It's a common experience to read a book slated for a film adaptation and then approach the movie, if at all, with a trepidation bordering on fear. As an optimist who doesn't get too offended when his favorite stories get changed for a different medium, I generally try to minimize that reaction. Yet that is exactly how I feel about Stephen Daldry's imminent adaptation of Bernhard Schlink's The Reader. A large part of me is convinced that Schlink's lovely, challenging little novel – almost more of an essay than a novel, really – can't possibly survive Daldry's questionable prestige picture instincts. The book demands a small film, melancholy, withdrawn. Can we get that from one of the year's big Oscar hopefuls?
Moreover, what happens in the novel can easily work in the film. There's a simple and breathtaking moment involving only an instant of eye contact that almost seems written for the screen. The cold, detached tone of the book's final third can readily be made cinematic. The question in my mind is whether a filmmaker like Daldry will want to take on the task. Please, please no tearful reunion.
The trailer inspires mixed emotions. On one hand, the movie seems remarkably faithful to the source material – I could trace almost every clip in the trailer to a scene in the novel – which in this particular case is reassuring. On the other, Daldry and screenwriter David Hare seem to have added a psychotherapy framing device, which can only turn out obnoxious. And it appears that all of the actors engage in the absurd exercise of speaking English with German accents to indicate that the action is taking place in Germany. A quibble, perhaps, but the fact that the filmmakers endorsed such a vapid practice does not bode well.
Hanna Schmitz, Kate Winslet's character, is described as both beautiful and stocky, muscular, strong – when Hannah asks her fifteen-year old lover what animal she most reminds him of, he comes up with "horse." If Winslet doesn't fit that description to a T, she is certainly a better match than Nicole Kidman, who was initially slated to play Hanna (though Winslet was always Daldry's first choice). The movie, by the way, is not about Hanna, whom young Michael observes from a distance for at least the last two-thirds of the novel. Nor is it about Michael as an adult, played by Ralph Fiennes. The star of the film should fairly be teenage German actor David Kross – but that's another open question.
I'd be remiss not to mention some of the film's high-profile post-production issues. Producers Sydney Pollack and Anthony MInghella both passed away, leaving ultra-busy Scott Rudin to shepherd the film through the rest of production. Rudin then went to bat for Daldry, who was begging for more editing time against Harvey Weinstein's insistence that the film be ready by December, in time for an Oscar push. Kate Winslet, meanwhile, threatened not do any press for the film unless it got pushed back so as not to compete with her Revolutionary Road, directed by her husband Sam Mendes (and produced by Scott Rudin). Weinstein refused to budge, Rudin resigned from the film, and Daldry is scrambling to finish it in time for a December 12th release. Apparently the movie has tested well.
The book is about what happens when moral imperatives butt up against deeply ingrained human instincts. Schlink is fairly pessimistic about people's ability to do right in the face of passion, embarrassment, the desire to avoid conflict, etc. Harvey Weinstein's enthusiasm aside, this is not very Academy-friendly material, and by rights The Reader shouldn't be a very Academy-friendly film. I'm nervous about it.