In the ideal Scandinavian society, every man is his brother’s keeper; the welfare state is in theory a place of broad, inclusive wellbeing for every child, man, and woman. Utopian in its ambition, one is inclined to expect it depicted as such on the silver screen as well. However, in Tomas Alfredson’s Let The Right One In, that social inclusion and sense of communal belonging is lost in the mid-winter darkness, and instead, adolescent loneliness and familial disconnection reigns.
Alfredson’s Swedish suburb Blackeberg is like its name suggests, a dark, dark place: pitch-black sky looms large over a snow-clad, lifeless landscape. It’s a relatively small town mostly comprised of low-income housing, apartment buildings in which few apartments show any signs of life. It is in such a building we first see Oskar: half-naked, he stands in his room holding a hand up against the windowpane, ,his own lonely figure looking back at him. Behind his reflection there’s nothing but snow, darkened apartments, and the black sky. Not only a backdrop for this particular scene, the housing developments remain a permanent fixture in much of the film, a reminder of the communal inclusion that Oskar is such an antithesis to. Though these buildings are not outright meant to have their residents socialize, the lack of movement, of life, is a standout feature in the initial part of Alfredson’s film. Like Oskar’s spectral reflection in his window, Blackeberg to a large degree appears a ghost town.
Different, but not all that much, is Oskar’s life at school: kids play, shriek, and laugh in the frail hours of sunlight. Despite the presence of others, the same sense of remove prevails. With Oskar in focus, characters surrounding him are blurred, indistinguishable. A policeman even engages Oskar in conversation, but he still remains blurred. The only kids that materialize are his bullies. Alfredson as a director seems intent on the subjective experience. Continual victim of Conny and his cronies, Oskar experiences them as predators: Conny’s voice travels around corners, his shadow stretching down hallways, infesting every nook and cranny. When finally backed up against a wall, Alfredson shrinks the frame to trap Oskar, containing both him and Conny in a close-up that offers no escape. This same strange sense of inescapability is found at home, where the perennial darkness seems so impenetrable to be almost absolute.
Oskar’s estrangement isn’t just from his peers; a different kind of disconnection exists at home in the apartment where he lives with his mother. A small place in and of itself, there is still plenty of opportunity to communicate a curious divide. Conversations are short, mainly instructional and typify the common curt, prompting exchange of teenagers and their parents. They converse while in separate rooms, the frame including them both, but clearly divided; when the camera focuses on either of them, the other is reduced to either a disembodied voice, or shape in the background.
With the introduction of Eli, Oskar’s hopelessness is ripped asunder. They grow close and even become an unlikely couple, despite Eli’s hesitance. The sky is brighter as they sit together on the playground, and they are both included in the same frame, sitting side by side. This brighter sky is despite the fact that Eli as a vampire must avoid sunlight. Despite being a creature of the night, life with her appears brighter, and she is one of the few with which he makes eye contact and devotes his attention to.
Moving beyond simple socializing, the couple also goes further to attain a sense of intimacy impossible to find this side of the smartphone. Set in the early 80s, long before the advent of social media, Oskar devises a method whereby to stay in touch while apart. With their respective bedrooms sharing a wall, Oskar introduces Morse code, and so taps and scratches become the foundation of a relationship that is non-verbal, and frankly, both social and anti-social at the same time. Eli dismisses her unseemly guardian Håkan from her room in order to turn to sit and stare at the wall, awaiting Oskar to do the same on the other side so they can talk. Sitting in each their own empty apartment, they are alone together as their emotional connection transcends physical boundaries.
As far as this article is concerned, Alfredson’s treatment of Oskar’s loneliness hinges on his sensual experience of others. We are never more convinced of Oskar’s loneliness, than when he is surrounded by other children his age at school, and at home he likewise is disconnected from his mother. Alfredson employs various techniques to communicate this abject sense of isolation. Characters are reduced to blurry bystanders, and Alfredson’s visual composition separates Oskar from everyone else, erecting sensual barriers between him and others. The inverse is true of him and Eli, as she mostly occupies the same frame as Oskar; even when not engaged in conversation, the camera insists there isn’t much of a physical distance between them. Finally, with Morse code, they overcome the obvious physical barriers, and given how Morse code has become obscure and largely unknown in its antiquity, it’s a language that is exclusively theirs. From a point of social exclusion, Oskar turns the tables by an act of inclusion, and the end of the film has a definite vibe of two people taking on the world.
More than a modern twist on vampire mythology, Let the Right One In is a story of the power the ‘right’ person can bring to a relationship, and the uplifting effects mutual recognition can bring. Eli insists on Oskar not being too different from herself. The same frustration with his lot in life that Oskar feels is the same frustration that Eli suffers. Her very first sight of Oskar is of him taking out his anger at Conny on a nearby tree, stabbing it with his pocketknife and mimicking Conny’s taunts. Recognizing some of her own anger in Oskar, she in turn asks him for that same empathy, as she covered in blood asks him to “try and be me.” Closing his eyes, the audience can see along with Oskar, Eli’s true self, an aged vampire with an even older sadness in her eyes. Accepting each other, they also become endlessly more “real” to one another, and more than just a voice from across the room or a shape at the end of a hallway.
From stoic darkness of his initial loneliness, to the bright, speculative future with Eli, Oskar’s life has come a long way, if purely from an emotional point of view, and the deciding factor seems to be the quality of his relationship with Eli. The ending in the train car could only be more metaphorically on the nose if they had put Eli in a heart-shaped box rather than the standard cardboard variety. A paean to the possibilities of transformation that the right person can offer, Let the Right One In strips the vampire-film of its historical sexual connotation, and instead champions the strength of the emotional intimacy the two share. The narrative is finally sealed with a small kiss, bestowed by Oskar in a language meant for only Eli to hear: “P-U-S-S.”
The novel versus the film
From the page to the screen, a few things went missing. John Ajvide Lindqvist’s source material features far darker elements than what made it into Let the Right One In, especially when it comes to the personalities of some of its central characters.
Oskar’s personality is markedly different: timid and afraid, his desire to rid himself of Conny’s tyranny is wholly different from that of the book. Mimicking Conny’s taunts, Film-Oskar stabs a tree, but his fervor quickly abates, and he sheathes his knife while throwing a very self-conscious look over his shoulder. His interest in murder cases and forensics is only briefly alluded to in the film, while in the book this fascination with murder and violence is much more obsessive, leading to very developed fantasies of revenge and graphic imagining of violence.
Håkan as a character, and his relationship to Eli, is another major point of departure. In the film, he remains a dedicated servant and ward to Eli, but the source of his affection remains unexplored. He is a quiet character, and his role in the film is reduced to gathering fresh blood for Eli, one way or the other. In the book, he’s revealed to be a pedophile, and that his companionship with Eli partially satisfies his sexual desires, though no sexual contact is had between the two beyond touching.
The film adaptation Let the Right One In goes a long way to remove the darker passages of the book, instead dedicating more time to emphasize the elements considered in this article. Håkan’s unwholesome sexuality and his sexualization of Eli are removed to allow the more innocent and platonic relationship between Eli and Oskar to take precedence. Likewise is Oskar’s (non-vampire) bloodlust scaled back, and his physique is changed from dumpy to delicate. All in all, Alfredson avoids the dubious elements of every character, instead emphasizing their willingness to protect and serve others.