Book Review: The Ruins By Scott Smith

I saw this film maybe six or seven years ago and was aware it was based on a book. The film was just ok, but I enjoyed it enough to read the book. There are several key differences between this and the film, one of which I prefer in the film. For the most part though, the book is better.

The premise starts as many of these things do, as a group of American kids getting themselves into something they do not understand. A group of college students are holidaying in Cancún where they meet a German tourist. Bored with the endless sunshine, cocktails and pool, they go on an adventure with Mathias (their new German friend) and one of a group of Greek tourists that they also befriend.

You know how these things usually go. American kids find themselves in trouble after Not Taking This Seriously, such is the horror trope. But these kids are not bad people. They are not arrogant people who think that their American passport is some sort of magic shield that will protect them from all manner of foreign ills. They decide to leave the hotel to help Mathias find his brother who has gone missing in the rainforests of Mexico. This is less a story about stupid kids, and more a case of the way to hell being paved with good intentions.

Following an apparent trail to a remote archaeological dig, the group – one German, one Greek and four Americans, end up on a hillside covered in a strange vine with brilliant red flowers. What’s more, following an incident, they are trapped there and seemingly held hostage by a group of Mayans who speak neither English nor Spanish. Yet the manner of the hostage situation is that they are not permitted to leave the hillside. There’s something in the vines and that is all I am going to tell you about the plot.

This is very much a tale of tragedy, of a group of kids trying to help a friend who cannot imagine the horrors awaiting them, who realise they are under-prepared for what is happening to them. Although none of them are particularly likeable, unlike in most similar horror books, they are not bad people who you cannot wait to see die. It is simply not that sort of book.

The pacing is simply terrific. For me, a good horror knows when to taunt you. It knows when to tantalise and threaten and it knows when to go for the jugular and throw everything at you. Smith’s execution on that score is impeccable. He deliberately slows the pace down. In any other book, that might be frustrating, an irritation even but here it adds to the tension. You know that somebody will die (it won’t be a horror without deaths) but it’s hard to tell who and when. On some occasions, it even revels at mocking the tropes of the genre, for example in referring to the girls as “The Slutty One” and “The Demure One”.

As I mentioned above, I have seen the film. There is one element to the film that I prefer over the book: the setting. In the book, it is a hillside with an underused mine shaft. In the film, the setting is switched to a lost Mayan temple. This adds to the mystique, the weirdness and the atmosphere. The book is a little disappointing. What are the titular ruins? The mine? If so, why is it so underused? What was the point of the mine shaft aside from one key incident near the beginning?

In almost every other way, I prefer the book to the film and this is only a minor flaw. It’s a 5 star rating from me.

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