I’ll be honest with you, I had no idea The Vanishing was anything but a movie starring Jeff Bridges and Keifer Sutherland until very recently. But as it turns out, that 1993 thriller was an adaptation of an adaptation. And what’s weirder is that both movie versions had the same director, George Sluizer. The first version of The Vanishing was Dutch and came out in 1988, about four years after the novella it’s based on was released. That novella, The Golden Egg, was written by Tim Krabbé, who was also a screenwriter for the 1988 film version, but not the 1993 version.
Still with me?
Since I’ve already seen the 1993 version many times (*cringe*), I decided to leave it out of this discussion. Also, I read this post and it sort of made me realize that rewatching a bad movie might not be the best use of my time: “The most baffling part about the remake, is, of course, Sluizer’s own involvement, suggesting that perhaps his fuck-up of a remake was entirely intentional, a manipulative strategy to get viewers to watch his original film.”
So instead I’ll focus on the novella and the original film version. Both start off the same: Rex Hofman and Saskia Ehlvest are on vacation in France. The book tells us the story from different perspectives, starting with Rex. He acts like a jerk to Saskia and briefly mentions how one time they ran out of gas and she had to wait in the dark until he got back with a jerry can. The movie adds this scene for dramatic effect, which is beautifully described in The Washington Post: “Rex and Saskia run out of gas in the darkest recess of a highway tunnel. Traffic blares scaringly past. Panic causes them to argue. Rex, toting a gas can, heads down the road, leaving Saskia in the car. They are separated from each other, yet connected, in the claustrophobic darkness. It echoes a dream Saskia relates, about the two of them enclosed in separate eggs and floating through the universe, and it’s also a prescient precursor of things to come.”
The tension between them grows and they eventually make a stop at a gas station and Saskia ventures in while Rex waits by the car. As time passes it becomes pretty clear that she isn’t coming back. And as Rex waits and grows more and more impatient, so do we. “She had to be somewhere. It broke his heart not to know where.”
Both the movie and the book shift ahead in time at this point; the movie skips three years, the book skips eight. Rex is with Lieneke, his new girlfriend. They have a more developed relationship in the book, but in both versions, they are struggling with the fact that Rex is obsessed with finding out what happened to Saskia. The not knowing is what’s driving him crazy. And rightfully so. I mean, people don’t just vanish into thin air. Still, it’s no surprise in the movie when Lieneke storms off when Rex says: “If she came back I’d stay with you. But if I could go back to that service station I would.”
Raymond Lemorne appears early in the film but it takes about halfway through the book for readers to be introduced to him. We get the feeling right away that something isn’t quite right with him. After he jumps in the water to rescue a child he wonders whether he would also be capable of committing a crime. If he’s capable of good, is he also capable of evil? This gets a little lost in the film, so I found Lemorne to be much more interesting in the book. In both versions we see him practice his abduction technique on his daughter but the book spends a little more time on his thorough documenting and planning. His meeting with Saskia at the gas station is pretty much the same in both versions (damn that keychain!). Also the same is the fact that we don’t really learn what Lemorne did with Saskia until the very end when he approaches Rex with his plan: to find out what happened to her you must go through exactly what she did. Obviously, Rex knows that this won’t end well but he does it anyway. The drive they take together drags a little in the movie, although I was pleased they kept the detail about Lemorne having prepared sandwiches for the two of them.
At the end of the movie and book, Rex wakes up in a coffin. He struggles to keep calm while realizing that this is what happened to Saskia. She had probably begged for him to rescue her, knowing that it wouldn’t happen. It’s a truly horrifying moment: “Stay calm, he thought. I’ve been lying her fifteen minutes. My name is Rex Hofman. When he thought how absurd it was to have a name in a place like this, he began to laugh.”
The only thing I remember from 1993s The Vanishing, other than the weird accent Jeff Bridges puts on, is that it has a happy ending. I much prefer Tim Krabbé’s dark, twisted ending. The entire time you’re reading and watching The Vanishing, you know it can’t possibly end well. The original ending just feels right for the story.
I think the novella wins this battle for me. It’s a simple story, but it’s really smart with just the right amount of suspense. But I admit that even though Roger Ebert called the 1993 movie version “laughable, stupid and crude”, part of me still really wants to watch it again. For old times’ sake.