I didn’t want to see this movie. Literary adaptations have a long history of failing cinematically, with notable exceptions like The Godfather or Jurassic Park cropping up every dozen years or so to prove that though many films are based on novels, only a few develop a valid independent existence. A film based on a book has to transcend its origin without betraying it, to enter in the pop consciousness without abandoning the literary one. Sometimes this works, as in the case of Spielberg’s dinosaur thrill-ride, but more often the result is an unsatisfactory compromise, as more than a few Tolkien or Rowling diehards can tell you. And although the name of Jonathan Safran Foer might not be well known outside certain circles of readers — the same kind who buy back-issues of “The Believer” and who keep telling you that “Being There” is the best album Wilco ever made (and it is, but that’s for another day) — he deserves to be read and discussed and cherished in school hallways and office break rooms across the country. His first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, pushed the barriers of language and feeling to present a warmly familiar but refreshingly new look at the way the past keeps breaking us for generations, and how we wouldn’t want it any other way. It’s one of those books you almost want to keep from others for fear that if they found and read it some of the shine it held for you might be gone.
So, yeah, I knew a little about the story as I went in to see the adaptation. Written and directed by Liev Schreiber, it stars Elijah Wood as twentysomething American writer and collector of family history Jonathan Safran Foer, who books a package tour to the Ukraine to chase down the details of his dead grandfather’s past. Jonathan’s tour guide and translator is a man his own age, Alex (Eugene Hutz), whose own grandfather serves as their driver as they shuttle from village to village in hopes of unearthing secrets Jonathan doesn’t even know about yet. Alex dresses like he thinks a young stud in America would dress, all Adidas tracksuits and Kangol hats, and he enjoys going to “discotheques” and “getting carnal with many women.” Alex’s grandfather wears sunglasses and pretends to be blind, although he continues to drive the company car for tourists. Alex’s grandfather has a dog to assist him: a “seeing eye bitch” named Sammy Davis, Jr., Jr.
The only clue Jonathan really has is an old, faded photo of his grandfather at Jonathan’s age, standing in a wheat field next to a beautiful young woman. The woman’s name is Augustine, according to the hand-scrawled note on the back of the picture, which Jonathan’s grandmother gave him just before she died. It’s her death that sets Jonathan off to find the village of Trachimbrod and try to discover what happened to Augustine, whom he knows saved his grandfather from the Nazis shortly before they invaded in 1942.
Schreiber does an admirable job of remaining true to the fractured English Alex speaks in the book, keeping his inapt synonyms and clumsy phrases throughout the film. For instance, instead of saying that their search was hard, Alex refers to it as “rigid,” unaware that “hard” can equate to “difficult” but “rigid” can’t. He says his friends call him Alex because it is “more flaccid to utter” than his full name, Alexander. Alex narrates entire sections of the novel, allowing the reader to become submerged in his dialect and viewpoint, and it’s no fault of Schreiber’s that the nature of film places us as observers next to Alex, not within him. Similarly, though the early history of Trachimbrod has been necessarily excised in translating the book to film, Schreiber maintains the book’s broad scope and keeps the viewer from noticing any gaps in the story. It’s an accomplished writing and directing debut from Schreiber, and the film’s quality and positive buzz should allow him to move on to more projects like this in the future, instead of the B-level films in which he’s made most of his previous acting appearances, like the pointless, clunky remake of The Manchurian Candidate.
Wood’s Jonathan is quite different from the one in the novel; this Jonathon occasionally feels forced, almost a caricature in dark suits and Coke-bottle specs. I have no idea why Schreiber wanted Jonathan to look and act like an old rabbi when the Jonathan of the book is a much more approachable figure. It’s forgivable, though; Schreiber makes it work in context, which is what this is all about.
In a sequence shot in Prague, Jonathan, Alex, and Alex’s grandfather eventually find something that’s not what they were looking for but turns out to be something bigger, more relevant. A turning point occurs in a giant field of sunflowers, and Schreiber has included a few dirt patches and roads in the edges of the frame to prove that the rest of the field is completely natural and not CGI-rendered; the effect is stunning. It’s a beautiful shot, one Schreiber has been subtly working toward throughout the film, and its arrival makes you feel that the film has finally found a resting place from which to tell the rest of its tale.
“Everything is illuminated in the light of the past, which is inside us looking out,” Alex reflects after the journey has concluded. They’re hard-earned words after the trip the characters have taken, but at least Schreiber lets them come by the knowledge honestly. Too many writers and directors think that just because their stories touch on subjects like family or war that they will automatically be lauded as worthwhile narratives, or that what they have to say is consequentially true. Everything Is Illuminated, though, is the real deal: a story that deals with the past without being needlessly ashamed and the future without being blindly optimistic. It’s about life, and how it unfolds.
Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copyeditor for a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Going Bald.
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()