When it comes to film adaptations of classic novels, people have, shall we say, strong opinions. A common refrain is that the movie is always worse than the book. Fortunately, that isn’t true. While plenty of film adaptations are indeed worse than their source materials, others are just as good, and many are actually better.* Today, we’re examining an adaptation that is somehow both better and worse: Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire. Having just read the book and watched the film for the first time, it’s fascinating how the adaptation made some elements of the story better while also making others worse. Better still, there are lessons that all storytellers can learn from, whether you’re writing screenplays or novels.
Strength: Less Filler
Interview isn’t an easy book to read, but not because of all the murder or questionable vampire raunchiness. Instead, the most immediate problem is all the filler. So. Much. Damn. Filler. Louis has a whole backstory section about how his brother died and why Louis thinks it’s his fault, just to explain why Louis is in the headspace to accept being a vampire. Lestat has a mortal father who’s still alive, and a lot of time is spent talking about him even though nothing ever comes of it. Later in the book, Louis and Claudia take a side trip to Eastern Europe,* where they meet a different type of vampire that resembles a zombie. This seems like a big deal, but it never comes to anything and isn’t explained.
However much filler you think the novel has, I promise there’s more. This is where the movie gives us its first major improvement: all that filler is gone. It turns out we don’t need an elaborate brother backstory; we can just say Louis’s family is dead and he’s depressed over it. Lestat doesn’t have a father because there’s no reason for him to, other than muddling his backstory. And while the movie does mention Louis and Claudia traveling around Europe, this is mostly skipped over, and they certainly don’t run into any zombie vampires. I can imagine the filmmakers wondering why Anne Rice put it in there if she didn’t want to do anything with it.
I could go on. The film cuts scene after scene in order to make the movie fit in a two-hour time slot. And yet, it doesn’t feel like they cut anything at all. All the important parts from the book are still there, from Louis’s transformation to the burning of Pointe du Lac to the entire theater sequence. The plot is identical in both versions of the story, despite all the cut content. If I hadn’t just finished the book a few days ago, I might not have noticed anything was missing.
This strength is pretty common in film adaptations, because the time constraints of a film pressure filmmakers to keep the story tight. You can see this in films like The Lord of the Rings and even TV shows like The Expanse.* This strength carries an important lesson for novelists: stories should only ever be as long as they need to be. Anything else is wasting the readers’ time. Cutting all of Interview’s filler would have made the book significantly shorter, but that’s a good thing.
Strength: Stronger Initial Conflict
Another significant issue with Interview as a novel is Louis’s internal conflict. Namely, what is it? I know he has one because the book goes on and on about it, but I don’t know what it’s about. At first, I assumed his conflict was over whether or not he should kill humans and drink their blood. That seems like the obvious choice, but nothing about this book is obvious. Instead, Louis claims that his choice not to kill humans was actually aesthetic rather than moral. He backs this up later in the book by killing a lot of humans while still claiming that he’s very conflicted about something.
Neither is it clear why Louis would kill humans in the first place, since he can live on animal blood without any problems. Rice further muddies the issue by injecting paragraph after paragraph of half-baked philosophy into the text, until it seems like Louis is only upset because he has ennui. That’s hardly a compelling motivation, so it’s difficult to sympathize with Louis when he whines about how miserable he is for a dozen pages straight. No wonder Lestat is the series star going forward, despite being portrayed as an abusive jerk in this book.
For a second time, the movie is here to save us. In this version, it’s clear from the start that Louis’s internal conflict is over killing humans. We also see why he’s driven to kill humans in the first place: while it’s possible to survive on animal blood, it’s a miserable experience. Now we have an actual conflict: on the one hand, Louis knows that killing is wrong. On the other hand, by refusing to kill, he’s doomed to a painful half-life.
In this scenario, Lestat plays the role of dark tempter. He’s always there, urging Louis to kill – it’ll taste so good, and what’s a little human life compared to immortality anyway? This is a straightforward conflict that’s easy to invest in, and it doesn’t require navigating the labyrinth of Rice’s musings on the value of passion and aesthetics, whatever that means. In the film, Louis’s arc even has a clear end point: when Lestat turns Claudia, Louis embraces human blood so he can be a better vampire dad. It’s a dark ending, but that fits with the dark story.
Strength: More Likable Characters
In the book, Louis is a difficult character to like. He reads like a parody of the angsty vampire trope, constantly whining about how tormented he is while also murdering people every evening. It’s not enough to kill people; he also demands we feel bad for him while he’s doing it. The only thing less likable than a murderer is a sanctimonious murderer, so this doesn’t work out.
The film does a lot of work to make Louis sympathetic. When he’s tormented, it’s because he’s stopping himself from killing humans rather than killing them and then complaining. This is actually compelling, and I’m honestly surprised Rice didn’t think of it. It also helps that the film portrays Louis’s relationship with Claudia as one between parent and child, where the book calls them lovers before Claudia is even aged up in the time jump. Blech. Yes, the book later clarifies that they don’t actually have sex, but it’s clear Rice wants you to think of their relationship as incestuous.
Despite all the improvements to Louis, it’s Lestat who benefits most in the likability department. In the book, Lestat is nothing more than an unstable, abusive jerk. He’s cruel to everyone around him, including Louis. We’re told he can be charming and suave, but he almost never comes across that way. Instead, he continuously demonstrates a comical level of ineptitude, like forgetting to get a second coffin for Louis or neglecting to teach hunting techniques. His antics often feel like they’d be more at home in What We Do In the Shadows than a serious story about undead angst.
Movie Lestat is almost a completely different character. Some of that no doubt comes down to Tom Cruise’s acting,* but the writing is also different. Since Louis’s arc is now about killing humans, the story no longer needs Lestat to be an abuser. Instead, he’s the dark master of the night, tempting Louis to abandon all moral scruples and being a general badass. The movie even takes the time to show us that Lestat prefers to feed on aristocrats, starting with a woman who had a slave tortured to death. Compare that to the book, where Lestat’s first victims are runaway slaves.
Even though the film’s version of Lestat is radically different than the book’s, it actually works better with Rice’s later ideas for him. Looking at just the novel, it’s bewildering that a pathetic abuser like Lestat eventually becomes the prince of all vampires. In the movie, I can believe it.
Weakness: A Less Credible Plot
I’ve piled a lot of praise on the film for how it portrays Lestat, but it does come with a downside. In the book, Louis and Claudia want to split from Lestat because he’s abusive toward both of them. This even drives Claudia to make an attempt on Lestat’s life, further torturing Louis. In the film, this scene still happens, but it comes mostly out of nowhere.
Remember, Movie Lestat’s role is dark tempter, not abuser. That works fine for the first part of the story, but once Louis decides to feed on humans, there’s no longer any conflict between them. Instead, we’re told everything is great for 30 years, until Lestat and Claudia have a falling out that lasts maybe 2-3 scenes. This time, Claudia’s entire motivation is that Lestat turned her as a child, so she can never have an adult body.
That provides some conflict, but it’s not enough for murder. In the book, Claudia tries to kill Lestat so she and Louis can get away. In the film, Lestat’s death won’t help Claudia with her problem, so I guess she’s just mad. To confuse things further, Claudia still has some dialogue about how Lestat will never let them leave, which the film doesn’t actually show us.
If Claudia’s motivation is weak, Louis’s is nonexistent. He seems perfectly happy with Lestat, so it’s extremely jarring when he doesn’t try to intervene in Claudia’s attack. Later, when Lestat returns, Louis jumps right to using deadly force, which also feels out of character. It’s like an entirely different character is swapped in during those scenes so that the movie can mirror the book’s plot, even though that plot no longer fits.
Weakness: Flimsier Motivation
If you thought the split with Lestat was weak, Louis and Claudia’s search for other vampires is even worse. Granted, it’s weak in the book too. There, neither of them have a clear reason for seeking out others of their kind, but Rice covers it up with page after page of Louis’s internal monologue. He’s still super angsty by this point in the book, though it’s not clear over what, so Rice has him go on about how other vampires will be able to give him “answers” that will help. What he imagines those answers might be is a mystery.
The film doesn’t even have this flimsy justification. Instead, Claudia and Louis seem to set out on their quest because that’s what it says to do in the script. This is an odd choice since they just killed the only other vampire they knew, and it doesn’t take a great leap to imagine that might be frowned on in vampire society. The only upside is that we mercifully skip the side trip to Eastern Europe and cut directly to arriving in Paris.
This is where we meet the theater troupe vampires, and again, it suffers from poor motivation. In the book, Rice uses Louis’s narration to tell us how he’s drawn to the 400-year-old Armond for vague and difficult to understand reasons. Once again, it’s mostly about getting “answers.” For Armond’s part, he is drawn to Louis as a way to escape immortal boredom, which is apparently a big killer of vampires. For some reason, Louis is supposed to be a representative of the current age, even though he must be pushing 100 by then.
The movie doesn’t have any of this because it lacks Louis’s internal narration. Louis does provide some voice-over narration, much more than in most movies, but it’s not nearly enough. So when Claudia thinks that Louis is going to leave her for Armond, it’s difficult to see why. Louis doesn’t even seem to like Armond that much.
This is a major problem with the movie, but it also exposes a flaw with the book. Louis never has a consistent motivation, so Rice has to paper over it with lots of internal monologuing and hope no one notices. A stronger motivation would have been much easier to adapt and made the novel better at the same time.
Weakness: The Resolution Doesn’t Fit
In the novel, Louis’s journey resolves when he pays a visit to Lestat, who has become a paranoid shut-in since Louis left. It’s not clear why, but Lestat is now unable to hunt humans, instead subsisting on animals. Having escaped an abusive relationship, Louis gets to take a final victory lap around his abuser, who is nothing without him.
The movie has a similar scene, with Lestat weak and grotesque from the lack of human blood, while Louis is dressed in the finest 1980s fashion. There’s just one problem: Lestat isn’t Louis’s abuser in this version. Now that Louis has accepted feeding on humans, there’s no significant conflict between them. Lestat doesn’t even have anything to do with Claudia’s death like he does in the book. But Louis still plays this like he’s looking piteously on an old enemy instead of someone he claimed to live happily with for decades.
It gets weirder from there. In both versions, once Louis finishes recounting his story to a human reporter,* the reporter immediately demands to be made into a vampire. It’s not clear why he wants this; I think Rice just overestimates how much the average person wants to become a murderous monster. Louis refuses, and that’s where the versions diverge.
In the book, the reporter heads to Lestat’s last known address, presumably for another shot at becoming a vampire. In the film, Lestat ambushes the reporter instead. Lestat still has the sickly look of only feeding upon animals, which raises a host of questions. Most immediately, how did Lestat get there? Last we saw him, he was in New Orleans, and the interview happens in San Francisco. Somehow, Lestat overcame his agoraphobia and inability to hunt humans, but still only fed on animals while following Louis across most of the country?
This is incredibly jarring, and it breaks the basic rule of putting all changes to the plot’s trajectory onscreen. I assume it was an attempt to set up Lestat as the protagonist of future movies that were never produced,* but it makes no sense in context.
Unlike some book nerds, I typically get excited when one of my favorite novels is adapted into a film. It’s a chance to see the strengths of a different medium in action, and also an opportunity to fix problems with the original story. Granted, I’m disappointed as often as not, but that’s generally the case with novels too. Interview With the Vampire provides both outcomes at the same time: I love the strengthening of Louis’s internal conflict and Lestat’s more charming demeanor, but I also spent the second half of the film asking why anyone is doing anything.
Oh, and both versions contain remarkably racist portrayals of enslaved Black people. If we ever get another film adaptation, I’m hoping they put fixing the racism at the top of their to-do list.
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