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Not A Love Story

My mother went to see “The Reader,” a David Hare adaptation of Bernard Schlink’s best-selling novel. She had loved the book but was disturbed by the film. She didn’t know what was different so I offered to see the film, read the screenplay, and then reread the book to find out how David Hare had changed the story either by omitting scenes, adding them, or changing what the characters say or don’t say. My mother was certain there had been changes but couldn’t articulate them. From her point of view—that of a Jewish Holocaust refugee—she didn’t feel the changes were for the better. The author’s quest for understanding in the book through an intelligent, humble narrative persona, had been distorted in the film, she thought.

”The Reader” reads well in English probably because its author, a constitutional judge and author of several crime novels, had studied in England and the United States and speaks English well. A translator will often work in collaboration with an author, more so if the author speaks, reads and writes the language. But I have read nothing to suggest that Bernard Schlink was invited to work with David Hare—a well known, knighted British playwright—during the process of adaptation. Typically, film companies buy the rights to a novel and send the novelist back into his cave. Usually, they hope he’ll stay there.

The adaptation of “The Reader” from book to film took a long time. Anthony Minghella had originally optioned the book with his co-producer, Sydney Pollack, soon after the book was published in English. Bernard Schlink must have been pleased; Anthony Minghella had a reputation for collaboration with authors. Michael Ondatjee had worked closely with him during the script development of “The English Patient.”

Time passed, the project remained dormant and then, finally, Minghella and Pollack –who felt they were letting Schlinck down with all the delays—granted the rights to David Hare and the director, Stephen Daldry. The two original producers returned to help out and then both died within weeks of each other, leaving the screenwriter without the mentors he badly needed. “Time and again, Sydney would draw us back to the question: What exactly is the metaphor of reading in the film? What is the function of literature?” Hare writes in the introduction to the screenplay. Sadly, it seems as though he could not answer these seminal questions without Sydney Pollack’s guidance.

Where does the film adaptation fail? Most obviously, in the choice of Kate Winslet as leading lady. Her husband, Sam Mendes, became the producer of the film, so obviously this led to her casting after another actress backed out because of pregnancy. It’s intriguing to wonder who this woman might have been. Someone a bit rougher? A bit less sweet? Kate Winslet is beautiful and her luminous presence on the screen—her innocence—is never shattered. We believe in the love affair because she is so attractive. Where is the scene from the book where Hanna strikes Michael with a belt? Where is Hanna’s dark cruelty? Absent. The leading lady has become a sympathetic Romantic Heroine.

Returning to the book after seeing the movie, I was struck by Schlink’s ability to work on several levels, beyond the love story and Hanna’s “illiteracy,” a complexity the film does not achieve. If Hanna is the old Germany and Michael the new Germany, the story becomes more interesting, deeper. And if her illiteracy is a metaphor for “not knowing,” the primary rationale the ordinary citizens of Germany have always voiced for their complicity and silence, then Schlink has succeeded where the film has not in condemning, not forgiving, his father’s generation. As the metaphors in the book are consistent, I am certain this was the author’s intent. Michael’s voice as a questioning narrator and interlocutor is obliterated in the film. The narration becomes casual, matter-of-fact. What remains is a story about a young man’s sexual initiation at a certain time in history. But that certain time in history is never fully examined.

Should a subject such as genocide ever be presented casually, as entertainment? Yes and no, or it depends on how well it’s done. Sometimes a new approach pierces the iconic imagery of the event and illuminates unexpectedly. Roberto Benigni ‘s “Life is Beautiful” is one such cinematic example. Although most of my family was murdered in the camps, that particular film made me laugh and cry at the same time. It was the first time in years I’d felt anything beyond numbness and resignation about “life” in the death camps.

When I finished the arduous task I’d set myself of comparing and contrasting the book, the screenplay and the film, I returned to my mother’s kitchen for a long conversation. My disappointment in the film was profound, my mother’s intuition correct, I had decided. The filmmakers had not honored the book’s message. During the Oscar night hoopla, Bernard Schlink, “The Reader’s” brave author, and the work he had created, was nearly forgotten.

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