When you’re both a film critic and an awards pundit, the sad truth of the matter is that a few of your favorite films from every year won’t ever receive the consideration they deserve from the industry, either because said films are “too cerebral” and not as accessible to/enjoyable for average audiences, or because the subject matter simply isn’t made for “broad consumption.” That latter explanation is what makes an awards campaign for Luca Guadagnino’s brutal – yet simultaneously beautiful – Bones and All an uphill battle, as the film has been sold (and sometimes dismissed) as a “cannibal love story,” even though there’s so much more on its mind than that dismissive distinction can describe. What Guadagnino (and screenwriter David Kajganich) have created here is nothing short of cinematic alchemy: a movie that effectively captures all the highs and lows that accompany the emotional chaos of being alive. The fact that the lead characters happen to be cannibals – not by their own choice – is secondary to the staggeringly moving messages about the longing to be loved in this lonely world, and finding the one who finally makes you feel seen and appreciates, adores, and accepts you as you are, no matter what that is (a theme poignantly portrayed by the tenderhearted Taylor Russell and Timothée Chalamet through their central resplendent romance). And yet, some viewers will still only ever see this as “the cannibal movie,” and that’s that.
If it were up to me, Bones and All would have a spot secured in nearly every category at the Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Original Score, Best Original Song, and Best Sound, in particular. I sincerely don’t see a world in which I end the year not still regarding this as one of the most delicately directed, sensitively scripted, affectingly acted, and powerfully produced pictures of 2022, but I also know that my particular tastes (wink wink) don’t always align with The Academy’s, so I’m not foolish enough to truly assume it will ever net anywhere near this many nominations when all is said and done this awards season. However, while it does still stand a shot below-the-line here-or-there (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ subtle but stirring score is one of the best they’ve ever composed, and their original song is equally emotionally effective, while the sound work here is splendidly spine-chilling), I actually believe one of its best bets may be in the Best Adapted Screenplay category, for David Kajganich’s skillfully structured script. Not only is the Best Adapted Screenplay competition relatively sparse this year (Sarah Polley remains the early frontrunner for Women Talking, while She Said, The Whale, and Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery feel like the next likeliest contenders at the moment), but Kajganich’s screenplay is also simply one of the most brilliant acts of “adaptation” I’ve maybe ever seen.
Guadagnino and Kajganich’s adaptation of the 2015 novel of the same name by Camille DeAngelis starts with the same central conceit: a young woman named Maren Yearly (16 in the novel, 18 in the film, and played by Taylor Russell) is afflicted with the desire to consume human flesh, and this is a desire she cannot control and frequently acts upon, forcing her and her father (her mother in the novel) to constantly be on the run, evading authorities every time Maren’s hunger gets the best of her. However, after one “accident” too many, Maren is abandoned by her father and left to fend for herself on the margins of society, where she sets off in pursuit of the mother she’s never known and later comes into contact with other “eaters” like her, including the sadistic and startling Sully (Mark Rylance), an older eater with more advanced “abilities,” and the lively Lee (Timothée Chalamet), a disenfranchised drifter who has adapted to life on the run but still lacks something to live for. Maren’s fast friendship with Lee soon develops into something more, but dark forces found both in the world around them and within will threaten to upend their newfound tender connection, along with their seemingly insatiable hunger, which, if ignored for too long, can corrupt one’s psyche entirely.
The first compelling change made by Kajganich is the transportation of this story’s events from the 90s – the era during which they take place in the novel – to the 80s. On the surface, this might seem like a “superficial” switch (or one implemented simply to cater to the “comfortable” stylistic tendencies of Guadagnino, whose Oscar-winning Call Me by Your Name was set in 1983 and 2018 remake of Suspiria was set in 1977), but instead, it seeks to suffuse the film Bones and All with timely social commentary the same way Kajganich’s script for the aforementioned Suspiria remake was converted into a commentary on communism and the relations between West and East Germany in late-70s Berlin. Setting Bones and All in 80s America as opposed to 90s America offers Guadagnino and Kajganich the opportunity to turn the plight of these “eaters” into a broader parallel for anyone who’s ever felt like an “outsider,” or more specifically, an “other.” (DeAngelis’ book was originally a pro-vegan piece, using cannibalism as a metaphor for meat-eating.) It’s not hard to then connect the dots between “other” and “queer,” especially since the 80s saw the rapid rise of social conservatism in Ronald Reagan’s America, when millions were dying from AIDS due to institutional ignorance and societal shaming directed at the gay community – and that’s where the film’s true thematic power lies.
Maren, Lee, and all of the other eaters aimlessly wander this wicked world – a world that wants nothing to do with them, and a world where they don’t “fit” – with a “condition” they can’t control that threatens their ability to truly connect with anyone. You start to feel like “the only one of your kind,” destined to drift through time with nothing (and no one) to look forward to until the day you die. But these aren’t emotions only eaters experience, as you’ll be hard pressed to find any queer person (or honestly, any human) who hasn’t felt the same way. And that’s what makes the romance between Maren and Lee exponentially more resonant (along with the fact that Lee has far more depth here than he does in the novel, which is a testament to both Chalamet’s acting capabilities and Kajganich’s compassion for the character). This isn’t a mere “fleeting crush” that occurred as a matter of happenstance – to one another, Maren and Lee appear as oases in the deserts that are their lives. They are the first people that either have found that not only share this “sickness,” but this sadness and sensitivity too – sadness and sensitivity that they’ve been reticent to show anyone, out of fear of rejection. But try as they might to keep their walls up, as their similarities become more apparent, these walls naturally come crumbling down, as Bones and All isn’t just a film about hunger for the human flesh, but the equally insatiable hunger for emotional intimacy as well. For someone to see you for all you are – even the supposed “evil” you seek to scrub out – and want all of you, every second, minute, and hour of every day. The hunger to be so close with another person that you almost become one.
Spoilers for Bones and All
That last sentence in particular will hit close to home for fans of the book, who will most likely head into the film adaptation of Bones and All with memories of the novel’s monstrously gory conclusion, in which Maren – whose condition is much less “controllable” (in the film, it’s said that she has gone years at a time without “eating”) and compels her to eat someone whenever she gets too close to them – can’t hold back the beast inside and eats Lee, making him “a part of her forever.” From there, she seems to have no choice but to become a hunter like Sully was, always on the run and always in this animalistic state. She stops attempting to try to “contain her inner cannibal” and simply lets it consume her, with no more earthly connections or human emotions “holding her back.” It’s not only a shocking and downright sad ending, but an admittedly cynical conclusion as well, especially for those who became quite taken with Maren and Lee’s raw and riveting romance over the past 300 pages. One could say that perhaps author Camille DeAngelis is making a statement that we can’t ever outrun who we really are, no matter how hard we try, but why must that lead Maren to kill those she loves as well? Why can’t Maren and Lee “be who they are” together? Or, if Lee must die, why must it be at Maren’s hand? (Or, well… mouth.)
Thankfully, Kajganich’s screenplay not only gives us a more reasonable resolution, but a richer one as well. Sadly, Maren does indeed still eat Lee by the end, but this is not an act she does at whim. Instead, she is asked by Lee to eat him after his lung is punctured during a fight with Sully in the film’s finale, where Sully is left dead and Lee is on his way there. Initially, Maren ignores his pleas, begging him to let her take him to a hospital, where they can see if someone – anyone – can do something. But it’s no use, as Lee tells her it’ll be too late, and nothing they do can prevent what’s about to happen. However, if he must die, he wants it to be on his own terms – and he wants to assure that somehow, someway, he’ll still be with Maren forever. Weakly, Lee pleads with Maren one last time to eat him, bones and all (a nod to both the film’s title and an act that we’ll get to in a little bit), and tearfully, she complies. We only see her “snacking” in spurts – as we cut between Maren’s movements and Lee’s languid reactions – and as this tragedy takes place, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ aching original song “(You Made It Feel Like) Home” plays in the background, deftly describing the depressing denouement of Maren and Lee’s romance in detail with lyrics like “just for a minute, you made it feel like home.” And even though this ending is admittedly an emotional wallop, the deeply felt melancholy found this song slightly recontextualizes this scene, allowing us to see it not as a cruel catastrophe (in line with the cynicism of DeAngelis’ conclusion) but instead as a celebration of the time Maren and Lee did spend with one another, during which they changed each others’ lives – and also a celebration of the fact that, despite his death, Maren and Lee will now always be one.
But let’s go back and discuss what “bones and all” really stands for, as the phrase takes on two vastly different meanings in the book and the movie. In DeAngelis’ novel, her eaters always consume their victims “bones and all” – their cannibalism is essentially a superpower-of-sorts, and when they feast on someone, they devour every last inch and leave almost nothing behind, with nearly no trace of this victim’s existence remaining. This is something that likely works better in a book than it does onscreen, as in the novel, it allows DeAngelis to leave most of the grisly details of an eater’s cannibalism out and focus primarily on plot, character, and theme, but in a film, such a supernatural act would ruin the reality of the story that Guadagnino and Kajganich have so scrupulously set up here. Instead, when we initially meet Maren in the movie, she feasts on her victims as an animal would – mouth and teeth to flesh (and it’s the same for Lee later). However, during a run-in with another wayward eater named Jake (amusingly played by Chalamet’s Call Me by Your Name co-star Michael Stuhlbarg), Maren and Lee learn of the practice of eating a human being “bones and all,” not supernaturally, but as you would any other “meal.” When you’re through, it’ll be as if your victim never even existed – even though they always will in you. It’s a practice that only the most “experienced” eaters are capable of, so naturally, Maren and even the older and wiser Lee have not yet worked their way up to such an effort. But that’s what makes Lee’s begging to Maren in the film’s finale – and her acceptance of his appeal – all the more monumental. It’s the first time she’s ever attempted something like this, but she’s willing to do it because the love of her life begged her to with his final breaths, and because she wants his chemistry combined with hers for eternity.
End Spoilers for Bones and All
While we have Camille DeAngelis to thank for both the characters of Maren and Lee and the sordid story they star in, I believe David Kajganich’s adaptation of Bones and All to be an improvement in almost every conceivable way, not only elevating this intimate epic’s emotional impact, but also giving it additional gravitas by transporting it to a more politically tumultuous time period that makes the central romance – and their undeniable and unrelenting connection – feel far weightier (and ultimately, far more wrenching, too). Of course, Kajganich’s screenplay is only one component of the supremely scrumptious concoction that is the film adaptation of Bones and All – with Luca Guadagnino’s emotionally discerning direction and two poignant powerhouse performances from Taylor Russell and Timothée Chalamet complementing it consummately (and it really is a shame that a performance as note-perfect as Chalamet’s can’t even contend in a remarkably weak year for the Best Actor category) – but if I must single out the element that is likely to be the most accessible to Academy voters, I shall argue for Kajganich’s inclusion in the Best Adapted Screenplay line-up, where I would hope that the members of the writers’ branch regard this as the awe-inspiringly audacious and affecting act of adaptation that it truly is.