The subject of turning a book into a movie is one fraught with strong feelings. It happens a lot. Some of the most anticipated movies of the last year (and the year to come) are based on books. But it never fails that something gets left out, some character gets left on the cutting room floor, you name it. There’s a lot to the process of adapting a book and you can never make everyone happy. So it was with some surprise that I learned that the movie Edge of Tomorrow was based on a book.
And not just any book, a Japanese novel called All You Need is Kill. Naturally, I had to see it.
Of course, first I needed to read the book, which took some doing, then I took the time to track down both the graphic novel adaptations. One was a Japanese manga, one was a traditional American graphic novel. Both were extremely faithful to the book, the only real difference was the art style and how much got cut (it wasn’t a whole lot in either version.)
So when I sat down to watch the movie I was kind of weirded out because I knew that it was going to be wildly different. Did I like the movie? Yes, I did. It was a good movie that entertained and said something simply but forcefully about human nature, both good and bad.
This is not a review of the movie, so I’m not going to give you a full length breakdown of the plot or what I liked and didn’t but that’s what I thought in a nutshell. Now I’m going to talk about what I got out of the movie vs. book in terms of adapting fiction for the screen. And, since such things are totally unavoidable in this context be aware:
HERE THERE BE SPOILERS
Let’s look at what changed and why I think it worked.
Okay, obviously a lot changed from book to movie and I do mean countless things, large and small. The appearance of the mimics, the alien menace of the story, was changed from what were basically big green blobs to something that would look more impressive on screen. Keiji Kiriya transformed from a Japanese person to an American and got renamed William Cage (although Keiji does get the nickname “Killer Cage” in the novel so this is not entirely a departure.) Rita Vrataski is now a Brit rather than an American. Things take place in Britain rather than Japan. The troops are on an offensive operation rather than a defensive one. The list goes on.
Mainly, though, I want to look at the big changes and they start off about as big as it gets.
Kill is about determination against despair. When Kenji gets trapped in his time loop it wears him down and breaks his spirit until his humanity is dubious at best. Rita pulls him out of it by offering him companionship and a way out but, at the same time, she has to at least suspect that only one of them is getting out of the loop. In the end Kenji escapes but is still alone. His humanity is still very much in question.
But in Edge the theme is much more about courage overcoming fear. A fair argument can be made that Cage fighting with the certain knowledge of a do-over if he fails doesn’t count as real courage but that is exactly why his loosing the power to jump back in time before the final battle is so significant. We see that, even with no safety net, Cage has transformed from a man who flees from what needs to be done to a person who passionately pulls others along in their duties. As Sergeant Ferrell would say, he has been purified in the crucible of glorious combat. He has become more human, more willing to stand by others and sacrifice for them if need be.
More than anything, this thematic change is what lets the film adaptation get away with all the other changes being made. Determination and resolve are a big deal in the East but often Eastern philosophy puts an emphasis on pushing through until you find out what you’re working towards. On the other hand, courage is knowing what you’re working towards and putting aside personal fears in favor of what needs to be done. It’s more universal, easier for American audiences to understand and, perhaps most importantly, healthier for the audience.
Keiji is a raw recruit about to go into his first battle. He’s untested but honest and he knows what needs to be done and fully intends to do it. Over the course of the story he becomes jaded, to the point where he no longer cares whether the people around him live or die. They’ll just come back the next time around, after all. True, meeting Rita gives him renewed purpose for a time but we’re not sure what he’ll be after the close of the story, with Rita gone and the burden of winning the war with the mimics on his shoulders.
Cage, on the other hand, is an Army Major, a ROTC graduate and a man of business. He’s also determined to avoid the front lines if possible – in short, he’s a coward. He learns to fight much like Kenji does, by going through countless iterations of one battle, but to a certain extent it looks like going through the motions. He does change in some ways. Like Kenji he gets colder as he loops, at least for a while, but he also learns more about the people in his unit and what makes them tick. Courage begins then. Sure, it’s Rita who comes along and fans it into a fire but, by the end, Cage is fully on board.
The character of William Cage is where the adaptation really shines. All You Need is Kill tries to be a coming of age story but it leaves us unsure of what the newly minted man is going to look like. But Edge of Tomorrow clearly defines the character at all points along the way – who he was, how he changes and what that man is likely to look like in the future.
In the book much of the iterative nature of the story is told to us. We’re given the framework of the thirtyish hours Keiji lives repeatedly and then the differences are spelled out for us. This is the right call. Prose is one of the clunkiest ways to tell an action oriented story so cutting out as much detail as possible is where you have to start, not where you need to end up.
But Edge of Tomorrow is a movie and it exploits the fact that it can show us five seconds of action four times in only twenty seconds. These rapid replays of events, showing us how Cage is adapting to obstacles, aren’t in the book because they’d just be too clunky but they work for the movie. In them we see Cage doing the same things over and over again in rapid succession to show us how his thinking works, then later we see him working with Rita to set up ever more complex plans, then finally we seem him start referencing events we’ve never seen but we can now clearly tell he’s lived through before. It all culminates when Rita asks, “What do we do now?”
When Cage says, “I don’t know, we’ve never made it this far before!” We laugh because we’ve seen all the meticulous planning happen and we know what happens when Cage reaches the end of it – he goes from a prescient supersoldier to somebody a lot like us. And that means things are getting interesting.
What I like most about seeing a half a dozen slightly different iterations of the same scene is that we can see Cage’s character growth spelled out in his face. He goes from being caught up in his own affairs to aware of the army around him, then his unit particularly and finally his partner Rita in particular. And as he gets more and more used to the idea that he can die he becomes more and more disturbed every time she does…
All You Need is Kill doesn’t have a happy ending. Edge of Tomorrow does. There, I said it. Are you happy?
Because I was.
Yes, I get that, unless the main character dies at the end of a book, technically the story isn’t over yet. That means there’s no permanent happy ending to be had because life naturally has ups and downs. But it’s okay to end your story on a moment of triumph. People do get those in life and it is okay to celebrate them.
Keiji never really gets a win in All You Need is Kill. It’s sad, really. He puts in the time and does the work but still comes out behind. Yeah, I know some people think that’s how the world works but if that’s all your story has to tell you then it’s not very useful.
So maybe Edge of Tomorrow is a little pat. Maybe Cage is getting off easy, walking out with the aliens defeated and a legit shot at the girl he’s come to know and love. But you can’t tell me he didn’t earn it. He passed through the crucible and cast off cowardice, he was sure he had no chance to get back and enjoy any of the fruits of his labors and he still chose to suffer and die in the hopes that others might live. And in the end only two other people on the planet would believe his story if he told it. So it’s not like he’s a big shot hero. Just a guy with some unpleasant memories and a shot at a slightly better life.
In the end, All You Need is Kill and Edge of Tomorrow are both about character growth. But the film adaptation took some major gambles in changing the theme and main character to make, not a story better suited to its target audience, but a better story on the whole. And I am of the opinion that they succeeded. Not because they made the protagonist American instead of Japanese, or made his name easier to pronounce, but because they made him a person more worth trying to be like.
In my book, that’s always an improvement.