Book vs. Film: 'Horns'
When it comes to the success or failure of a book adaptation, casting the prominent roles is essential. An actor that just isn't right for a particular role can make or break the quality of a film based on a novel. Sometimes, the actor in question seems born to play a particular role—like Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden in Fight Club; can anyone picture the character any other way now? Sometimes casting decisions throw audiences for a loop, but the actors are able to win over fans either because they were an obvious choice no one knew was obvious (Michael Keaton as Batman, Heath Ledger as The Joker), or the screenwriters / directors in question take the character in a different direction, one that suits the actor cast (Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall in The Shining). And then there are those times that Hollywood casting decisions make zero sense when we first hear about them, and the actor's performance / the altered character choices fail to sway us—Jim Carrey as The Grinch; need I say more?
So what of the casting decisions behind Horns, an adaptation of Joe Hill's second novel, and as yet the only of his works to make it to the screen? Did screenwriter Keith Bunin and director Alexandre Aja make any changes to the characters that required actors who didn't quite "look" the part, at least from descriptions in the book? How did the principal cast overall fare in the making of this book-to-film adaptation?
Let's find out.
First, let's take a look at the primary characters, how they fit into the overarching narrative, and what makes them tick. As the book is divided into five sections, the second of which explores the primary players' childhoods, I'll include info about the young versions of these characters as well.
Ignatius "Ig" Perrish — The main character. Described as scrawny, a bit nerdy, and a bit of a goody-two-shoes from the age of fifteen on. He more or less believes in God until the love of his life, Merrin Williams, is raped and murdered near the old foundry on the outskirts of town. The story begins about a year after this event, and the entire town still pretty much thinks Ig got away with murder on account of his rich, prominent family's influence (Ig's dad Derrick is a famous jazz musician). He didn't commit this heinous crime, of course, but that hasn't stopped the townsfolk from speculating.
Ig wakes one morning after a bender—during which he stomped all over the flowers adorning the spot where Merrin was killed and pissed all over the face of a Virgin Mary statue—and discovers a wicked pair of devil horns growing from his forehead. He soon learns that these horns compel anyone around him to confess their deepest secrets and, at times, their most vile desires. Additionally, whenever Ig touches someone, he receives crystal-clear images of EVERYTHING the person has tucked away in their subconscious.
Merrin Williams — Ig's slain girlfriend, seen only in flashback, but integral to the movement of the plot. Copper-headed, sweet, and gorgeous, but also (and more importantly) incredibly smart, funny and level-headed. On the night she was murdered, she argued loudly with Ig in a restaurant—after ten years together, and with Ig set to go to England for a job with the Peace Corps, she has decided it is time they see other people to truly figure out if they want to stay together for the rest of their lives. This turns out to be a ruse, however, as it is later revealed that Merrin actually had cancer, and was only hurting Ig so that he wouldn't want to have anything to do with her (she knew his good-natured spirit all too well; her illness would only draw him closer to her in a desire to help her through the hardship).
Glenna Nicholson—Ig's roommate and friend (often with benefits), one of the only people who still believes he's innocent. She's a bit on the heavy side, and because of societally-dictated beauty standards, doesn't believe she'll ever find anyone to truly love her. This causes her to be less sexually discerning than she should be, and gets her into trouble—namely, giving a blow job to her ex-boyfriend (and Ig's former best friend) Lee Tourneau the night before Ig discovers his horns (it's one of the first confessions Ig hears).
Terry Perrish—Ig's older brother. Tall and attractive, almost the spitting image of his father. Terry has also pursued a career in jazz, playing his father's preferred instrument (the trumpet) as well as hosting his own music-themed talk show Hothouse out in L.A. Though he's the "preferred son," he is hopelessly devoted to Ig. He doesn't make it home often, but happens to be in town for their grandmother's birthday when Ig grows his horns. And while Ig hears some truly awful things from his parents—namely that, in the wake of the scandal, his mother wishes he would just go away, and that his father never felt he could really connect with Ig (and that he lusted for Merrin), it is Terry's confession that destroys Ig the most: he was there the night Merrin was killed, and he knows who did it. It was...
Lee Tourneau—Ig's aforementioned former best friend and one-time, part-time sex partner to Glenna. Blond and good-looking, charming. He received much credit and attention for saving Ig's life after a teenage stunt gone awry (though he actually did no such thing) and for turning his thieving life around after an accident with a cherry bomb left him partially blind. Now working for a Christian conservative congressman, Lee—who is in reality a conscious-less psychopath—has learned how to wear a "person mask" largely by asking himself "What Would Ig Do?", his friend displaying the kind of "morally-wholesome" personality that will not only get him ahead with the normals, but also lure Merrin away from Ig and into his arms. His obsession with his friend's love leads him to believe she plans to leave Ig so that she and Lee can be together, prompting him to assault and kill her when she rebuffs his advances. (In case it isn't obvious, Lee also holds atrocious beliefs about women.)
When Ig, newly horned, confronts Lee, he realizes that Lee is not affected by the horns like everyone else—he isn't compelled to confess his crimes. This immunity is due to Lee wearing a cross that once belonged to Merrin, apparently charged to the brim with her essential goodness and therefore a kind of shield to Ig's devilish wiles. (Ig eventually gets the cross back, which allows him to talk to people unencumbered.)
Now, let's fast-forward through the basic plot real quick, just to make sure we're on the same page:
Ig finds out Terry's side of the story, that on the night Merrin was murdered, he was out with Lee hitting the town, seeing old friends, smoking copious amounts of pot, the usual. Lee was only with Terry in the hopes of convincing him to invite the congressman onto the show (he can't stand Terry otherwise). Lee is also aware Merrin will be breaking up with Ig that night, and plans to drop Terry off at his parents' house before cruising by the restaurant to check up on the proceedings. However, Lee gets over-eager and heads to the restaurant with a stoned-out Terry riding shotgun. They discover Merrin alone in the pouring rain, and learn that Ig abandoned her in the parking lot following their argument (which of course fuels the rumors that he killed her). Lee ushers Merrin into the car, knocking Terry into the backseat, and drives for a while, attempting in his own creeptastic way to put the moves on her.
Merrin asks Lee to pull over so she can hurl, and he does so, gliding into the gravel driveway of the old foundry. She gets a little sick on her already soaked clothes, and Lee offers her his gym gear. She slinks off into the woods to change, while Terry passes out in the backseat. When he comes to the next morning, he finds a rock in his hands, covered in blood (his hands and clothes are similarly tainted). When he questions his host of the previous evening, Lee admits to killing Merrin, but blackmails Terry to keep quiet, threatening to implicate him in the murder and ruin his TV career, as well as any other career he might try his hand at, if Terry goes to the police. Scared, confused and downright horrified, Terry keeps his mouth shut.
As questionable as this is, Terry ends up doing the right thing and helps Ig to take Lee down, doing so in a graphic display of horn-playing, horn-goring and snake-down-the-throat suffocation. Having avenged Merrin's death, Ig too finally rests, and rejoins his love in a fiery, eternal hell dance—not at all torturous, but sultry and beautiful.
This ending is keeping with the novel's overarching image of the Devil as less an evil figure, and more of a kind of superhero, who is able to make lives better by venting certain "sinful" desires. It is neither a condemnation of Christianity nor an embracing of the religion, but rather an exercise in promoting balance in one's life—an equal blend of behavior influenced by the angels and the devils on one's shoulder.
Now, let's look at how these characters are translated in—
Daniel Radcliffe as Ig—I remember hearing some rumblings about Radcliffe's casting a few years back, before the movie was released, a collective complaint that Harry Potter couldn't pull the role off. Director Aja had similar misgivings about the actor, who at that time was ONLY known for his turn as The Boy Who Lived, but was quickly won over. From a CinemaBlend article about the film, Aja states, "I met him, and I remembered, after just a few minutes, realizing that he was so much exactly like Ig Perrish, that he was this absolute committed, romantic, genuinely good guy and humble."
Not only this, Radcliffe was clearly looking to break out of his Harry Potter mold (he did The Woman in Black right before taking on the role of Ig), meaning that like many actors who have taken "out-of-character" roles (ahem, Johnny Depp), Radcliffe was eager to reinvent himself, meaning if he was as serious an actor as he presented himself, he would really commit to the role. (Plus, physically speaking, he's the spitting image of Ig). The gamble paid off, as Radcliffe's performance is one of the highlights of the film. He displays a genuine grasp of the character, adeptly juggling the requisite pathos and dubiousness that Ig demands (though a good person at the end of the day, Ig does and says some questionable things in both the novel and the film).
The only downside, really, is that the script compartmentalizes the action through a mostly linear narrative (the novel switches back and forth between timelines). In doing so, Merrin's murder is shown to have taken place several months ago, rather than a year, which robs the story of its emotional baggage. The scene in which Ig's mother (here played by Kathleen Quinlan) isn't nearly as gutting as it is in the book, because in the latter, the woman has had an entire year to let her true feelings about her son (whom she believes to be guilty) to fester; thus, when her deepest feelings come flooding out of her mouth, her words are extra biting, extra toxic, and it nearly debilitates Ig right then and there. Whereas in the film, though much of the dialogue is the same, that year of festering toxicity isn't fueling the exchange, which robs both Radcliffe and Quinlan of the chance to play a truly heart-wrenching scene.
This issue aside, Radcliffe was clearly a good choice, and he works to bring the character as written by Hill to life, mostly intact from his incarnation on the page.
Juno Temple as Merrin—From an appearance and temperament standpoint, this actress was a great choice, and had the character been more developed in the film, would have made more of an impact on the overall narrative. Unfortunately, much of what makes Merrin Merrin in the book didn't make it to the final cut of the film—we don't learn, for instance, that Merrin is excelling in medical school. We also don't get a good amount of her dialogue in the restaurant break-up scene, in which she chides Ig for his old-fashioned beliefs about love and soul mates and destiny, her irritation that a "fuck can't just be a fuck," that it "always has to be a transcendent experience, life-changing. It's depressing and weird and I'm tired of acting like it's normal." (Movie Merrin just kinda sits there and cries in this scene).
Of course, the character's impassioned plea for a more 21st century relationship—her expression of a desire to have more experiences outside those of this small town—is a lie meant to deflect Ig so he won't want to hang around and waste his life while she dies of cancer, a twist I actually didn't care for, mostly because Merrin's lies are in fact the truth—high school sweethearts are decidedly a thing of the past, predominantly because those types of relationships just don't work.
Negating this declaration of independence is problematic, but at least the character as Hill wrote her was fiery and, by and large, mostly independent already. Her scaled down presence in the film, and the stripping away of much of this fiery independence, makes her more or less a love/sex object, admired by the men around her, and ultimately punished for not being available. So while Temple could have no doubt done great things with the role, the character doesn't retain enough of her Hill incarnation to make much of an impact.
Kelli Garner as Glenna—Problems abound here, and really, with the narrative being compacted into "present day" (i.e., the murder happened a few months ago, not a year ago) Glenna probably should have been jettisoned from the script altogether. Because with the shortened timeline, Ig's three-month pseudo-relationship with Glenna becomes a drunken one-night stand. Moreover, Bunin and Aja reveal that Glenna has always been in love with Ig, but knows she is destined to have her heart broken by him because he loved Merrin so much. This is kind of a shorthand for the overall sadness that surrounds Glenna's character in the novel, this girl who can't for one second believe she's worthy of love because of her weight, this stepped-on, abused soul who is treated poorly, but eventually grasps her own self-worth (and seems poised to finally find love with Ig's brother Terry at the end of the narrative). While Garner is not spaghetti-thin, she isn't exactly plus-sized either, and thus the character's weight and body dysmorphia issues aren't explored.
Really, the character only seems present to shove her face into an entire box of donuts (the first reveal of the horns' power, compelling Glenna to consecutively eat six pastries despite all logic and reason). She pops back up again to confess her love for Ig, who tells her she should forget about him, skip town and make something of herself. And that's pretty much it. I'm definitely not saying the entire narrative hinges on Glenna's presence—she is an important but comparatively minor character in the novel—and she doesn't necessarily need more screen time than she has, but it would have been nice to see more done with this character than what we get.
Joe Anderson as Terry—Perhaps the biggest departure from Hill's novel, Ig's older brother isn't some All-American, dad-pleasing, TV-show-hosting charmer. Rather, Terry is a skinny, mumbly drug-addict who gigs with his trumpet at local bars and seems to still live with his parents. Scruples, he has little.
Now, this change actually makes a lot of sense, especially when considering the deep, dark secret Terry harbors. Remember, in the novel, Lee convinces Terry to keep quiet about the murder, threatening to destroy his career if he opens his mouth. Terry complies with Lee, and in doing so grows completely distant from his brother, whom he knows without a shadow of a doubt to be innocent. He abandons Ig when his brother needs him the most, and all for his own selfish gain. Terry eventually has his redemption song (pun absolutely intended; read the book), and Ig forgives him his transgressions, but it's still a tough pill to swallow, and as readers we don't necessarily want to root for Terry when he quits his big time job—yes, the thing that kept him from going to the police or, I don't know, helping Ig kill Lee in the first place, he just up and quits anyway—moves to New York City and might just maybe find love with Glenna Nicholson, also on her way to the Big Apple. I mean, okay, Ig forgave him and everything, and Terry helped Ig take down Lee, but still...Terry's kind of an asshole.
Casting him as a drug addict and kind of a fuck-up, however, helps the audience to better understand Terry's decision-making process. Moreover, in the film Terry doesn't know who killed Merrin, only that when he wakes up from his drugged-out stupor, there's a bloody rock in his passenger's seat (planted there, of course, by Lee in the hopes of incriminating Terry). He has no idea how the rock got there, all he knows is that he's sitting in a car with a shit-ton of drugs in the glove box and a rock slathered in the blood of his brother's dead ex-girlfriend. He panics. He gets rid of the evidence. While not noble, Terry's actions are a bit more understandable here, making him a bit less damnable.
However, the filmmakers also show Terry hardcore hitting on Merrin just after she and Ig break-up, so whatever credibility he gained in the book-to-film translation pretty much flies out the window.
Max Minghella as Lee—It's hard to pinpoint what it is about Minghella in this role that just doesn't work. In the novel, Lee is a blond charmer, a born-again Christian in the eyes of the public (though amongst his friends he has no discernible faith). As boys, Ig sees his friend as having "an aura of glassy and unflappable cool," ostensibly likable, though it is clear to us that when Lee says of Glenna, "The times she's whacked me off were kind of a favor she did. It's a good thing, too. If not for that, I'd probably club her to death, the way she gabs all the time," Lee likely isn't using hyperbole. Basically, Lee wears his "person mask" well, even before the accident with the cherry bomb that cost him an eye, a punishment from God, he privately believes, for giving away his chance with Merrin (it's a long story involving Merrin's cross that we don't really need to get into here).
The key difference between the novel and the film is that with the former, we learn pretty early on that Lee is Merrin's killer. Remember, Terry already knows this, and confesses this knowledge to Ig while under the spell of his horns. The film, however, goes for more of a quasi-murder mystery narrative, and thus withholds the reveal of Lee's true nature until closer to the end of the film. This isn't a bad move, since from a cinematic storytelling standpoint it would be tricky to structure the narrative as Hill wrote it (to do so would require far more time than a typical two hour film would allow, a point the author himself makes in an interview with Biography).
What this move does, however, is make it necessary to leave Lee less developed—after all, we can't really go through an extended flashback sequence that shows all these clues to Lee's sociopathy (which are all lost on Ig) if we haven't revealed Lee as Merrin's killer yet. Moreover, we can't have another extended sequence told from Lee's point of view (via Ig's touching of Lee's skin whilst choking him) that shows Lee torturing his cancerous mother by turning off the A/C and piling her frail body with thick comforters. (Yes, Lee is a thoroughly disturbing, sadistic, sick fuck). We see glimpses of this Lee in Bunin and Aja's version (the best moment being when Lee breaks out into giggles after accidentally blowing a cop's head off with a shotgun), but overall, Lee as portrayed by Minghella is fairly reigned-in.
So my issues might be explained by the fact the actor simply didn't have enough to work with to make the character more memorable. I think that's a part of it, but I also think there's an issue with his general build and hair-color being far too similar to Daniel Radcliffe and Joe Anderson, making him less distinct, less of a standout. Remember, Lee is blond in the book, and mostly wears white button-up shirts—which, when combined with Ig's dark hair and black overcoat, creates an inverse of the general good guy / bad guy dichotomy: the man in black is the good guy, the man in white is the bad guy. Lee is the God-loving, smiley-faced psycho who knows just how to fool everyone. Minghella, unfortunately, brings none of this charisma to the screen, and when sitting beside Radcliffe and Anderson, he just tends to blend in.
More than this, though, the actor just doesn't have much chemistry with Radcliffe. You don't feel the years of friendship crackling between them. Yes, in a film we don't have nearly enough time to thoroughly explore Lee and Ig's friendship, as Hill does, but that's what chemistry between actors—a sense of rapport and pure camaraderie—is for. It isn't really there with Minghella and Radcliffe, and if Radcliffe was the ideal choice for Ig—as I believe in many ways he is—then, unfortunately, the problem rests with Minghella. This isn't to say he's a bad actor—not by a long shot—just that he's not particularly suited for this role. And this makes the revelation of Lee's killer-hood feel far less impactful than it should—there's not enough weight to it, it doesn't really make us go "Oh Shit, Oh my God it's HIM?!?" and it really should.
Now, after having said all that, it may seem as though I didn't like the film version of Horns, but in fact I did rather enjoy it overall. The sum of its flaws don't outweigh what works about it, namely the keen grasp of Hill's dark sense of humor, which Bunin and Aja pull off beautifully. Plus, they streamline areas of the novel that dragged a little, in particular all the prolonged scenes of Ig hanging around the old foundry, preaching to his snake congregation, reading and thinking, and chasing away some bullies only to have their victim curse Ig for interfering. It's not a great film per se, but it is a pretty good one and it remains faithful to the source material—which, in my view, is also good but not great—while at the same time standing on its own two legs.
What did you guys think about Horns, both the Hill novel and its film adaptation. Did you like Daniel Radcliffe as Ig? What about the rest of the cast, in particular Max Minghella as Lee? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.
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