Archive for February, 2010


The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Asa Butterfield as "Bruno" in "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas"

Stephen King supposedly never liked Stanley Kubrick’s movie adaptation of King’s novel, The Shining. Apparently, Stanley decided to “forget” a lot of the back story to make a more vaguely sinister kind of film. Comparing novels and their subsequent film adaptations, especially if you’re a fan of the novel, can be an interesting and often infuriating exercise. What we see onscreen may or may not live up to the movie playing in our own heads. Conversely, if we come to the novel after seeing the film, we often can’t help but see Vivien Leigh when we read Margaret Mitchell’s characterization of Scarlett O’Hara.

Based on a young-adult novel written by John Boyne in 2006, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” (2008) tells the story of Bruno, a nine year-old boy growing up in Nazi Germany. Bruno’s father has been promoted to oversee the Auschwitz concentration camp. Bruno eventually befriends a Jewish boy on the other side of the camp’s fence. Vera Farmiga, Oscar-nominated this year for “Up in the Air,” plays Bruno’s mother.

Overall, the movie is very true to the book, except for one very important aspect. Because of the inherent visual nature of the medium, film must show most plot elements onscreen. With “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” film, the audience knows almost immediately that the story is taking place in Nazi Germany, and that Bruno’s father works for Hitler and will be overseeing a concentration camp where Jews are being killed. We know these facts and their implications way before Bruno does.

On the other hand, because of the inherent qualities of the literary form, the “Boy in the Striped Pajamas” novel, although in third person, tells the entire story from Bruno’s innocent perspective. Boynes’ simple word choice and sentence structure are even childlike, unlocking Bruno’s thoughts and feelings as if they were objective facts  – Boyne rarely starts out with “Bruno thought…” This simple objectivity makes the horrors going on around Bruno even starker. We discover what’s happening as he does (or a little earlier, contributing to a foreboding sense of inevitability) because plot elements and details unfold as he unintentionally reveals them through his limited perspective. He thinks that “Auschwitz” is “Out-with,” that the Fuhrer is the “Fury,” and that the Jewish prisoners are on a farm and choose to wear striped pajamas. This method is more effective than the film’s because we are then more connected to Bruno’s innocence and his eventual realization of how unnecessarily cruel humans can be to each other, culminating in a shocking and gut-wrenching ending.

However, the movie’s images are sometimes more powerful than the novel’s text. In the film (although not in the novel), Bruno comes across dolls in the basement, presumably taken from the camp’s Jewish children. He doesn’t realize where they came from though. To him, it’s just a strange sight to come across. The movie includes some scenes that because of its limited point of view are not in the novel. For instance, Bruno’s mother figures out and confronts her husband about the fate of the camp’s prisoners. In the novel, the mother is more consumed by her apparent relationship with a young lieutenant, but the film seems to require an adult voice (and a star one at that) to be the moral center, voicing the audience’s sadness and anger.

Side note: “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” movie reminded me a little of “Swing Kids,” a critically derided movie that I like and that is a bit of a cult favorite. Starring Christian Bale, Robert Sean Leonard, Frank Whaley, Barbara Hershey, Noah Wyle, and an uncredited Kenneth Branagh, it depicts German teens who are ignorant of Nazi offences until the Nazis take away their beloved jazz records. What spoiled brats, I know. But as with Bruno, there is a similar childlike selfishness/innocence and subsequent discovery of reality when it actually begins to directly affect them.