end of the novel itself, it turns the work we’ve been consuming the whole time into the cursed object, making us as readers both culpable in the spread and potential victims of the curse ourselves.
Our imaginations become Sadako’s new playground. The reason the new victims die, and that Asakawa has been able to survive despite failing to deliver a copy of the tape, is because he wrote his experience down and others consumed it. The work they read was so detailed and vivid that it was as if Sadako’s tape was playing in their heads in real-time. Spiralposits novels as dangerously powerful artifacts and our own imaginations as our greatest enemies. How timelessly persistent is that?