A couple of weeks ago I got taken to a preview of Stephen Daldry’s new film The Reader – book by German writer Bernhard Schlink. I was excited to see the film as I had loved the book as a rare exploration of the psyche of the first post-war generation of Germans dealing with the moral (or lack of) legacy of their parents: The so-called ‘sandwich’ generation. Schlink does this beautifully and the book is as much a love story as an kind of oedipal wrestling as the central character discovers how his father was politically implicated in the atrocities of the Nazis by dint of apathy – or head in the sand – mentality. This is pushed further by the metaphor of illiteracy of the ex-prison guard (the young protagonist’s older lover) who takes the rap for condemning 300 Jewish female prisoners to death when she passively allows herself to be tried and condemned for an order she could not have written. It is a simplistic plot device which examined closely doesn’t really work as frankly, she is guilty of not opening the doors of a burning building thus allowing the deaths to occur anyway, and she has worked as a guard, regularly and knowingly sending women to their deaths so who cares whether she’s guilty of writing the order or not. It is only shame over her illiteracy that stops her from defending herself, no great moral protest or innocence there.
But because the book is really from the young boy’s pov and concentrates more his own shock and getting of wisdom in relation to the true extent of deliberate adopted ignorance of the actual workings of the holocaust by his elders you forgive the weakness of this central device.
Unfortunately the film highlights this weakness by refocussing the story onto the seduction and love affair of the 15yr old and not the broader political issue. I know sex sells but really it is a discredit to the nuances of Schlink’s writing (and philosophical ambitions) to simplify the narrative to such banalities – especially from such notables as Sir David Hare (screenwriter) and Mr. Stephen Daldry. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian wrote a review I thought encapsulated the problems.
I saw Bernhard Schlink speak live in LA in the late 90’s just after the book was hitting the circuit. He came across as a shy self-effacing intellectual and likeable. Interestingly enough, my partner at the time – A Dutchman (whose parents both had suffered in the 2ww) – found him to be an apologist, a judgement I thought harsh – but European sensibilities differ and obviously one’s own historical perspective has influence.
Nevertheless I felt the film did sentimentalise and sanitise the female prison guard and, as we are given no insight into her psychology or flashbacks to her actual behaviour as a prison guards, it is far too easy to feel sorry for her.
Having had the confronting experience of going to visit Auschwitz myself (my mother lost her grandfather and uncle and several branches of her family in the camps) with a holocaust denier in the tourist group I was walking around with, let me tell you – A film set it isn’t. When evil is depicted within a narrative it usually has moral perimeters and there is usually redemption –- real evil has no moral perimeters or redemption – it just is.
Adaptations are always tricky, and it is well known that often-bad books make great films. Notable exceptions would be Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner (Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) The Tin Drum (and I was a huge fan of Gunter Grass) and The English Patient – I was around pitching in Hollywood when this screenplay was floating about and I was astounded that anyone in their right minds would attempt to adapt such a complicated and convoluted story, but Anthony Minghella was a wonderful playwright and screenwriter as well as director. And I actually think the film is more powerful than the book. It certainly is more linear in structure and this makes it easier to emotionally track and empathise with the characters.
Personally I would never adapt my own books into screenplays. There is so much culling involved in squeezing a novel into 110 minutes that it would involved too much heartbreak. Again, this is why so many film adaptations were originally short stories – One of the great ones being Brokeback Mountain.