The Ring Companion – Book Review
This 2005 publication is an excellent book that should be on the shelf of every fan of the RING films; in fact, J-Horror fans in general will find it supremely rewarding. Author Denis Meikle explores the RING phenomenon in such depth (the cultural context, the novels, the the adaptations for film and television, the sequels and spin-offs) that his book truly could have been titled “The Essential Ring Companion” without a trace of hubris. Meikle writes with the devotion of a fan and the intellect of a first-rate critic: his love for the subject comes through on every page, yet he never devolves into fan-boy gushing or mindless boosterism; he serves up both praise and criticism, in a fair and reasoned manner, and provides the kind of insights that will tickle the fancy of those who thought they knew everything – only to have their awareness enhanced, brightened by a spark that ignites a new flame in the old embers.
Instead of chapters, Meikle divides his book into a prologue and seven “Days” (based upon the seven-day countdown in the story of RING from when when you see the cursed video to the moment of your death). Although mostly chronological, the text maintains interest by reserving certain details for a more dramatic effect (e.g., the famous ending of RING is not discussed in detail until the final chapter).
Along the way, Meikle covers his topic from every conceivable angle, beginning with the source material by Japanese author Koji Suzuki: three novels (Ring, Spiral, and Loop) and a collection of short stories (Birthday). Meikle seems troubled by Suzuki’s reluctance to commit to all-out supernatural horror (his Ring novels read more like Michael Crichton science fiction than Stephen King horror), but he appreciates their strengths and carefully notes the changes made in the adaptations, the first of which was a 1995 TV movie, RING: KANZENBAN, which spiced up the story with nudity.
Before getting to the more well known film adaptations, he provides a history of Japanese ghosts in legend and literature, along with a look at the ghost stories of British antiquary M.R. James, noting several plot parallels between RING and James story “Casting the Runes” (both feature a supernatural curse with a time limit, for example). This is followed by a look at Japanese horror cinema leading up to the 1998 film version of RING.
These chapters provide much-needed historical context for the RING phenomenon, showing Western readers that the 1998 film did not miraculously arrive out of thin air but was actually a modern reinvention of a long-established form. Nevertheless, Meikle’s attention to detail does get the better of him. Yes, Godzilla films are such a gigantic part of Japanese cinema history that it would be impossible to ignore them, but do we really need twelve pages – in a book about supernatural horror, not science fiction? Meikle is on more solid ground when dealing with classics ghost tales such as KWAIDAN and UGETSU (both adapted from traditional supernatural literature), not to mention Kaneto Shindo’s spooky double feature of ONIBABA and KURONEKO.
Meikle delves into the details of the four Japanese films derived from Suzuki’s books: RING, SPIRAL, RING 2, and RING 0: BIRTHDAY. He explores the way the first of this quartet fused Suzuki’s novel with Japanese folklore and elements borrowed from other horror films (including THE OMEN) to create an all-out modern ghost story that launched a worldwide phenomenon. He then notes the problems that plagued the subsequent films: RING had diverged so much from its source that the adaptation of SPIRAL turned out to be a major disappointment that was soon forgotten, leading to RING 2, an original sequel not based on Suzuki’s work. RING 0, a prequel, borrows the setting and time period from “Lemonheart,” a story in Suzuki’s Birthday anthology, but is essentially an original story that tells us how the young Sadako became the monster we met in RING. From there he moves on to the subsequent television adaptations, inspired by the success of the films, which also led to a South Korean remake of RING, entitled THE RING VIRUS.
Meikle rightly reserves his strongest praise for RING, noting the “palpable atmosphere of dread” that builds cumulatively throughout the running time. He dissects the problems with the two sequels but overpraises the prequel as “almost a classic in its own right” when it is at most a mildly interest addendum to the RING mythology. Meikle also accurately notes that South Korea’s THE RING VIRUS is much more faithful to the book than RING, but he takes the point a bit too far, arguing that RING VIRUS is not a remake of RING at all, despite the fact that several major inventions from the Japanese film recur in the Korean version (the protagonist is a single mother, not a married father, and the ghost of the Sadako surrogate, here named Eun-suh, emerges from a television at the end).
Meikle then rightfully trashes the 2002 American remake of RING, titled THE RING, along with its 2005 sequel THE RING TWO. This is followed by a chapter that examines the wave of J-horror films that followed in RING’s wake. As with the chapters on Japanese literature and Japanese horror films, this is an extra-added pleasure that makes The Ring Companion more than a quick knock-off, providing a broader view of the subject by exploring its repercussions on the films that followed. Meikle plows through dozens of titles, offering well-deserved praise for the more well-known ones (e.g., JU-ON, THE EYE, A TALE OF TWO SISTERS), while also singling out some lesser known lights such as Byeong-ki Ahn’s PHONE (2002), which he calls “thoroughly derivative but no less involving for all of that.”
In the Chapter titled “Day Seven,” Meikle examines the show-stopping finale of RING – one of the great horror sequences ever filmed – and then compares it with that of the various other adaptations, remakes, and sequels, which inevitably come up short.
In a final epilogue, Meikle waxes poetic about the RING phenomenon, noting the decline of American horror films into formulaic franchises. There is no doubt that the 1998 movie gave the genre a much-needed shot in the arm, inspiring a memorable trend that yielded several exciting movies. Without resorting to a heavy-handed hatchet job, Meikle makes his point well, noting the sad irony that the ghostly Sadako herself ultimately served as the inspiration for the formulaic American films, but that the integrity of the original film lives on.
If there is one regret you will have after finishing the book (besides the obvious one of wanting the reading experience to go on even longer), it is the absence of an index that would help you return to specific points on which you wish to refresh your memory. With so much information on so many different films and books condensed into nine chapters (counting the prologue and epilogue), finding your way back to discussion of a certain title can be a game of hide-and-seek. The only solution for it is to re-read the entire text from beginning to end -a proposal that is hardly unwelcome.