A Novel Idea: Stephenie Meyer’s “The Host”

Kate Erbland

by: Kate Erbland
February 24th, 2011

“A Novel Idea” is a new feature at Gordon and the Whale that combines two things that I may have some expertise in – books and movies. “A Novel Idea” is essentially book reviews with a cinematic bent, examining literary works already slated for the big screen treatment – aiming to give us an idea of what to look for when those books finally hit the silver screen, for better or worse.

Stephenie Meyer’s first foray into non-Twilight fiction, The Host, is set to start filming sometime this year, with a release in 2012. The adaptation of the novelist’s first “adult” work was originally set to be penned and directed by Andrew Niccol, but Niccol recently dropped out of directing the feature, though he did complete the script. Directing duties are now under the control of Susanna White. The film has not yet been cast.

In The Host, Meyer presents an Earth in the not-too-distant future (isn’t it always) that has been taken over by an alien race, called “the souls.” The souls are essentially parasites, “settling” planets by inserting themselves in the bodies (and then the minds) of the dominant species of whatever planet they have chosen to stake as their own. They are more than adept at this task, having done it for (at least) centuries and across a number of different planets (all with very different “host” species for them to consume). The book is told from the perspective of one of those souls – Wanderer, a soul who has (ahem) wandered from planet to planet, never finding one that suited her enough to settle permanently – until now.

As the book begins, Wanderer has been inserted into a half-dead human, Melanie Stryder. But Melanie is very different than any other host Wanderer has accounted, she will not relinquish her body to Wanderer, she will not simply fade away as so many other humans have done. And though this would be hard enough for Wanderer to handle (the souls are, oddly enough, not a violent race – they are faithfully kind to each other, and believe that they bring peace and harmony to the planets they take over), it will only get worse for her as Melanie’s voice and memories take over. Melanie will not die because she is consumed with love and concern for the other humans she left behind – her little brother Jamie and her boyfriend Jared. As Wanderer begins to bond with Melanie, she also begins a similar process with Melanie’s memories of Jamie and Jared. When the chance arises for Wanderer and Melanie to search for the boys, everything changes, and Wanderer all but abandons her race to join a band of humans.

When it comes to the meat of the novel, Meyer’s work again proves that she is not a great writer in the traditional sense – her word craftsmanship is not especially vital or skilled. But Meyer does succeed in the strength of her imagination and storytelling ability – The Host is not a great book, but it’s an engrossing story. Yet, the first hundred or so pages of The Host could have been easily condensed down to ten pages – it’s filled with exposition that is oddly unimportant, details that are later expanded on (much more interestingly, I must note) later in the book. Though it bores in the novel, it can serve as a solid introduction within the confines of the film – though this section should not exceed clocking in past twenty minutes (yes, this portion of the novel really does drag that much). The novel becomes engaging once Wanderer strikes out from a soul-defined existence, falling in with a band of humans who live in a stunning cave system. This should undoubtedly be the primary focus of the film.

While Meyer’s strength is indeed in her wild and consuming imagination, the book, oddly enough, suffers because of this detailed imagination. Though it may seem like a moot point to question the veracity of details in a science fiction novel, the world that Meyer creates within the cave is so idealized in its efficiency that it smacks of pure fantasy. The cave system that houses the book’s renegade humans is so perfect, so perfectly suited for their needs that it’s nearly ludicrous. But cinematically? It can be a compelling and engaging backdrop for Wanderer’s story (well, that is, for viewers not prone to claustrophobia, but 127 HOURS this is not).

The Host was marketed as a novel, not a YA novel, but it feels so similar to the Twilight books, and Meyer has such a dedicated young following, that it is incredibly hard to take in a mature way. Meyer’s panache for creating epic stories of pre-destined and unbreakable love overwhelms The Host. She’s even outdone herself here, giving us not just a love triangle, but a love square. Though existing in a single volume, Meyer has created some distinct and interesting characters that could play quite well on-screen.

The Host’s “adult” classification really seems to stem from some of the violence in the book, though it’s by no stretch of the imagination more violent than anything one would encounter in any of the Twilight books. The bulk of our main characters skew young – Melanie is barely out of her teenage years when the book begins. Is that an extended way to say that The Host is, at its heart, a YA novel? Well, yes. As the book was not marketed as such, should the film? THE HOST can very easily be a PG-13 film, allowing a large portion of Meyer’s fanbase to take in the film.

Angst told through a sci-fi lens is well within screenwriter Niccol’s cinematic wheelhouse, as he’s most famous within the genre for writing and directing GATTACA. He’s even got another angsty sci-fi flick coming out soon with the Amanda Seyfried and Justin Timberlake-starrer NOW (once called I.AM). He also penned THE TRUMAN SHOW and THE TERMINAL, so he’s proven his ability to craft interesting films built on the importance and intricacies of interpersonal relationships. It’s the wild card of a director that worries.

White’s resume is varied, with a heavy dose of British fare from the UK-born director. Her last big screen effort was NANNY MCPHEE RETURNS, and though that may not inspire confidence in her ability to direct THE HOST’s big three elements – tension, science fiction, and romance – there are some previous works on her resume that show slightly more promise. White directed a number of episodes of Generation Kill and a television miniseries version of Jane Eyre. But the rest of White’s resume is dismal, basically consisting of a hefty number of episodes of British television shows (from Teachers to Attachments). For those moviegoers who realize that the film was once set to be directed by Niccol (and were looking forward to such a solid pairing), White has a lot to prove.

Of course, there’s no way to talk about what a film “could be” without a spat of dreamcasting. Meyer is hands-on with casting choices, often writing characters with certain actors in mind (allegedly, Edward Cullen was written with Henry Cavill, the new Super-man, as a model). A few years back, Meyer said in an interview with MTV that she imagined Robert Redford for Jeb (Melanie’s uncle), Matt Damon for Jared (her main love interest), and Casey and Ben Affleck playing brothers Ian and Kyle. It’s fair to say that these are not even remotely the actors I imagined in these parts when reading the book. A Host fansite also reported Meyer’s interest in Hilary Swank as Melanie, Lee Pace as the cave’s resident healer Doc, and Joshua Jackson as an alternate Doc or Jared. Again, not quite what I pictured.

However, last year, the mega Twilight fansite, Twilight Examiner, reported on the results of some major fan-casting choices. These picks are significantly more on target. Melanie picks included Sophia Bush, Megan Fox, Camilla Belle, Olivia Wilde, Summer Glau, Milla Jovovich, Natalie Portman, Amanda Peet, Evangeline Lilly, Rose Byrne, and Eliza Dushku. A mixed bag, but I’d personally gun for Rose Byrne. While Meyer’s naming of Matt Damon seemed odd (mainly for the fact that Jared is supposed to be in his mid to late twenties), fans still tossed in his name, along with a huge desire to see Jensen Ackles in the role (this I can see). Other picks included James McAvoy, Benjamin McKenzie, Jared Padalecki, Hugh Jackman (really?!), Chris Pine, and Chris Evans. I think we can pretty much toss out Jackman, Pine, and Evans right now, as I think they may be a tad bit busy. Most fans seem set on Logan Lerman for Jamie, which is the most solid pick for any character I’ve heard so far. For Ian, there’s a big internet outcry for Ian Somerhalder, with other choices including Chace Crawford, Christian Bale, Sean Faris, Henry Cavill, and Marc Blucas. I think we can pretty effectively rule out Bale and Cavill. And, again, I must restate – these characters are in their twenties. Fan-casting can be a little…pie in the sky. With the film still without a distribution company, it’s fair to say that casting will have the best luck aiming for B-list of film stars, with probably even more of a chance of pulling some quality television stars looking for a big screen break.

But, certainly, the bulk of the film will fall on whoever is cast as Melanie. In body, she is Melanie Stryder, but in mind and emotion – she’s split between Mel and Wanderer. A key part of this is how Wanderer “hears” Melanie in her head – in the book, it is portrayed as though the two are conversing mentally, differentiated from the other prose by the use of italics. How this will be brought to the screen is worrisome – the conceit takes some time to get used to within the book, and even seems a bit silly. In the constraints of a film, it could be even worse – it could be laughable. But it’s a vital part of our understanding of the plot, and it’s just about the only way we get to know Melanie for nearly eighty percent of the book, so it cannot simply be discarded and it must be presented in a way that feels believable and organic. If that doesn’t hit the screen, the entire project will be utterly meaningless.

When it comes to portraying the souls in the human bodies, it should be easy enough – think classic INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS with mindlessly kind aliens, dead-eyed creatures that are fundamentally sweet because they can be no other way. Make them slack-jawed and just vaguely creepy, and THE HOST can capture the spirit of what makes the souls so horrifying – a race that is somehow purely innocent while also being heart-stoppingly malevolent. More than anything, THE HOST has the potential to introduce a new and conceptually interesting alien into the genre.

Though The Host has not ignited the fervor that Meyer’s other works have, the film version of the novel has the potential to be a solid entry into the romanticized sci-fi world. However, with the loss of a skilled and proven director, THE HOST will need to rely on an inventive script that tightens up the more engaging elements of the source material, while also picking a cast that will intrigue those previously uninterested in the book. Is that a big order? It’s out of this world.

Future installments of "A Novel Idea" are slated to include George V. Higgins' "Cogan's Trade," Matt Bondurant's "The Wettest County in the World," and Monica Drake's "Clown Girl." Do you have a book you'd like me to give the "Novel Idea" treatment to? Let me know below!

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