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Is everything illuminated? The curse of 'logophilia'

About the author
Rob Cawston is openDemocracy's production manager. He has written on film, literature, issues of transitional justice and Bob Dylan.

jonathan arrives

It was with considerable trepidation that I saw Liev Schrieber’s new film adaptation of one of my favourite novels, Everything is Illuminated. Containing just about everything – from a magic realist fable overflowing with invention to a dark meditation on the Holocaust – it is a novel that makes you yearn to be a great writer and realise you will probably never be one. You know you are getting older when your sporting heroes become younger than you, but it is really time to worry when novelists do. Jonathan Safran Foer published his novel in 2001 at the age of 24 and has since written a second of equal wit and imagination, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

Waiting for the film to start I had good reason to be concerned. The film reels of history are littered with the corpses of well-known literary characters – the army captains with mandolins and boy wizards with broomsticks – who have failed to make a successful transition from the page to the big screen. Adaptations rarely surpass the novels they are based on and tend to disappoint a loyal audience, forced as they are to move out of the realm of individual imagination and into one of visual (and aural) perception, fixing forever the appearance of an Orc or another Mr Darcy.

There are of course examples of film adaptations that have succeeded, films that have earned their right to stand as a separate and “original” work of art – the Godfather trilogy from Mario Puzo’s books and Blade Runner adapted from Philip K Dick’s short story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? are two obvious examples. And, with a new bag of CGI tricks at its disposal, Hollywood has recently turned its attention towards epic fantasy novels or cult tales of comic book heroes, surpassing even the wildest imagination with impossible visual delights. Even CS Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia – once the territory of rickety puppets and actors dressed as beavers – has started to receive the blue-screen digital treatment.

film book coversBoiled cow... or sirloin supreme?

Rarely however can a film match the depth and complexity of a novel, and it is perhaps unfair to compare the two mediums as subplots, minor characters, and interior monologues are left in shreds on the cutting room floor. As John le Carré once commented after watching an adaptation of one of his novels, “It’s like taking a cow and boiling it down to an Oxo cube”. I feared Schrieber would be tempted to do the same with Safran Foer producing a film that wasn’t true to the original where, rather than everything being illuminated, nothing was elucidated. Having read a novel first, it is always hard to suppress a feeling of “logophilia”, a sense that the written word is sacred above all else. Who has not emerged from the cinema to announce with a certain smugness and intellectual gravitas, “it wasn’t as good as the book”?

When the credits were rolling I was altogether relieved. What Liev Schrieber has served up in his directorial debut is not a boiled down cow but a tale sliced down the middle, more Damien Hirst than Delia Smith.

Safran Foer’s novel is divided into two intertwining parts recounted by two distinct narrative voices and including the author himself as a character. The first part is told by Alex Perchov, a Ukrainian translator-tour-guide, and concerns the fictional character of author Jonathan Safran Foer and his quest for the mysterious figure of “Augustine,” who Jonathan believes saved his grandfather during the second world war. The second part, narrated by the ‘real’ Safran Foer, is a magic realist or folkloric history of Trachimbrod the Ukrainian shtetl (village), and the Trachimbroders who once lived there.

It is the first of these two narratives that Schrieber has chosen for the big screen, perhaps wisely choosing not to dip his toe in a pool of Safran Foer’s magic realism – the “whorls of working wonder.” This choice allows for an accurate retelling of the trip taken by Jonathan (played by a post-hobbit Elijah Wood) to Ukraine. Travelling from New York he joins a tour company for Jewish people led by Alex (Eugene Hutz) the translator, Alex’s anti-semitic grandfather (Boris Leskin) who drives the tour’s cold war-era banger and, somewhat disturbingly for Jonathan, the grandfather’s crazy “seeing eye bitch,” dubbed Sammy Davis Jr Jr after the American singer (who was in fact Jewish, as Jonathan reveals to the disbelieving grandfather).

Alex, Jonathan and grandfather

If all this sounds like the ingredients for an absurd roadtrip you are not far off, at least for the first half of the film. Schrieber plays up the comedy arising from the crossed connections and mistranslations between Jonathan’s English, the grandfather’s Russian, and Alex’s combination of the two. Keen to impress his American guest Alex admits “I fatigued my thesaurus you when my words appeared petite or not befitting”. Replacing everyday words with poetic or over formal terms he continually has to ask “does this manufacture sense?” Although the subtlety and nuance of many of these malapropisms are lost in the pace of the film, Schrieber uses subtitles to convey new confusions that only the audience and Alex are fully aware of.

But, what starts of as a goofball road movie progresses towards a dark revelation revealing a heart of forgotten memories and mourning. Through the muddles of language, a soundtrack of eastern European pop, and common cultural misconceptions, the film conveys a sense of displacement and homelessness. As he searches for the truth of his family’s past, Jonathan becomes a “collector” of historical memorabilia – or ordinary objects turned into such by their being collected. He stares out from thick lens glasses with the magnified eyes of someone on a constant search.

Jonathan’s quest is complete when an old lady (Laryssa Lauret), presumed to be Augustine, announces from a doorstep surrounded by a field of sunflowers, “It is here: I am it”. At the end of the road all is revealed about the fate of Jonathan’s grandfather and the role Alex’s grandfather played when German troops reached his village in 1943. Boris Leskin and Laryssa Lauret’s weather-worn faces convey superbly the weight of the revealed history and I was left moved by their final exchanges.

jonathan asleep

From Brazilian cinema to Scorcese, more film reviews by Rob Cawston:

“How it feels: Martin Scorsese’s Bob Dylan”

“Almost Brothers”

“Estamira”

“The Hours go by”

See also Rob Cawston's article on the 60th anniversary of the Nuremburg trials, “Nuremberg and the legacy of law” (November 2005)

But, the film ultimately seems to shy away from the revelations of the past, presenting them in enigmatic scenes shot in sepia, whereas Safran Foer places them at the centre of his book’s structure. At its end the novel asks us to consider our own complicity in the acts of the past, our own choices in how we live. Alex’s grandfather believes “I am not a bad person. I am a good person who has lived in bad times” and situations are revealed in which “there may be two right things, there may be no right things”.

In missing out the fantastical history of the Trachimbroders the film has severed the heart of the tale. Magical elements try to seep back in but appear as superfluous proceedings. In one scene, Jonathan stands by the Brod river and watches the objects of the villagers lost lives float downstream, a bit like debris from the forgotten novel. The field of sunflowers serve as a beautiful symbol of light and illumination but ultimately only turn their heads back towards themselves and point nowhere.

Schrieber’s film certainly gets to where it wants to go, but his route isn’t half as bewitching as where Safran Foer takes us in 300 pages. Everything is Illuminated ends up as an amputee of a movie, severing half the tale and ultimately killing the whole. In contrast the novel is interested in reconciling halves, intertwining the realistic and folkloric sections that gravitate towards each other, one moving back along a road into the past and one moving towards an unknown but unchangeable future. Reality and fiction meet in the final scene when the Germans invade Trachimbrod. Safran Foer’s use of this dual narrative structure explores how to represent an event like the Holocaust that lies beyond the pale of normal human understanding. His novel illuminates how to reconcile history and narrative, how to close the gap between events of the past and what can be told about them.

Despite these misgivings Schrieber’s film deserve to exist as a separate work in its own right and it certainly would have been a mistake to repack all of Safran Foer’s spiralling novel into a neat, 100 minute celluloid package (although I would like to see someone try). Once everything has been illuminated though, it is hard to go back to seeing in the half light. The film is worth watching because it is a humorous and, at its end, a moving tale. But with a growing sense of logophilia I can confidently say “it is not as good as the book”.

sunflowers

Images courtesy of Warner Bros


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