Book Watching: How a great book became a worthy movie

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is one of the five books I would want with me on a desert island (the others being The Little Prince, any anthology of Jeeves and Wooster stories by P.G. Wodehouse, the Bible, and the fat poetry anthology that lives by my bed). I first read the novel during the worst semester of my college years; my life was so stressful that I read five or ten pages at a time,  barely able to take the grief and pain in Jonathan Safran Foer’s writing. But it was so good that I could not give it up, even when it sent me to bed shaking.

The story, for those who don’t know, is about Oskar Schell, a precocious, possibly autistic nine-year-old boy whose father dies in the WTC on 9/11. His father had played scavenger hunt games with him, so when Oskar finds a key hidden in an envelope labeled “Black” with his father’s things, he takes it as a clue that the last and most important hunt is still waiting for him.

He takes off on a solo mission to ask everyone in New York with the last name “Black” if they know anything about the key. Interlaced with Oskar’s journey to find his father in the boroughs of New York is the story of his grandfather, a man who’s lost both his family and the ability to speak, and his grandmother, the sister of her husband’s true love.

Jonathan Safran Foer doesn’t flinch in the face of emotion, which I find wonderful in the Age of Irony, and he also does some typographical things that feel emotionally powerful, rather than gimmicky. So you can imagine the curdled blend of hope and preemptive disappointment I carried with me into the theater to see the movie adaptation.

The Movie (and some mild spoilers):

The movie’s actually quite good. They’ve stripped the grandparents’ stories almost entirely out of the equation, but Oskar’s story alone is powerful enough to carry a film. I get the feeling the moviemakers sensed that, and made the conscious choice not to make a long, boggy movie that had everything. Instead, the movie spends more time on the various Blacks that Oskar visits, and hints a little more overtly at the potential autism distancing Oskar from his mother and influencing his many fears. One very smart touch was to conflate the characters of the old man Oskar travels with for a while in the book and the grandfather. We get some good relationship-building and the impression that the filmmakers wanted to include at least a glimpse of what they had to take out of the main drive of the story.

There are a few off moments—a scene where Oskar yells small traits and quirks of his father feels lyrical in the book, flat and awkward in the voice of an actual child onscreen—but for the most part, while not faithful to the ins and outs of plot, the movie feels faithful to the book.

What it Means for a Movie to be Faithful

What I realized, sitting in the theater as the credits rolled, is that my attitude toward book-movie adaptations is changing. I used to be one of those people who stops one step short of watching the movie with the book in their lap, noting exactly where the filmmakers strayed from flawless translation. It’s inevitably disappointing.

These days I’m more attuned to the emotional response the book got out of me and whether the movie can achieve the same thing. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close the movie isn’t as harrowing or powerful to me as the book is, but I still cried, and I still fell in love with Oskar all over again. And even though I can’t say I was over the moon about the Hollywood-ized ending, I can understand why they rewrote it. The ending of the book is weird. I won’t spoil it, but I will say it is this-is-going-to-look-really-iffy-on-camera weird.

Sometimes print works that way.

The movie and the book are two different stories, although they stem from the same root, and I am okay with that. I can even wholeheartedly recommend that you experience them both. Just tell me you’ll read the book first.


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4 thoughts on “Book Watching: How a great book became a worthy movie

  1. Is the extremely photoshoped poster made to look like that on purpose? it always freaks me out a bit…

    The movie only recently arrive on this side of the world, and I’m of two minds about watching it or not, because of the really contradictory reviews.

    • Perhaps it’s meant to convey how vivid and emotionally intense the movie is? I also remember hearing that an aspect of autism is the propensity to be overwhelmed by outside stimulus. Maybe that’s what the artists had in mind.

      You’ll have to share what you think if you do see it!

  2. The thing is movies are a different medium with its own limitations that are different from books. It is really impossible to “see” a book on the screen because of the differences of the two forms. If you love a book it is rare you love the films unless you accept the changes the filmmaker has to make (Like The Lord of the Rings or Potter films, for example). Sometimes those changes are for the best and worse, certainly.

    By the way, PG Wodehouse is awesome.

  3. Pingback: [ Book Watching ] The Hunger Games « thecanaryreview

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