Gender, domesticity and the empty signifier: in Tomas Aldredson’s Let the Right One In (2008) & Matt Reeves Let Me In (2010)

Let the Right One In

The imperatives of this article emanate from a desire to explore the way in which Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma, 2008) was culturally and commercially transitioned through its American remake, Matt Reeves’s Let Me In (2010). Key questions concerning the framing of gender and sexuality form an integral facet of this investigation, evaluating the way in which gender as a malleable and amorphous concept, is omitted from its American counterpart, culturally and aesthetically suturing it for the American demographic. These debates give way to a more discursive commentary on the domestication of Westernized gender roles within visual culture, as well as how adaptation can provide a platform for both re-inscribing and dissenting from established social codes of conduct. Simultaneously, Let Me In will be examined in relation to how it frames the ‘Other’ through its refusal to sustain the notion of childhood virtuosity.

Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In (2008)

Filmic adaptations, particularly those from literature, are often viewed as inherently derivative. Literature is often endorsed as existing in a unitary state, a blueprint from which all adaptations emerge as secondary. “Many theorists and commentators have addressed such philosophical quandaries on the notion of fidelity and the discourses such a notion arouses.”1. This article does not necessarily seek to denigrate the filmic adaptations of Lindqvist’s novel, merely examine how each directors reworking decodes or refashions particular facets for their specific audiences.

Let the Right One In’s release coincided with a deluge of cult vampire fiction. Itself adapted from Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist’s 2004 novel of the same name, it tells the story of a young Swedish boy called Oskar and his cathartic relationship with a hermaphrodite vampire named Eli in a glacial Stockholm suburb during the early 1980s. The reason that Let the Right One In is significant mapped against this vampire fiction context is the way in which posits a radically different perspective on Western societal gender norms. Through these deviations Let the Right One In also comes to certify the notion that love is not co-dependent on a gendered dimension.

Let the Right One In revolves around 12 year old Oskar, a marginalised Swedish boy, habitually tormented by school bullies and afflicted by the isolation of his parent’s divorce. He finds himself drawn to an enigmatic new resident within his banal Stockholm tower block neighbourhood, ostensibly the same age, a somewhat ambiguous child named Eli. As Oskar and Eli’s friendship develops, Eli is revealed as a being that must live on human blood in order to survive. Although perceived to be female as a result of clothing and hair length, it is revealed that Eli was in fact a boy, castrated upon his violent transition into a vampire some 200 years previously. This transition also leaves Eli trapped perpetually in the body of a child. Although survival necessitates Eli to commit murder at regular intervals, the human friendship with Oskar forces Eli to confront the fragments of his previous human existence and the murderous cost he must now bear.

As aforementioned, this notion of gender is central within Let the Right One In. It would be important, however, to dissect the way in which both Lindqvist and Alfredson define the nature and the role of gender within their texts. Although the term ‘gender’ invokes a multitude of different meanings, co-dependent on the culture and society one emanates from, Lindqvist and Alfredson relay it as a hegemonic division that separate men and women. Within the book, especially, there is a particular emphasis placed on how this division is entrenched both institutionally and within the social domestic space. In this respect, Let the Right One In carves out a new space for itself within the wider parameters of its perceived vampire fiction context. The formation of Alfredson and Lindqvist’s concept of gender within Let the Right One In typifies Judith Butler’s comprehensive study on gender as performance. It is almost as if Let the Right One In behaves as a conduit for Butlers theories, facilitating an annotation of how gender is concerned with hierarchal and societal power. “Gender is an impersonation . . . becoming gendered involves impersonating an ideal that nobody actually inhabits”2. Oskar’s divorced parents remain isolated in the spaces that society has decreed to them. His mother trapped within the vestiges of the idealized domestic space and his father, blighted by alcoholism, is forced to disguise his homosexual relationship through existing on the periphery of society. Both of them, in turn, represent the victims of a perceived ‘failed domesticity’.

Let the Right One In as a cultural product of Sweden forms an intrinsic aspect of the critique of domesticity. Scandinavia is often championed as a European exemplification of a liberal-democratic utopian society, where gender equality underpins societal conditions. Lindqvist and Alfredson’s placement of this narrative within a Swedish context directly challenges this image and confronts the deadlock between latent forms of inequality that lie dormant within Scandinavian societies and the idealistic image that is projected. Oskar and Eli’s relationship, through the force of its genderless nature, transcends the heteronormative relationships that punctuate both Lindqvist’s novel and Alfredson’s film. This is a key sentiment that the two Swedish texts advocate. The fundamental basis for the success of Oskar and Eli’s love is derived from the notion that gendered constructs do not divide them. Neither the men nor the women that surround them can maintain a sense of happiness or balance precisely because the genders are not equal. Through this concept, both the book and the film also underscore how the domestic space functions as a prosthetic mask, refashioning an acceptable face for this disequilibrium.

Alfredson’s assessment includes a conflation of the debates surrounding immigration into Scandinavia. Lina Leandersson, the actress who portrays Eli, was chosen partially on the basis of her Swedish-Iranian ethnic background. Her dark hair and features stand in direct contrast to Oskar’s archetypal Nordic blond hair and ethereal pale skin. These aesthetic decisions stand as an acknowledgement to the recent waves of Middle Eastern immigration into Sweden, of which Eli is a partial manifestation of. Alfredson posits these representations in a very specific way, however. The relationship between Eli and Oskar behaves a concession to nonconformity. It becomes the cornerstone of Alfredson’s ode to rejecting Nordic conventionality, allowing full identification with ‘the Other’. In this sense, just as in the novel, Alfredson offers us a self-reflexive awareness of his own nation’s politics. As Rochelle Wright notes:

“In the context of Swedish cinematic tradition, the visual association of vampires with dark-haired immigrants does not demonize the latter. Instead it reinforces a sympathetic view of the vampire figures by calling to mind numerous films of the last several decades that portray ‘new Swedes’ and second-generation immigrants with sensitivity and insight, focusing on the difficulties of adjusting to a foreign culture or negotiating between conflicting cultural norms.”3

Eli’s gender ambivalence and unequivocal role as Other also gives way to the permeability of the notions of Self and Other within Oskar. As Simon Bacon observes “The film Låt den rätte komma in demonstrates this porosity perfectly, for the vampire Eli is the epitome of the familiar and safe, seemingly being a defenceless pre–pubescent child, but is also the dangerous and destructive Other”4. This aporia is mirrored within Oskar himself who, whilst seemingly powerless against his tormentors, harbours an intense desire to enact violent revenge against them. In addition, Oskar’s hidden amoral capacity for violence is rooted in retribution as opposed to how Eli must kill to survive. This mutual sense of confounding divisions within both characters helps to further demystify the notion of the Other. In this sense, both the film and the novel are tempered by a symbiotic co-dependence between the two children. There is a sense that Oskar is struggling, as a pre-pubescent boy, to locate and carve out a masculine identity for himself. This is confounded by the torment he suffers at the hands of school bullies and gives rise to a sense of his emasculation. They frequently deride Oskar, calling him ‘en liten gris’ (‘a little pig’). This emasculation, through Oskar’s sense of impotence may, however, serve as a very specific identifiable gesture that serves to mirror Eli. Oskar is castrated symbolically through his abjection, Eli physically. From this there is a sense that Eli represents the externalized manifestations of Oskar’s inner turmoil and suppressed identity crisis, undulating between the pressures of Scandinavian conformity and lashing out in a spate of violent revenge. Taking into account the growth of their relationship, Oskar and Eli find happiness accepting themselves as separate yet intrinsic to the development of their identities, demonstrating a degree of acceptance and reintegration. It is the consolidation of this integration against backdrop of its social-ideological critique that reaffirms Lindqvist and Alfredson’s self-reflexivity.

Matt Reeves’s Let Me In (2010)

Pitted against its European counterparts, Let Me In is set during the same time period in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Disembodied from its Swedish context, Let Me In’s territorial transition underscores a narrative sentiment that provides a scathing assessment of the Reaganite rhetoric. In a political climate that founded itself on the hyper-masculine credentials of Reagan’s right-wing agenda, Republican policy decreed how ‘Family Values’ stood to reinforce patriarchal marriage laws in tandem with clearly defined gender roles. Aside from refashioning the political context, Let Me In follows the same narrative trajectory as Alfredson’s with the exception that the gender boundaries between the two protagonists are now clearly defined. Oskar and Eli, a definitively unisex name, become Owen and Abby. Abby is definitively female. Owen’s unstable domestic setting, however, remains and is even exacerbated as he struggles to cope with his alcoholic mother and absent father. Reeves chose to retain the glacial isolation of Let the Right One In’s setting but bolsters the extra dimension of religious fanaticism. While these veiled hierarchies of power remain, they are not as explicitly gendered in the same ways. Conservative Christianity, absent in the Swedish renditions, seeks to relay America’s reliance on the falsified promises of religious sanctity. Here we are presented with a similar landscape of failed domesticity, a failure partly bred by the conservative state.

It is thought that Let Me In’s increased budget and focus on stylistics allowed Reeves to exacerbate the visceral violence within the film, this objective arguably allowed him to monetize the cult success of Alfredson’s film, making it primarily an adaptation based on technical innovation as opposed to narrative development. Let Me In functions as an almost inverted fidelity, whereby loyalty lies not within its faithfulness to Lindqvist’s novel or Alfredson’s film, but to the widely recognized conventions of gendered adolescent romance fiction, to which it is refashioned to acquiesce. Aided by a sub-plot that includes the appearance of Abby’s former child sweetheart, Let Me In invests more within the facets of romance.

By contrast, with the gender divides reinstated and the castration plot device vetoed, Abby cannot function as the projection of Owen’s castrated self. One of the pivotal scenes within Let the Right One In occurs when Oskar and the audience alike are exposed to Eli’s unclothed castrated body. In this fleeting, almost subliminal scene and with no visible genitalia, Eli is firmly characterized as genderless. By contrast, Let Me In offers no equivalent characterization. Chloë Grace Moretz, the young actress playing Abby, embodies the archetypal desirable blond ‘feminineness’ that comes to characterize classical Western romance literature and film. In a somewhat ironic reversal of Alfredson’s sensibilities regarding the inequality between the genders, as Owen is ridiculed by the bullies he is branded ‘a little girl’ as opposed to Alfredson’s ‘a little pig’. The basis of Owen’s mortification lies within the way he is more explicitly feminized. This becomes the films only statement regarding gender, a gesture that provokes feminization as the basis for Owen’s marginalization.

Reagan’s evil empire speech, which forms part of a political dialogue reverberating in the background, elicits the notion of a clear set of binaries between good and evil, or in this case, between the United States and the Soviets. Let Me In hijacks the tensions of this forceful political climate and inverts them, reinforcing Owen’s desires to enact harm on those who torment him against the unhinged religious piety of his isolated home town. This evocation of evil is thus posited as emanating from within as opposed to having an anchorage in a divergent outside agent. This is where we reach the juncture at which Let Me In evolves from its European counterparts. The nature of childhood credulity is an aspect Alfredson invests in thought his film. Oskar’s transgressive fantasies of violent vendettas are blunted by his position as an Othered child. Owen retains the same status with the exception that his transgressions are more explicitly illustrated. He is, for example, shown stealing money from his mother’s purse and using a telescope to spy on his neighbours. As Simon Bacon notes:

“While Oskar and Eli remain locked in time, Owen and Abby are made of temporal disruptions, being shown as both young and old, child and adult as seen in their relationship with each other and their attitude to adults. This temporal and expectational dissonance is caused by the disparity between what society thinks they should be and what they actually are.”5

Let Me In is tempered by its cultural politics. It adapts and refashions from its European counterparts only the qualities that chime with canonical genre conventions of teenage vampire fiction, a genre that often relies heavily on quintessential gendered romance. Although Let Me In also capitalizes on the saturation of Anglophone vampire mythology, it retains certain facets of Let the Right One In’s socio-psychological features, translating them within an American political context. One of the fundamental aspects of this study, particularly in relation to film adaptation, however, is the way in which individual ownership or fidelity to a cultural product is increasingly problematic. This is thought to be a direct result of influential fan cultures, especially as a film or text’s success is often based on a subjective emotional impact. The internet has birthed a bilateral relationship between fans and popular culture, shifting and inverting the monopoly of fidelity. In relation to the recent proliferation of vampire-related romance film and literature and its steadfast clusters of fan cultures, one could argue that the notion of ownership now lies with the fans themselves as opposed to the fidelity of the original text.

This diagnosis of gender inequality is rendered invisible within Reeves’s adaptation. Instead, Let Me In capitulates to more orthodox representations of gender and sexuality. This is primarily achieved through Reeves’s decision to lament Eli’s equivalent character as definitively female. While one could say that a state of domestic ‘normality’ is not restored in any precise form within Let Me In, Reeves does not enter into a dialogue concerning why a state of domestic normality cannot be sustained. Thus, adaptation becomes an exercise in acknowledging the differences within cultural and social perception. While both film texts depart from establishing a finale anchored in a ‘normative’ domestic space, Let Me In invests in adapted aesthetic conventions and narrative devices of horror and transatlantic romance fiction. This investment underscores the role of contemporary adaptation and how the notion of fidelity does not necessarily have to lie within a text’s source of origin, but within the complex and often reciprocal dynamics of our ever shifting cultural landscapes.

(1) Singh, G. (2014). Feeling Film: Affect and Authenticity in Popular Cinema London: Routledge. p.64

(2) Butler, J. (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge

(3) Wright, R. (2010). ‘Vampire in the Stockholm suburbs: Let the Right One In and genre hybridity’, Journal of Scandinavian Cinema, Vol. 1, number 1, p. 59

(4) Bacon, S. (2009). ‘Hello Stranger!?: The Vampiric Re-Finding of the Projected Self in Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In’, (online)

(5) Bacon, S. (2012). ‘The Right One or the Wrong One?: Configurations of Child Sexuality in the Cinematic Vampire’, (online)

Emma Vestrheim

Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia. Originally from Australia, she is now based in Bergen, Norway, and attends major Nordic film festivals to conduct interviews and review new films.