The novel ‘The Reader’ written by Bernhard Schlink as well as its movie adaptation starring Kate Winslet as Hanna received critical acclaim. The movie version got several nominations in the Academy Awards. But, as is the case with motion pictures based on works of literature, certain aspects of the written work tends to manifest itself in a diluted form in the celluloid version. This is true with respect to The Reader as well. While the movie certainly deserves its acclaim, especially on its technical aspects, there are crucial differences between the two versions. This essay will argue that the movie The Reader fails to capture the central thrust and focus of the novel in terms of capturing the personalities and thoughts of Hanna and Michael in their entirety. As a result of this deviation, it would stand second to the novel in terms of its aesthetic and moral significance to the audience.
When evaluating the novel, one has to see it in the context of the burgeoning body of holocaust literature that has been published in the last sixty years. Rather than dealing in dichotomies of good and evil in the characters of Hanna and Michael, Bernhard Schlink does present a nuanced view of the questions confronting an entire generation of Germans post holocaust. While the work of art provides an entry point for further exploration of the moral aspects of the holocaust, it is simultaneously a statement on the limitations of the written word to convey and elicit comprehensive responses. To the extent that this is an accepted fact, not just applicable to the lead characters of The Reader, but for the Novel in general, the author does a satisfactory job of perceiving and probing answers to these tough questions. In other words, the Bernhard Schlink novel succeeds in meeting its set objectives. This is further borne by the fact that the book was translated into 37 languages and included in the curricula of several graduate courses.
To take the above mentioned assessment a little deeper, let us take a specific example. Early in the narrative of the novel we come across this memorable piece of writing (the narrator is the young Michael Berg): “As she was reaching for the other stocking, she paused, turning towards the door, and looked straight at me. I can’t describe what kind of look it was–surprised, skeptical, knowing or reproachful. I turned red. For a fraction of a second I stood there, my face burning. Then I couldn’t take it any more” (The Reader, p. 12). It is moments such as these that reveal in depth the characters of Hanna and Michael. The movie comes very close to capturing the aforementioned attributes of surprise, skepticism, knowledge and reproach in Hanna’s look. But the nature of the film medium is such that the viewer cannot pause and reflect on this key moment. Before they recognize it, the frames progress to the next shot. In aspects such as these, the novel offers a unique advantage over the film in capturing the essence of the characters Hanna and Michael.
The book version is a superior work of art in spelling out the internal monologues of Michael. In the film, director Daldry does away with this element and leaves suggestions and hints to Michael’s thoughts without turning it into words. But, this can be seen as a drawback in the film. For example, in one of the passages of the book, Michael’s conscious thoughts were given expression by Schlink through the following words: “She was too far away for me to read her expression. I didn’t jump to my feet and run to her. Questions raced through my head: why was she at the pool, did she want to be seen with me, did I want to be seen with her, why had we never met each other by accident, what should I do? (The Reader, p. 79) The scope and requisite compactness of the movie adaptation gives no room for such internal deliberations as these. To this extent, the book scores over the movie in fully depicting the lead characters.
As is inevitably the case in movie adaptations of works of literature, the medium only allows broad representations. The finer details of the novel, wherein lie subtleties of thought and expression, could not be presented in the 100 minute celluloid version. Consequently, the viewer gets the impression that the characters of Hanna and Michael are not portrayed in their entirety, bringing forth the complex and complicated moral conundrums faced by them.
Bernhard Schlink, The Reader, translated by Carol Brown Janeway (London:Phoenix,
paperback edition, 1998).
Schlant, Ernestine. The Language of Silence: West German Literature and the Holocaust.New York: Routledge, 1999.
Swales, Martin. “Sex, Shame and Guilt: Reflections on Bernhard Schlink’s der Vorleser (the Reader) and J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.” Journal of European Studies 33.1 (2003): 7+.