BOOK AND MOVIE: The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

About two months ago, I read Bernhard Schlink’s novel The Reader.  And then about a week after that, I went to the  Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.  In retrospect, I’m not sure I’d recommend doing those two things so close together. (Or maybe I would — I suppose having that journey be made extra-difficult is probably not such a bad thing.)  But in any case, the combination was definitely challenging, and I never did get around to writing a book review for The Reader, in part because after I was done with that one-two punch, I felt like I needed to let it go for a while.

Last weekend, I finally had both the time and the inclination to sit down and watch the 2008 film version, and now I figure I might as well review them both together.  Even though they tell the same story, they tell it very differently, and each format brings with it its own unique set of strengths and weaknesses.  So, here we go, at long last.

The Reader opens in West Germany in 1958, when a 15 year-old boy named Michael (played in the movie by David Kross as a kid, and later Ralph Fiennes as an adult) suddenly finds himself incredibly sick in the middle of the street.  A 30-something year-old woman  named Hanna sees him and helps him get home.  After he recovers, Michael goes in search of Hanna to thank her, but almost immediately, they’re hit by a rather powerful sexual charge neither one seems particularly interested in fighting.   It’s not long before they give into that charge, primarily at the instigation of Hanna who, we later find out, is a pretty damaged lady.

One of Hanna’s favorite things to do with Michael, aside from sleeping with him, is to listen to him read to her.  And, wrapped up in this little bubble world of impossible and obsessive teenage love, Michael finds himself devoting all his free time to Hanna, even at the cost of relationships with his own peers.  Then one day, Hanna simply vanishes.  Michael, confused and heartbroken, eventually manages to work through his grief and refocus his life, for the most part.  He graduates and goes on to college and then to law school.

Eight years later, while in law school, Michael is one of a group of students observing the latest in a series of WWII war crime trials.  This particular trial is of six or seven female German SS guards from a satellite prison of Auschwitz, accused of killing over 300 Jewish women by refusing to free them from a locked and burning church.   Stunned to find Hanna is one of the accused, Michael attends the trial every day, transfixed by the horrible stories that unfold in the testimony, as well as Hanna’s baffling behavior. It’s not until the last few days of the trial that Michael realizes why Hanna is behaving the way she is — a realization that sends him into a moral tailspin he is unable to fully right himself from.

What happens after the trial, and then eighteen years after that when Michael encounters Hanna again, I will leave for you to discover yourselves.  But I’ll tell you this much:  it’s pretty awful.

Here’s the interesting thing about the two versions of the tale:  after I finished the book, my predominant emotion towards Hanna was one of anger, especially after I read the final pages.  After I finished the movie, though, my predominant emotion towards Hanna was one of tremendous sorrow.   And, if not empathy, exactly, at least a smidge of compassion.  Or maybe I mean the opposite of that.  Not going to overthink it.

In any case, I can tell you in two words why my reaction to Hanna was so different from one format to the other.  The two words are:  Kate Winslet.

This movie as a whole is kind of disappointing.  If I hadn’t read the book, I probably would have found little to praise about it.  I thought the acting, aside from Winslet, was pretty weak overall, and the emotional aspects of the story all felt really heavy-handed and overly manipulative.

But Winslet was absolutely amazing, and she completely rescued the film from its lack of luster for me.  I think part of my reaction to her had  to do with my struggles with the character of Hanna while I was reading the book, and the way I was frustratingly unable to connect with that character AT ALL in print.  With Winslet behind her, though, Hanna finally became a real person to me.  Her emotions seemed so much more complicated when you could read her face in addition to listening to her words, and she was all the more devastating because of that complexity.  Even though I still didn’t feel like I really understood her — in fact, I think all I understand about Hanna is that she’s incredibly messed up — I was at the very least moved by her, and in more directions than just the anger I’d felt while reading the novel.

In any case, I think what I’m saying is that if you want to experience this story, my recommendation is that you do it the same way I did:  read the book and then watch the movie.  I don’t think either one stands very strongly on its own; they seem to work better together. Then again, even together, I have to confess I just. . . was not really all that impressed.   I know both the film and the novel won numerous awards, but I’m not sure I understand why, all things considered.  I’ve read better.  I’ve seen better.  I don’t really feel like I’ll be taking away anything significant away from this story, aside from confirmation (yet again) that Winslet is extremely talented and has very nice boobs.  So, hey.  I don’t know.  Do with this information what you will, I guess.  *shrug*

[Netflix me | Buy me]

Genre:  Drama
Cast:  Kate Winslet, David Kross, Ralph Fiennes, Bruno Ganz

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3 Responses to “BOOK AND MOVIE: The Reader by Bernhard Schlink”

  1. Amy Says:

    I had the exact same reaction after reading the book, then seeing the movie several years later! I agree that Winslet’s performance allowed me to feel a little more empathy for the character of Hanna than I did while reading the book. But aside from Winslet’s performance, the movie felt off-kilter to me. Really interesting.

  2. Liz Says:

    Wow! You can write one heck of a review, lady! I have the movie in my Netflix queue, but I hadn’t planned on reading the book. Well … plans can change, can’t they? I’m about 3/4 of the way thru “Pr. & Pr. & Zombies;” I just finished the sequel to “Wicked” (no, I’ve never seen the musical!) – which is called “Son of a Witch!” (I recommend these books, BTW). And I have “World War Z” waiting for me! Maybe I should break it up with the book of “The Reader.” Now I’m even more curious about the character Kate Winslet plays, and how her interpretation differs from the book.

  3. Lorraine Says:

    Meg, what an interesting review. I confess that I did not read the book but I saw the movie and loved it. I recommended it to every thinking person I know.

    I was totally drawn in by the first half of the movie. I enjoy character depiction/development and I thought both Winslet and Kross really humanized their characters. My admiration for Winslet totally blossomed because of her performance. She totally deserved her best actress Oscar for this role.

    I thought the movie got clunky after the trial but I also thought that my struggle over my feelings towards Hannah were mirrored by the film’s struggle to depict this story. I appreciate a movie that is not black/white and doesn’t suggest that there is an easy answer. Plus, how often does a film succeed at being “sensual”.

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