Our monsters, our selves
2008’s Let the Right One In was the counterweight to the Twilight fever of the 2000s: a vampire love story that was also dripping with gore and happy to embrace the darker elements of the genre. It walks a line between sympathizing with its young outcasts and the connection they find and acknowledging that “hey, it’s probably good that this kid found a vampire, because he’s already a burgeoning serial killer.” And it’s become a beloved cult classic in the decade since its release. But not everyone is aware that it isn’t just a vampire love story—it’s a queer one.
From the Source
Let the Right One In began life as a Swedish novel published in 2005. It is in some ways an incredibly difficult text to parse—partly because it has the shortcomings and excesses of a first novel, partly because it is being read in translation, and partly because it is a story about gender identity written by a cisgender author.
The basic text of the novel tells us that Eli, the vampire main character, was snatched away from his family by a pedophilic nobleman, their genitals were removed, and they were made into a vampire who will remain emotionally twelve for eternity. Eli dresses in feminine clothes, but upon becoming close with human child Oskar confides that they are “not a girl, not a boy[…] nothing” and shares their backstory and birth name (Elias). Following this revelation, the book switches from “she” to “he” pronouns.
There is, as the academics say, a lot to unpack there. Eli is quite obviously trans-coded in the fluidity of their presentation and rejection of binary gender descriptors, which is an exciting thing for trans readers. It’s also deeply fraught, because Eli’s gender is irrevocably tied to a mutilation which explicitly and implicitly robs them of choice—they had no choice in becoming a vampire, no choice in whether or not to grow up, no control over their own body. They are symbolically “robbed” of gender by being forced to stay a prepubescent child, which is represented as being literally robbed of their genitals.
As I said, fraught. Particularly given the fact that mainstream framings of trans identity tend to focus on genital status to the exclusion of all other things. And yet, for all its clumsiness, there is a sense that the story is trying to be sympathetic. Oskar’s response to Eli’s “I’m not a girl” speech is simply to ask again if they want to date, and later to ask one of his teachers whether two boys can fall in love and commit to one another. It is, I suspect, attempting to be a queer story about two boys using Eli’s gender presentation as a reveal, and dragging a hell of a lot of baggage in its wake.
The Subtext is Text
The majority of this material also appears in the 2008 film. Eli is played by a young cisgender actress, but the scene of Eli balking when Oskar calls them a girl remains—in fact, the movie added a second instance just to underline the point—and there is an extremely brief flash of their mutilation scar as they change clothes. For many viewers, the scar scene went unnoticed, and the denial scenes were read as statements about Eli’s humanity, rather than gender.
To use the words of the book’s author, John Ajvide Lindqvist, when relating that the translators originally wanted to publish the novel in English as Let Her In, “Yeah… so I wonder if they read the book before they suggested that.”
But even if Eli is still notably queer in their film incarnation, they are also subtly different. The omission of Eli’s backstory and their birth name opens up an interpretation that the novel fairly straightforwardly rejects: of Eli being not just a gender-nonconforming boy or agender, but a transgender girl.
Without the details of the novel’s firm reframing after the slow-dance scene, movie Eli could just have easily chosen their name for themselves, and even inflicted their own scar. It still comes with the same problematic baggage as the book, but it does the great good of making Eli relatable to a wider variety of marginalized viewers–opening interpretations of their identity to basically “anything but a cisgender girl.”
The Importance of Being Eli
What makes Eli important, and important to acknowledge as a queer figure, is the very rare thing about their story: it ends happily. Marginalized fans are well-acquainted with the concept of queer monstrosity, which tends to encode villains and monsters as outsiders. Many of us are drawn to those characters regardless of their inevitable fates. But Eli is sympathetic, burdened with a tragic past but on their way to a happy future.
The ending of the film is somewhat ambiguous: the film implicitly compares Oskar with Eli’s Renfield-like caretaker, Håkan, whose origins are left unclear and who is left for dead when Eli takes up with Oskar. Thus, when Eli and Oskar run away together, there is the lingering question of whether Oskar will one day be discarded, too. But the book makes it explicit that Håkan was an adult pedophile before meeting Eli, and is drawn to them for his own predatory reasons. Not only that, Lindqvist resolved the issue in the novel’s sequel Let the Old Dreams Die, which has Eli and Oskar—now a vampire—still together.
Happy queer monsters are a rare thing in film, vampires or otherwise. Even stories that contain them—Interview With the Vampire of The Vampire Chronicles comes to mind—often lose that element in adaptation. Unsurprisingly, Let the Right One In’s American remake leaned extremely hard on the implication that “Abby” is indeed a cisgender girl.
How insufferably dull, to take away one of the few queer and trans characters in media in favor of going full circle—making Let Me In the drab, bloodier Twilight knock-off that pales in comparison to its source material, not to mention a means of snatching the US rights from Lindqvist. Eli is a marvelous, unique character, part of a still-small pool of trans characters in major films. And Let The Right One In presents an opportunity for viewers to begin learning how to read queer film, to train themselves to notice the very present indicators and thus broaden their cinematic experience—if they let it in.