Review: We Need To Talk About Kevin

On a slightly different note today I wanted to start a discussion about a novel I just finished reading (and the film version of it) because it deserves to be debated as it is so full of controversial and poignant issues.

The novel in question is called “We Need to Talk about Kevin” by Lionel Shriver. It is certainly not new, published in 2003, and not an unfamiliar title, having won the 2005 Orange Prize. The book was highly acclaimed upon publication and it became the focus of countless book groups due to its complicated subject matter and controversial issues.

What is fairly new is the film adaptation of the novel. Released in 2011 I thought it was one of the most original and fantastic pieces of cinema I had seen in quite some time. I had not read the book when I saw the film and after I saw it I picked up the book straight away and began ravenously reading.

It’s a psychological thriller centred on the life of a somewhat disturbed boy, Kevin, who orchestrates a high school massacre. The story is told from the perspective of Kevin’s mother, Eva whose life is shattered in the aftermath of her son’s atrocity. For me the novel itself is no so much about the incident of the high school massacre, but more about the mind of Kevin. The story goes back in time to reveal disturbing snippets of Kevin’s childhood which are so incredibly malicious it is hard to wonder how a child can be so jaded.

It is from this notion that the reader learns that Kevin was a child not fully desired by his mother Eva. While her husband, Franklin, wanted nothing more than a child Eva was always apprehensive. She was tied up in a career she loved (travel journalist) and a slightly bohemian lifestyle that just fit her. A child didn’t fit so well. Early on in her pregnancy she has resentful thoughts towards the child who she feels has already taken over her life and body in a negative way. Once Kevin is born she admits to not connecting with the child or feeling the rush of love that most parents experience. Instead she is awkward and uncomfortable with the baby and generally seems shattered.

From this point on the reader cannot help but constantly contemplate whether Eva’s disregard for her child created the malevolent man he became or whether he was just born with sociopathic tendencies. The nature vs. nurture theme is ripe in the book and the issue is carefully crafted into the sub context of the novel. Was Kevin born bad or did his mother turn him into the man he became.

From birth Kevin appears to enjoy punishing his mother. On the surface he possesses so much contempt and hate for her. As a baby he cries incessantly (more so than an average child) and refuses to nurse. He enjoys wearing Eva down and exhausting her very essence. It is as if he detects the inner contempt she has for him and likes to emphasise it – provoking her to lose patience and become frustrated. Nothing gives Kevin greater pleasure than irritating and frustrating his mother to the point where she admits he has ruined her life.

I will note that I felt Eva really tried in the novel to be a good mother. While she was reserved and selfish, at first, she later leaves her job to look after Kevin and seems to wish to connect with him very much – spending a lot of time with and energy on him. But Kevin refuses to give his mother any pleasure. He constantly deprives her simple joys of motherhood and enjoys pushing her to the limit. For example he learns to count on his own (taking from her the satisfaction of teaching him), he refuses to cuddle, won’t play ball with her, he won’t let her dress him. It is as if he wants her to hate him – he appears happiest when he has proven his mother’s disdain for him.

But Kevin is not like that with his father, Franklin. As a baby Kevin would not cry in his father’s arms, he would play with him, laugh with him, cuddle with him and appeared to be a good little boy. Kevin’s ability to play the perfect son in front of his father whilst remaining malicious towards his mother only intensifies the inner diabolical nature of Kevin. It heightens the notion that he enjoys punishing his mother and watching her suffer as his double personality causes a deep rift between Eva and Franklin.

Sadly Franklin is continuously blind to Kevin’s mischief constantly stating – boys will be boys. He refuses to see any warning signs that Kevin may be disturbed and constantly believes the best in his son. He blames everyone else for the train of destruction that follows Kevin around and does not tolerate Eva’s frustration at Kevin’s malignance. He is always shocked and disappointed at the anecdotes Eva reports about her son and resents her for being so negative towards their son. He blames her for never seeing the good in him and always assuming the worst about Kevin’s behaviour. This aspect of the novel saddened me to no end. I became so frustrated at Franklin for never trying to understand his wife (whom he should trust) and shutting her out. Her concerns were never valid and he seemed to think she had a personal vendetta again his son – which is a terrible thing to think about the mother of your children.

The nature versus nurture question is only enhanced when Eva has a second child who resembles perfection. Celia is soft natured, loving, caring and attentive. How could two siblings be so different – could it be because Eva desperately wanted Celia and hence she felt loved or just that she was born a good-natured child?

I thought the film adaptation of the novel was fantastic however I wish I had read the book first as I think it would have been more suspenseful. The film is carefully crafted – going back and forth through time – and uses a lot of symbolism in trying to reveal the inner thoughts of the characters. I was annoyed that more of the brilliance of the book was not in the movie – but I suppose that is typical. But there were a lot of excellent scenes and issues missing.

In the film you don’t quite pick up how malicious Kevin really is as so many events from his childhood are missing. I also didn’t pick up how much Eva resented her pregnancy. In the film she seems just overwhelmed by a difficult child but in the novel more of her true feelings are revealed. The person whose story differs the most is Franklin’s. His relationship with Kevin and Eva is more of a secondary story in the film. When I first watched it I thought he was just a decent dad, after reading the book I found his to be a fool.

Overall it is a great film and the acting is just outstanding.  Tilda Swinton plays the role of weary mother of a disturbed son fantastically. Most amazing are the actors who play Kevin (from toddler to teen).  I was amazed at how well the young Kevins (Rock Duer and Jasper Newell) could play a role with so much loathing and hate at such a young age. They were remarkable. The teen Kevin (Ezra Miller) is outstanding. He manages to portray so many thoughts just with the flick of an eye and lives up to the Kevin portrayed in the novel fantastically.

If you haven’t seen the trainer you should definitely watch it here.

I have tried to discuss the main issues of the novel in order to start an interesting discussion regarding Kevin’s key issues. I didn’t want to describe scenes in detail or give too much away because I cannot recommend it enough as a gripping, intense, controversial and thought-provoking page turner. To those readers who are familiar with Kevin (either through the novel or film) I would so love to know what you thought of it and pose some questions below:

  1. Did you like the novel or the film?
  2. Did you think the film was missing key scenes from the novel which shaped your impression of the characters?
  3. What scenes from Kevin’s youth did you find most disturbing?
  4. Did you blame or empathise with Eva?
  5. Did you resent or feel sorry for Kevin?
  6. Why do you think Kevin went through with Thursday?
  7. Do you think Kevin loved Eva? Or Franklin? Or Celia? Or anything?
  8. What did you think of Franklin – did you think he was a fool and unfair to Eva or correct in defending his son?
  9. Did Eva always see the worst in Kevin?
  10. Do you believe Eva’s portray of Kevin – the story was after all written only from her perspective?
  11. Is Eva responsible for creating a child she sees as a monster, or was he a monster all along?

8 thoughts on “Review: We Need To Talk About Kevin

  1. Great review! I too found the relationship between Eva and Franklin incredibly sad…I think that was one of the hardest things about the book for me. It was a real betrayal, I thought, and I felt the anxiety and tension it must have caused very strongly.

    That picture at the end of your post is incredibly…very scary in a quite kind of way.

    • Yes I must admit I hated Franklin. And even though Eva appeared to be such a strong and independent woman she always just caved. I found it so troubling that he constantly disregards his wife ans just so incredibly sad.

      Ah yes that picture is great isn’t it. Somewhat disturbing, I agree 😉

  2. This is a wonderful review! I read the book first, and wasn’t sure how much of the subtleties of the story came across in the movie, or whether I was imprinting what I knew already on to it.

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