What do you think of when you hear the name Kevin? For many, it’s Lionel Shriver’s creation of modern day demon child Kevin Khatchadourian, who commits a mass shooting at his school in the thriller novel We Need To Talk About Kevin, that comes to people’s minds. A book initially rejected by publishers in the wake of 9/11 due to its violent content, Kevin is a dark and disturbing story that not only remains current because of the tragic persistence of school shootings in America, but also because of it tackles the idea of failed motherhood. It has a female protagonist who is difficult to like due to her rejection of the maternal ideal that is typically cast in literature, film and TV. Very rarely is a woman who despises her own child shown without condemnation, but in Shriver’s novel, it is presented for the readers to decide whether or not Kevin’s mother is a good person.
Director Lynne Ramsay often works from adaptations of novels to create intensely visual and thematic films, and adapted Shriver’s novel for the screen in 2011. Casting Tilda Swinton as Eva Khatchadourian, John C. Reilly as her husband Franklin, and Ezra Miller as Kevin, We Need To Talk About Kevin is condensed down from a 400 page first person narrative, to a two hour film that abandons much of the novel’s dialogue in favour of striking imagery.
Tilda Swinton sinks completely into the role of Eva, externalising her thoughts and emotions through facial expressions, body language and the occasional violent outburst that only comes back to harm her – smashing Kevin’s water pistol filled with ink damages her shoes. Miller may look slightly too polished to be an adolescent monster, but he and his younger Kevin actors are still unsettling in their unwavering staring down of Eva, and their resemblance to her. It’s eery how similar Swinton and Ezra Miller look, and Ramsay leans heavily on this similarity, cutting shots of them together so that it’s sometimes difficult to tell who we’re watching in a sequence. A shot repeated throughout the film is Eva submerging her head in water, only to emerge as Kevin.
Readers of Shriver’s book may see red reading Eva Khatchadourian’s accounts of parenting, but Ramsay literally fills the screen with a crimson hue that reflects the infectious anger of the characters. There is Kevin’s own obscure but unwavering anger at everything that surrounds him; Eva’s anger at Kevin’s refusal to cooperate in the way that would satisfy her as a mother, and the public anger towards Eva in response to her son’s crimes.
Ramsay takes the key themes of the novel and builds up a montage of scenes to explore these themes and create complex characters. The idea of motherhood being a curse, and something that cannot be escaped once taken up, is strongly represented both in the novel and in the film. Eva’s experience as an unwilling mother is visually represented in the cutting between her walking down a corridor when she’s pregnant with Kevin, and walking down the prison corridor 18 years later to visit her son. As effectively as Shriver communicates Eva’s fear of the permanence of motherhood through her letters, Ramsay doesn’t need Eva to say that she feels trapped – she shows it.
In the novel, the narration plays a huge part in the tone and structure of the story. Eva’s confessions to Franklin via letter about her relationship with Kevin allow the story to unfold gradually, while also creating a complex character in Eva, who gets to tell her side of events, but isn’t completely let off the hook as is sometimes the case with first person narratives. The film doesn’t let Eva talk nearly as much, or anyone for that matter, but Ramsay chooses her words carefully, allowing speech to be concise and pierce whatever point it is making effectively. It also highlights Eva’s choice to keep her arguments close to her, instead of expressing them out loud when they are needed most. Her silence is deafening when Kevin chooses to speak to her. Through film, Ramsay stays in the present world of Eva and Kevin as he grows up, whereas Shriver has Eva narrate in the past tense, looking back and applying her present thoughts to what has already happened.
Where quite often it’s easy to determine whether the book or the film version is better, We Need To Talk About Kevin is much more difficult. It almost seems like each informs and supports the other; watching Shriver’s book transform into the atmospheric and quietly visceral visual montage that Ramsay has created in her film, allows the viewer to feel the raw emotions of Eva’s character and her struggle with answering for her son’s actions.
Returning to the book after watching the film is like being handed a huge chunk of missing information on a case file; scenes that didn’t make it into the film, while they may not have worked (like Eva becoming dangerously ill with Mastitis, to Franklin’s disbelief, pushing Eva out of the father & son relationship), are important pieces of information to consider in the ultimate question that both the film and the novel leave us asking for long afterwards – was it just in Kevin’s nature to kill, or did Eva’s parenting create a monster?