October 2005

Liz Miller

hollywood madam

Movie and Book, Not So Premium

Confession: I am late to the game of Jonathan Safran Foer -- whether that game is admiring his skewed world view or resenting his pretension. As someone with little money and less time, I've never had an easy time of keeping up with wunderkinds, and after previously being disappointed by Zadie Smith and Jonathan Franzen, my eagerness to do so was less. So when I heard that Everything Is Illuminated was good, I put it on my maybe-read-someday list. Near the bottom.

But then they made a movie, and, as always, that got my attention. So much so, in fact, that I made the choice to reverse my usual pattern -- and see the movie first. With high-profile adaptations like these, reading the book first gives me the perspective of the average Bookslut reader (who, I suspect, is much more literate, informed, and good-looking than me). But as the first and second Book-To-Film experiments indicated, oftentimes seeing the movie first can make for a more engaging experience overall. And I was also interested in seeing how a filmgoing audience (which sadly outnumbers the book-reading audience) would approach what appeared to be an exceedingly weird little film.

So, seeing the movie with no idea what the book was about (and no real opinion about Foer himself), I can say this: I liked them both.

The story of a young American writer going to the Ukraine to search for Augustine, the woman who may have saved his grandfather's life is much more profoundly affecting than I had expected; it's a uniquely personal take on the aching tragedy of the Holocaust, and the humor works well. Worth the ticket price, if you're not creeped out by Elijah Wood's dead blue eyes. I mean, I do like Elijah Wood, but his caricature of a performance, all goggling stare and cold distance, is by far the least appealing aspect of this film. The opening scenes, in which Frodo develops his strange collecting habits and learns of Augustine, plod along like a coma patient's heartbeat -- it's only when we meet Alex that there's any sign of life in the story. In the novel, Foer at least comes off like a person.

Visually, the film is interesting -- the dead landscape of the Ukraine, and its slow blossoming under the camera's eye, is a nice touch. Writer/director/star of Scream 2 and Scream 3 Liev Schreiber shows some real talent at working with actors who don't really speak English, and Eugene Hutz as Alex is fantastic -- the character's broken English and deadpan delivery really sell the humor of the story. Most of the choices made in adaptation are great, as well. Foer's shtetl folk tales are awkward interstitials, and focusing on Alex's narration for the most part is a real relief.

Despite the film's strengths, though, it suffers from a major breakdown in point-of-view. The postmodern conceit that Foer's translator Alex is the narrator of a Most Rigid Quest carries well throughout the book, and when the book deviates from Alex's point of view, it's with the express knowledge that the story is being filled by Foer himself, complete with commentary from Alex about its relative veracity. Thus the book becomes an uncertain retelling, two dueling pianos of unreliable narration.

But in the film, what results is a bizarre mesh of Alex's narration and flashbacks from the point-of-view of other characters; perhaps the easiest way to tell the story, but the least honest. Framing the story as Alex's, but giving us insight into events which Alex has no way of understanding -- especially Alex's grandfather's secret -- betrays the uncertainty that makes Foer's novel work. The fact that we're left wondering about whether history is being fabricated in the novel perfectly suits the nature of the story being told, and Schreiber's choice to provide the audience with the facts that he denies his characters is much less satisfying. Grandfather's secret has changed from book to film, and the change would have had a much more subtle impact -- were it not for Schreiber's insistence on zooming in on Grandfather's eyes to indicate a flashback.

It's a problematic adaptation, overall, but with many merits. I liked them both, but I'm a little strange. I can like a movie while being freaked out by its star. And I can enjoy a novel, without worshipping its author.