Bird Box by Josh Malerman

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One guy in Russia suddenly goes crazy. He first attacks his friend, then he kills himself. A few more people engage in similar behavior. By the time there’s about 300 unexplained suicides worldwide, society shuts down. This didn’t ring true to me. As I write this, over half a million people have died from Covid-19, yet there’s still a sizable chunk of the population who refuse to wear masks. Why would everybody panic after just 300 deaths worldwide? We humans generally don’t take things seriously until it’s too late.

We learn that seeing bizarre creatures is what makes people go crazy, although the book doesn’t do a very good job of explaining how the characters learn this. We never learn what the creatures look like, just that some people consider them to be beautiful. I don’t know why the characters thought it was okay to watch the news when there was a good chance they might see a creature. They do end up switching to listening to the radio later, but why were they watching the news in the first place?

There was no mention of a government response to the crisis. Everyone is left to fend for themselves. Given how gradually everything happens, you’d expect the government would at least try to do something. I felt the dialogue at the beginning of the book didn’t feel natural, although it gets better as the book moves along. It felt like the author wasn’t too concerned with explaining how all this got started and was in a hurry to jump to the meat of the book. Fair enough, I guess.

The story shifts between when this all started and five years later. In the flashbacks, our point of view character, Malorie, is pregnant. In the present, Malorie is attempting to row a boat down a river while blindfolded with a couple five-year-olds. This structure really helped build tension. We know from what’s going on in the present that Malorie ends up raising two kids alone, so we know right from the start that the other people with her in the flashbacks will most likely end up dead. We don’t know how they all die though, which makes each scene with them tense.

In order to raise her children to survive in this horrific world, Malorie administers corporal punishment to the toddlers and makes them fear her. In the real world, there’s no evidence that parenting in such a way does any good, and in fact, it probably does harm. I can grant that in the nightmare world of the book, fear-based parenting might be justified though.

Because they’re raised this way, the kindergartners are really good at distinguishing between different types of sounds. Children do have better hearing than adults because their ears haven’t begun deteriorating yet, but they’re presented as having almost supernatural hearing abilities. Despite spending most of their lives inside, they know what someone swimming sounds like, for example.

We learn that, like humans, animals also go crazy when they see the creatures, which makes you wonder how there are still any animals left five years later. Also, while the creatures are able to pull blindfolds off of people, a shut window or door can effectively stop them for some reason. I wonder if someone who needs corrective lenses to see would be immune. If the creatures are just blurs, would seeing them still make you go crazy? Despite the fact that 75% of adults require vision correction, this is never brought up.

While it’s easy to poke holes in the premise and the beginning wasn’t very promising, I’m glad I stuck with it, because there’s a lot of really tense scenes and I really liked it by the end. Reading this during Covid-19, I can sympathize with the characters’ fear of leaving the house. Frightening and well written.

I watched the movie shortly after reading the book. In some ways, it’s better and in other ways it’s worse. On the plus side, people start going crazy en masse rather than an isolated case here and there. Things happen quickly, so it makes sense for the government to not have any time to react and we get an explanation for how people know creatures are behind it. The movie has more action and is more intense at the beginning.

The movie is also more diverse. In the book, the housemates are all twenty-somethings of unspecified race and there is little tension between them. The housemates in the movie are diverse in terms of age, race, and sexual orientation, and there’s a lot more tension between them. Characters in the movie have guns, which makes sense, and they also have sex, which would likely happen in such a situation. I also thought it realistic that a character in the movie provides a religious explanation for the creatures. Of course people would wonder if there’s a religious reason behind all this.

The movie also has a better idea of the technology people would be using in this situation. Movie Malorie has a blanket to cover the boat, and a CB to call out to people. In the driving-with-blacked-out-windows scene, characters use GPS to navigate rather than their memories of what the street looked like years ago.

On the minus side, movie Malorie doesn’t want to have a baby from the beginning, which makes you wonder why she didn’t get an abortion. I guess the movie makers were trying to fix the perceived problem of why Malorie isn’t a more nurturing parent, but I thought it made sense for book Malorie to not want to get attached to children who probably won’t survive. She did want to have a baby, just not in these circumstances. Movie Malorie never wanting to have a baby, even in the best of circumstances, just didn’t make sense.

While we don’t see the creatures in either book or movie, the movie shows us sketches of the creatures which look like Lovecraftian monsters. Also, the movie creatures can mimic loved ones in voice and appearance which felt cheesy to me. Also, the encounter Malorie has with the man while on the river wasn’t ambiguous as it was in the book, making it less tense. The movie kills characters off more frequently, which I felt lowered the tension as well. The children don’t have as many lines, which makes sense given the difficulty of working with child actors so young. I also preferred the book version of Gary, since his story had a surprise twist to it that the movie didn’t include. The movie also didn’t include the housemate’s pet dogs or the housemates’ attempts to make contact with the outside world by dialing every possible phone number.

There was an intriguing possibility raised when one character says, “You’ve got the Surgat from ancient Christian occult beliefs that made pregnant women encounter their unborn children as other creatures such as lobsters or spiders.” I’d never heard of this before and tried to google it. Surgat is most often referred to as a demon who opens all the locks. There was only website which associated Surgat with pregnancy. It’s a website that translates Russian into English and the movie lifted its quote word for word from it. The website doesn’t say where this quote originated from. The movie doesn’t end up following up on the Surgat angle. Maybe someone else will write a book or do a movie about a pregnant woman encountering her unborn children as other creatures.

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