Directed by Stephen Daldry
Written by David Hare, based on Bernhard Schlink’s novel
Starring Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, David Kross, Bruno Ganz, Lena Olin
Opens December 10, 2008
Adapting novels for the big screen is fraught with difficulty. Simply visualizing plot and characters is a cop-out, while being flagrantly unfaithful to the author’s original vision angers the book’s fans. Surely screenwriter David Hare and director Stephen Daldry–who collaborated on the film version of Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader–know this. But their own choices only underline their inability to make a satisfactory adaptation of Schlink’s straightforward but intricately layered novel.
The Reader–which caused a sensation when published in Germany in 1995–ingeniously tackles that country’s collective Holocaust guilt with its love affair some dozen years after the war between a 15-year-old male student and a 36-year-old female streetcar conductor. Schlink literally brings together two generations of Germans as an obvious metaphor for how differently they saw (or refused to see) the horrific sins of the Nazi era, as well as telling a coming-of-age story of a young man during a volatile, embarrassing period in German history.
A valiant work of art, Schlink’s The Reader develops disturbing themes with an offhandedly sophisticated artistry: protagonist Michael Berg’s narration of his affair and its aftermath recounts his story from a distance of some 30 years. The Reader is divided into three distinct parts, each one following the preceding section by several years, with the bulk of the book taken up by the teenage Michael’s illicit–and, it goes without saying, illegal–affair with a much older, secretive woman to whom he also reads the great authors of world literature.
Readers of The Reader may be in for quite a shock seeing the movie, since director and writer make fundamental errors, notably scrambling the book’s crucial chronology. The film begins with a middle-aged Michael, then shows him as a teenager, and keeps shuttling back and forth–with the law-student Michael also in the mix–as the book’s distinct sections are lazily presented. For example, the older Michael will stare out a window, which cues a perfunctory flashback to his teenage years, as director Daldry cuts to another of the high school student’s steamy interludes with mystery woman Hanna Schwartz. The bare bones of The Reader is onscreen, yet the rich texture of postwar German culture is conspicuously missing.
Changing a novel’s structure for the screen isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but The Reader (like other good novels) is so wedded to its literary form that, when upended so mercilessly by screenwriter Hare, the whole thing crashes to the ground. Apparently, the main reason for the movie’s narrative scrambling is to allow its stars, Ralph Fiennes (older Michael) and Kate Winslet (Hanna) to have more screen time. Not together, of course, for Hare sensibly doesn’t write scenes for them in addition to the book’s lone one. But introducing middle-aged Michael at the beginning and regularly returning to him–showing him with a one-night stand in the movie’s opening scene and later showing him at a restaurant with his grown daughter–is a pointless attempt to “flesh out” this character by giving his portrayer more closeups.
Hare has said rather patronizingly that he didn’t want to write a script with lots of explanatory voiceover as a device to smooth over the story’s gaps. But such narration–if used sparingly and concisely–would have helped develop these complex characters far more plausibly than what we have instead: recurring shots of Michael thinking of his fateful relationship with the enigmatic Hanna. Needless to say, Fiennes is essentially wasted in what is a thankless, passive role.
Winslet fares far better, humanizing Hanna beyond how she’s shown in the novel–as a mostly symbolic character. It’s too bad that the couple’s sex scenes are filmed by Daldry as soft-core titillation rather than as a large aspect of a rather strange relationship. David Kross, an actor who learned English for his first big role, is a real find as the teenage Michael: his doughy, not-quite-handsome face is perfect for this intelligent but naive young man who discovers Hanna’s shocking secrets far too late. The book’s barely-mentioned character of Michael’s law professor is enacted by a rather indifferent Bruno Ganz, while Lena Olin handles the small but pivotal roles of a Holocaust survivor and her adult daughter with her usual subtlety.
Technically, The Reader is impressive. The photography by two masters, Chris Menges and Roger Deakins, blends into a seamless whole, and Claire Simpson’s editing and Brigitte Broch’s production design are first-rate. In sum, however, Daldry and Hare have turned The Reader into the kind of middlebrow character study that wins plaudits and awards but trivializes its source novel’s quite novel approach to its familiar but, sadly, still relevant, themes.
originally posted on timessquare.com