Book versus film

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I finally got around to seeing The Reader, and for once I’d read the book first (it helps that it’s short). The film was well made. The acting was impressive, especially by young David Kross — I was confirmed in my hypothesis that Kate Winslett deserved her Oscar first and foremost for Revolutionary Road.

What is the rational consumer’s response when they make a good film of a good novel? Do you need to consume both?

If the film and the novel are complements, that raises a second question: in what order? There are advantages and disadvantages in reading the novel first. On the one hand, the great thing about a book is that it leaves so much of the work to your imagination; on the other, much of the impact of a film, on the first viewing, comes from its surprises.

But if the film and the novel are merely substitutes, one is enough. They’re just the same story packaged differently. If you watched the film of, say, Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, you wouldn’t bother reading the novel afterwards. In a few cases it might be the other way around — where the film ‘faithfully’ reproduces the novel, but doesn’t add much value, or transform the story into a different kind of experience, in moving pictures.

The film of The Reader was in this category for me. It didn’t add much value. The story and characters had already achieved their emotional impact through the novel.

The love story aspect was adapted particulalry well; I guess that for someone enjoying it for the first time, it would have delivered the same punch as the novel. The chapter where Michael starts reading whole volumes onto cassette tapes and posting them to Hanna, moved me to tears in both book and film. But it was essentially a ‘faithful’ translation to the screen. It wasn’t surprising that David, who hadn’t read the novel, was enthralled by the film, while Margaret was mosty just relieved.

The film also did a good job in recreating the atmosphere of the period, in a way that only cinema can do. But there have been plenty of films about World War II, including several recent ones using the latest high tech techniques of illusion; The Reader doesn’t especially stand out in the regard.

The main interest came in discovering how, and how much, the film would depart from the book in terms of its more abstract themes.

The book raises two main philosophical issues, in both cases very explicitly. The first one concerns memory and emotion — can we and should we allow fond recollections and definitive experiences to be spoiled by later events and revelations?

Why? Why does what was beautiful suddenly shatter in hindsight because it concealed dark truths? Why does the memory of years of happy marriage turn to gall when our partner is revealed to have had a lover all those years? Because such a situation makes it impossible to be happy? But we were happy! Sometimes the memory of happiness cannot stay true because it ended unhappily. Because happiness is only real if it lasts forever? Because things always end painfully if they contained pain, conscious or unconscious, all along? But what is unconscious, unrecognized pain?

The other is an ethical question — to what extent are we justified in overriding other people’s preferences in their own interests?

“Not even if they themselves would be happy about it later?”

[Michael’s father] shook his head. “We’re not talking about happiness, we’re talking about dignity and freedom. Even as a little boy you knew the difference. It was no comfort to you that your mother was always right.”

Rather than these themes, the one the film stresses is secrets. This is made clear from: (1) the teaser on the poster, (2) the scene, not in the novel, when a teacher at Michael’s school quotes some author — I forget whom — to the effect that a man’s character is defined by what, for good or evil, he decides not to disclose, (3) the scene where Michael confesses his affair with the Hanna to the camp survivor, and says — which he doesn’t in the novel — that he’s never told anyone before (4) the addition at the very end of the confession to the daughter.

Since the book’s author Bernhard Schlink was heavily involved in the film’s production, he must have agreed to the change of emphasis, but I doubt he initiated it. It’s true that both Michael and Hanna have secrets. But they are quite different sorts of secrets, and they don’t carry any common lesson. Her secrets were secrets from him; whereas his secret was her. In any case, the most interesting secrets, from a philosophical point of view, are those that effect other people — hence the relevance of ‘for good or evil’ — either by sparing them from some great unhappiness, or by withholding information that’s in their interest. Neither Michael’s secret nor Hanna’s was really of that kind: if one wanted to write a story about secrets held ‘for good or evil’, one could have chosen better examples.

The film also purports to examine post-war Germany’s crisis of conscience — Can a whole nation be made accountable? Is it fair to punish the unimportant people, who were only following orders? — but I thought the film was half hearted and tokenistic in exploring these issues. The various impassioned outbursts from Michael’s fellow student were hard to comprehend exactly; I had the impression I wasn’t particularly meant to comprehend them — it was sufficient to observe that thoughtful young people were confused and distressed about what their parents had done or allowed to be done. Then there was the professor insisting they abandon any idea of achieving justice, and just concentrate on upholding the law. An interesting idea, but not followed up in any satisfying way.

In the film when Michael visits Hanna in gaol, and asks her how she feels about what she did, he evidently wants to know whether she’s remorseful — something we all want to know. But it isn’t clear precisely what’s motivating the question on his part. Does he want to know — and, after all, it’s the first time he’s had a chance to ask — whether she had regretted her involvement with the SS from the start, or whether, indeed, he’d had an unrepentant Nazi monster for a lover. Or is he curious, in his capacity as a lawyer and a German intellectual, whether the criminal justice system is finding success in rehabiliting low ranking war criminals?

The problem here is that, by making the characters flesh and blood, the film demands answers to questions that the novel may never have even posed. If it were part of the novel’s purpose to explore whether rank-and-file Nazis like Hanna could be rehabilitated, unfortunately the structure of the story works against this. It’s only at the trial that Michael finds out her background, and after that they only ever have one conversation — twenty years later. So how can we know whether she was remorseful before her trial and incarceration? In any case, if she expressed remorse after spending twenty years in gaol, how would we interpret it? That she accepted her imprisonment as an atonement, or that she had been rehabilitated through the punishment itself, and made to see the light? In short, I don’t think that was part of the novel’s purpose to investigate the psychology of the minor war criminal. Hanna’s thoughts are kept at a distance, her behaviuour ambiguous.

To change the subject: Everyone in the film speaks English with some kind of German accent. If all the actors had been native English speakers it wouldn’t have made much sense: we are supposed to imagine they are speaking German, which they wouldn’t have done in foreign accents. We seem to expect Nazis to speak English with German accents in comedy, but not in more elevated films like in Schindler’s List or Valkyrie. Most likely in this case the director opted for German accents for everybody in the interest of consistency — David Kross and Bruno Ganz would otherwise have seemed oddly more German than the others.

And just one other thing: I could never quite accept Hanna’s calling Michael ‘kid’. Can someone tell me which German word was so translated, and whether that word is at least a tiny bit more plausible than ‘kid’?

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12 years ago

According to my reading, the word in German is Jungchen. This is the dimunitive of Junge which means boy or young one. Kid seems a little direct/demeaning to me, but then I’m not a native German speaker and I would guess that the translator thought for a while about translating it as nothing better springs to mind.

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
12 years ago

Thanks, jesky. A bit of googling confirms what you say, and also unearths two book reviews that vindicate me. A certain Amy Todd hits the nail on the head:

The novel is beautifully translated by Carol Brown Janeway. The only false note is Hanna’s continual use of the word ‘kid’ translated from the German ‘Jungchen’. This is perfectly correct; but lends Hanna’s speech a Humphrey Bogart-ish jauntiness that doesn’t really fit in with her character.

Not to mention it just sounds too American. (Maybe it should have been ‘kiddo’.) Meanwhile, a certain Alex Hamburger doesn’t even agree that kid is ‘perfectly correct’:

“Jungchen” is an outdated term in a way “kid” isn

11 years ago

Beeing a German native (who has finally managed to see the film) I might explain the word “Jungchen” a little bit more detailed. As Jesky said, “Jungchen” is the diminutive of the word “der Junge” which means rather boy than “the young one”.

Altough, “jung” means “young” the word “Jungchen” can´t be translated into “the young one”. That’s because, there are three articles in German (der, die, das = male, female, neuter) and by altering them the meaning of a word might change and that´s why “der Junge” (the boy) or “das Junge” (the hatchling) have different meanings. In German diminutives are formed by adding the affix “-chen” or “-lein” to a noun. There are more affixes in the different dialects. “Jungchen” means something like “little [or] young boy”. The expression “Jungchen” can´t be used in order to describe a hatchling or young girl (or female animal) in a diminutive way, it´s only used for males.

Anyway, in my opinion, the translation “kiddo” is the best one, although it doesn´t capture the fact, that a male person is meant by it.