[Largely spoiler-free, beyond public knowledge of the tropes of Ringu and knock-offs]
An urban legend. Your friends challenge you to watch a cursed video — they claim that after you watch it, you will die in seven days. Ghastly imagery. Unexplained deaths. ‘A friend of a friend knew someone who …”. Seeing reflections in mirrors that aren’t there. The confirmation phone call: “Seven days”. Distorted photographs. Pirate broadcasts. Static TV stations. A ghostly hand reaching from the TV, and a girl with long black hair and a white dress crawls from the video into your living room. Seven days.
Before it was a trope, an icon, a phenomenon, a defining moment in horror, or even a movie, Ring was a book, a novel by Koji Suzuki. Published in 1991, Ring was not translated into English until 2003. Far from a straight-forward horror author, Suzuki specializes in works that bend the nature of reality, that take pseudo-science to its horror conclusion by questioning not merely the nature of death and the afterlife, but the laws of the universe. Like a modern day HP Lovecraft, more than a Japanese Stephen King, Suzuki’s horror comes from its cosmic scope, its implication that there is something so far beyond human understanding, that to know it is enough to be driven mad by it. This, and not a mere ghost story, is the basis of his most famous work, Ring, adapted to the screen first in 1995, but most famously in 1998 by director Hideo Nakata, then remade in the US by director Gore Verbinski in 2002. It is the 1998 Ringu that I’ll be comparing the novel to.
Most of the tropes that we most associate with The Ring — a phone call with a sadistic voice creaking, “seven days”, Sadako with long, stringy hair climbing famously from the televsion set — are entirely absent from the novel. There IS a phone call, which Asakawa surmises is a confirmation call, but there is no voice on the other end.
I actually did not like Ringu much upon first viewing (and have never seen the American Ring). I was so pleasantly surprised by Ju-On, which was so slow, creeping and genuinely disturbing, that Ringu, particularly by its end, looked somewhat pale by comparison. Although the story and character are iconic now, they are more of a joke, a representative of the J-horror trope to be gently mocked as a product of the aughts. I remember remarking that Ringu would be much better if I was unfamiliar with it, if I had no idea what to expect. It is then a testament to the strength of Suzuki’s novel that despite knowing the story and seeing the movie, it still managed to be entirely engrossing, tense and frightening.
The book is actually significantly less violent than the average J-horror movie, and nowhere is this more clear than in the manner of death, something I thought was a now-obsolete ‘twist’ in the film. Famously, the film Ringu ends with the revelation that Sadako physically climbs from your tv set into the house, presumably to frighten you to death or menace you to death, or something — it’s not quite clear what. This was a source of much of the film’s fame, a sort of Poltergeistian portal to the restless spirit for the 2000s, but was also a small misstep. By making the television a necessary and physical part of the death, you expose a good deal of the ridiculousness of Sadako’s physical apparition. Yes, it is frightening to be confronted with a physical manifestation of the ghost girl, but beyond that, it’s not all that scary.
Unlike Kayako in Ju-On (and it’s bastardizarion The Grudge), Sadako isn’t presented as having any kind of real power, psychic or otherwise, in her physical form. Kayako was frightening because she had no physical limitation — she was everyone once she got inside of you: in your hair, in your reflection, in your bedroom window, under your bedsheets, etc. Sadako just . . . Comes out of the TV set. As many comedians since have pointed out, couldn’t you just destroy the tv? Donate it? Drop it into the dump? Hang it over a toilet? Hell, if that’s Sadako’s only weapon, then you know exactly when, where and how she will come for you — and that’s not all that scary. You must take out at least one of those certainties to instill real fear, and since the one thing that is fixed by the mythos of the Ring is the time frame — you will die exactly 7 days after watching the video — the logical thing is to remove certainty about how and where this death will strike.
Another film misstep is casting and characterization. The movie Ringu makes the somewhat bizarre decision to change the protagonist completely, and while I am in favor of having more female protagonists in films (the novel’s central characters are both men), they cast a rather charmless actor in a rather charmless role. Character is a great strength of Suzuki’s novel — the two primary ‘heroes’ are distinct, strong, dogged, deeply flawed, and ultimately likeable. The central character of Ringu, gender-swapped Asakawa, is something like a video game protagonist — she is a stand-in for the audience and dull as paste until she lapses into irritating shrieking hysterics. Revelations about the videotape and Sadako come to her easily, mostly without any effort on her part, and her interest in the case feels more casual than obsessive, as was male Asakawa’s in the novel. For him, there was a sense of his fate, specifically HIS, becoming inextricably entwined with both his sidekick Ryuji and Sadako Yamamura.
By comparison, the plight of the heroine Asakawa in Ringu feels accidental and haphazard. The bizarre decision to make Asakawa Ryuji’s ex-wife adds nothing to the plot, nothing to the character, and in fact neuters the single best non-Sadako character of the book. Ryuji was such a powerful, conflicted, and at times repulsive character in the novel (openly boasts about committing serial rape, although whether this is true or a product of his conflicted personality and impotence is called into question), is fairly vanilla in the film. He shows none of the character of the written Ryuji, and I had to wonder why the primary characters were shot in the feet and given bland personalities, rather than simply copying down the excellent dialogue and chemistry of the novel. The films adds other ridiculous changes that do nothing but muddle the story. Much of the novel’s power is in its streamlined elegance and adding in irrelevant facts and explanations (while bizarrely removing some of the more chilling moments) just muddies the water. One particular change — giving Ryuji psychic abilities — was so unnecessary and gobsmackingly stupid that it actually pissed me off.
Both novel and film begin to falter in the climax, which takes far too long for something which is ultimately pretty dull. The novel remedies this successfully by relying, once again, on its strong central characters, something the film cannot do.
Most unfortunately, Ringu even dampers the infamous Sadako who is not a monster in Suzuki’s Ring. She is deeply sympathetic, even perhaps unwilling. Someone and something of strange beauty and unknown power, as much a levelling force of nature as the tsunami that hampers the protagonists journey towards the end of the story. The Sadako of Ringu, and subsequent iterations of the story, of course very much IS a monster — devoid of the beauty and charm that the novel takes time to set up as her essential qualities.
There are twists in the book that are absent from the film — some of the most profoundly chilling moments and revelations are absent. More than the simple twists however, the book is brilliant at ratcheting suspense and horror, in a way that Ringu is unable to accomplish. This could be down to better writing, better characterization, better pacing, or all of the above, but it make for an incredibly fun and tense read. Even if you know the story, or believe you know the story, Suzuki’s Ring is well worth the read.
Suzuki’s somewhat disappointing sequel, Spiral, is significantly less interesting, but adds a new level of horror that heightens certain aspects of Ring, while unfortunately muting others. Still, the sheer simplicity, pure horror and elegance of Ring is admirable and beautiful. I devoured the novel in two days — leaving me just five short of my allotted seven. Even if you’ve seen The Ring and Ringu, and maybe particularly if you were disappointed in them, Suzuki’s novel is worth reading. It is the story of the Ring the way it was meant to be told: with elegance, tension, soul, and true, infectious, creeping horror.
“In the middle of the black screen he thought he saw a pinpoint of light begin to flicker. It gradually expanded, jumping around to the let and right, before finally coming to rest on the left-hand side. Then it branched out, becoming a frayed bundle of lights, crawling around like worms, which finally formed themselves into words. Not the kind of captions one normally saw on film, though. These were poorly-written, as of scrawled by a white brush on jet-black paper. Somehow, though, he managed to make out what they said: WATCH UNTIL THE END.”
Koji Suzuki, Ring