Book Review: The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

Cover of Bernhard Schlink’s book.

A scene from Stephen Daldry’s film, The Reader

The old question of the book and the movie: Can a film ever do a novel justice?  Or should we look at them as entirely separate works of art and not make the comparison at all?  Just the parameters of a roughly  two hour viewing experience seriously limits what a film maker can do with his source, a source that usually comprises a multi-hour/multi-day experience for a reader.

Certainly there are films that are more successful than others in capturing the essence of a novel. And just as certain there are real travesties. But the successes are such because they capture the spirit of the novel rather than getting lost in trying to relate every detail.  I am thinking of Mike Nichols Catch-22 based on the Joseph Heller novel.  The film works because it perfectly captures the inanity of bureaucracy, the numbness of war, and the black humor of Heller.  It is a large novel, non-linear in its arc, and Nichols captures its essence without getting bogged down in trying to capture every character and sub-plot.

I saw the film The Reader when it was released in 2008 and only got to reading the book in 2012. (I had two friends who refused to see the film because they had loved the novel so much.)  Regardless, it was a compelling film with a maddening and dramatic twist.  A young school boy (Michael) has an affair with a older woman who insists that he reads to her every time before they have sex.  He reads her all the classics–The Odyssey, War and Peace, etc. But she seems oddly aloof, and at the end we realize why. The boy, on the other hand, grows into an unfeeling man, and his coldness and inaction when needed is what is infuriating.

The novel–by its very nature–is quite different. First, it is much more internal, narrated by the boy who often questions and analyzes his own thoughts and his own actions. There are ruminations on the ethical choices made by ordinary citizens during the Holocaust, on the responses of the following generations on the actions of their own mothers and fathers. (These scenes take place in 1966, two decades after the war.) And yet while the narrator weighs, dissects, conjectures about these ethics, his own actions–many years after the war–must also be examined.  His coldness, his lack of human kindness, his decision not to act is all quite similar to that which he condemns in the female guards who are on trial in the second half of the novel.

When Hannah (the older woman) confesses to a crime she did not commit rather than reveal a secret she is much more ashamed of, she is given life imprisonment. Michael has information that could acquit her that he does not reveal.

To me, the ending is insignificant, despite the attempt to redeem Michael. Yes, he does reach out to Hannah, he does realize his own hardness, and he does try to do right.  But it is all too late. I had grown to dislike him so much by then that his redemption was all but impossible for me.

Most of the details of the plot remained the same from  book to  film but the internal voice was missing–or at least adulterated. The novel also starts out quite erotic which simply cannot be captured adequately on film with the same impact–words seem always more intimate and immediate than soft-lit actors and actresses.

The old question of book and movie?  In the case of The Reader, both.  They are two different things, two very good experiences, two separate ways of engaging a reader/viewer.