Monday, December 21, 2009

From Book to Film: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

'Who are all those people outside?' he said finally.

Father tilted his head to the left, looking a little confused by the question. 'Soldiers, Bruno,' he said. 'And secretaries. Staff workers. You've seen them all before, of course.'

'No, not them,' said Bruno. 'The people I see from my window. In the huts, in the distance. They're all dressed the same.'

'Ah, those people,' said Father, nodding his head and smiling slightly. 'Those people . . .well, they're not people at all, Bruno.' [pg 53]

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne
David Fickling Books, 2006
Fiction; 218 pgs
Rating: * (Good +)

Book Source: I bought this book in November of 2008 through Amazon.
Challenge Commitment Fulfilled: War Through the Generations: WWII Challenge

The bell at the nearby elementary school is sounding as I settle in to begin my review of John Boyne's novel, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. I suddenly find myself thinking of all the eager students sitting at their desks, eager, in part, to get on with the day but also because the winter break begins as soon as that final bell tolls at the end of the day. My mother was busy wrapping little presents for her classroom of 1st and 2nd graders last night when I called. 'Tis the season and all that.

I can't help but think of Bruno and Shmuel though, nine year old boys from very different backgrounds. Shmuel is Jewish and from Poland, forced from his home into a ghetto and then later to Auschwitz (or rather Out-With, as Bruno calls it), an extermination camp during the late 1930's and early 1940's. Bruno is a German boy, the son of the Commandant put in charge of the camp. The two boys form an unlikely friendship when they meet, one on each side of the fence. Bruno is bored and misses his friends. Shmuel is trying to get away from the horrors of the camp, at least for a brief while. How different life would be for them had they grown up in a different time, under different circumstances.

In the book, Bruno does not meet his Shmuel until about the half way point. Up until then, the focus of the novel is on the Bruno's family's movie from Berlin to Poland and their adjustment to their new home. While the main of the story may seem to focus on the friendship between the two boys, it also is very much about Bruno's family and their own relationships and experiences during such a tumultuous time.

I suppose reading a book about the Holocaust is not ideal holiday reading. And yet, I think it is in its own way. It's a reminder of the suffering both in the past and in the present. It makes us more grateful for what we have today and perhaps feel more compassion for others. I wish more than anything I could pull those two boys out of the book and set them in the elementary school down the street. Imagine them playing a game of soccer during lunch recess: no worries and no one to tell them they cannot be friends.

I have heard quite a bit about The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Initially the reviews were glowing but recent reviews have been more critical. Bruno is awfully naive. Can a boy really be so innocent and ignorant of the war and what is going on around him? Can he really not know what the camp outside his bedroom window is? Why the men in striped pajamas are behind that fence?

I confess I wondered that too as I read. Bruno seemed much younger than his 9 years. The author specifically set out to make Bruno that innocent, that ignorant. He wanted to counter the extreme evil of the Holocaust with extreme innocence. And I think he succeeded in that. The novel, written in third person, is told from Bruno's perspective. What he sees and thinks and feels is what is relayed to the reader. It's a very limited view, especially because Bruno is confused much of the time, unsure about what he is seeing and feeling, but it's also effective.

I also couldn't help but think back to The Welsh Girl, which I read earlier this year. The German prisoners of war were made to watch newsreels of the death and concentration camps as the war ended. Many of them would stare disbelieving at the screen, angry and frustrated, some even accusing the Allied Forces of forcing lies and propaganda down their throats. They had no idea what had been taking place. They may have heard rumors and whisperings here and there, but even they were shocked at the extent of the horrors they were seeing.

During the war, the Nazis showed films portraying a rather happy and carefree life in the camps, not at all revealing what really went on behind those fences and in the ghettos. The Nazi government perpetuated lies and sometimes swore those involved to secrecy about what was really taking place. They kept the truth hidden--at least tried to on some level. As the author, John Boyne, pointed out in an interview at the end of the book, we, today, can't imagine not knowing and it is hard for us, as a result, to conceive of some of the people who lived back then not knowing--or, in some cases, not wanting to know, whether from complacency or outright denial.

Considering who Bruno's father is and where Bruno is living, it does seem a bit of a stretch that he would be so in the dark about the goings on around him--shouldn't he have an inkling? I would think so, but I don't believe this is a book meant to be analyzed too closely for accuracy or depth of character. That isn't to say the novel shouldn't spark thought or conversation. I think it is meant to do just that. Think of this novel more as a fable, if you will.

I have read criticism about Bruno, the type of boy he is, that he isn't very likable. Having grown up as he has, he does have a sense of entitlement which can be off-putting. He can be self-centered, which, I think, comes with his age to some extent. It makes sense though, given his upbringing and his naivety. What Bruno does have is compassion, even if he is confused by the idea and not quite sure how to act on it. From the bits we learn about his family, I get the impression that he was not raised in an anti-Semitic household, not exactly anyway, even despite his father clearly having adopted that attitude..

The ending of the book did not come as a surprise. While no one spoiled it for me exactly, I expected there to be tears on my part (and there were many) as I cry at both happy and sad endings, and I guessed early one what would happen. When I was the boys' age, history was glossed over and made pretty in the guise of making it age appropriate. Not being a parent nor an educator, I do not know for what ages this novel would be best for. The author himself denies that this is a children's book or an adult's book. When he wrote the novel, he had neither in mind. While written in simple text, this is a dark story that touches on a very terrible time in our history. It is in no way graphic, although much is implied, nor does it skirt the truth.

I had the opportunity to watch the movie soon after reading the book. The movie was very close to the book with only a few minor additions and changes. In my mind, the movie filled out the characters, making them more three-dimensional. The novel is limited in viewpoint, limited to Bruno's observations, whereas the movie offers a more full picture, getting a better feel for not only Bruno but his family as well.

Asa Butterfield played the role of Bruno, reduced to the age of 8 in the movie version. He is stunning in the role--his eyes are so full of his unspoken feelings and thoughts. His Jewish friend, Shmuel, is played by Jack Scanlon. His part, too, is well played. He seemed so old and yet so young, just as his character in the novel.

The relationship between Bruno and his father is much more palpable in the movie--at least it was for me. The book does go into Bruno's admiration and respect for his father and then later mixed with his questioning of his father's character, wondering how, if he is so good, he can let bad things happen, but seeing it on the screen made it seem all the more real.

When I first began reading The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, I was a little put off by the writing, but I eventually eased into it, and the story became a part of me. The movie was just as moving, adding more depth to the story and characters. The two complement each other well, and, in some respects, go hand in hand. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is about friendship, and how friendship can bloom between anyone, anywhere. It is also a story about racism and lost innocence, topics that are forever relevant.

Movie: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008)
Genre: Drama, War
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Directed By: Mark Herman
Written By: Mark Herman (screenplay) & John Boyne (novel)
Rating: 4 Bags of Popcorn

© 2009, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved.
If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.


  1. That was a very thorough, thoughtful review! Back when the movie first came out, there were a number of people who reviewed the book and the movie, and I was torn. I knew it would be perfect for my WWII reading challenge, but I also knew it would just tear me apart.

  2. I just skimmed your post as I have not read the book (although it is patiently sitting on my TBR shelf) nor seen the movie. I think I may do the pairing sometime after the New Year for CB James' Read a Book/See a Movie challenge. I just in advance that I need to be prepared to cry.

  3. I read this book first and was shocked by the ending (but I loved the book). I then got the dvd and watched it with my husband (who is Jewish). He knew nothing about the movie and found it heartbreaking, but we both liked it.

  4. I really enjoyed the book but haven't seen the movie. I'll have to get hold of a copy of it soon.

  5. I didn't see the movie when it came out - having two very young children at home means I don't get out much!- but your review has made me want to do both, read the book and watch the movie! Fantastic review, Wendy.

  6. I never read this book, but I saw the movie and it was heart-wrenching. Great review!

  7. This book (and the movie) makes me so angry that I can't see straight, for the misinformation it perpetuates about the Holocaust and life in Germany under the Nazis. The chidl of a Nazi would know what Jews were; would be raised & educated to hate them; would certainly notice neighbors and classmates disappearing; would maybe not know about concentration camps per se but would know that Jews were being rounded up for "deportation". Nobody would get near those fences without being shot, in the camp or out of it. A child in Auschwitz would not be left to wander around- children under 15 were killed as soon as they arrived. Maybe it's a "charming" or "moving" book but it makes it SO difficult to teach the Holocaust accurately when misinformation and misleading junk like this is popularized. Just because it sounds true or sounds-like-it-could-be-true doesn't make it true. Writers of historical fiction owe it to their readers to ground their fiction in historical reality. There are enough -real stories about the Holocaust and -historically credible fiction out there to make a book like this both useless and unnecessary.

  8. I have read the book or seen the movie -- I wasn't sure if I wanted to put myself through the emotional turmoil.

  9. I agree with you that the two compliment one another very well. I was glad I'd read the book first, as the movie sometimes seemed to barely touch what I thought was more important. I did get a little misty-eyed at the end of the book, but not so much with the movie (possibly because I'd read the book, though I think it has more to do with the slower pace of reading). I just kept thinking of the mom and sister looking, hoping and waiting for his return, and the feeling that the boys friendship had been forever bound in that moment.

    I enjoyed your review :-)

  10. I plan to read the book and then watch the movie. While the premise of the book is unrealistic on many levels,I think this is a good one for a book club discussion or for me to discuss with my son. Thank you for your thorough and thoughtful review.

  11. I've seen clips of this movie but I never did get around to watching it. The book and the movie both sound good though probably a bit more heartbreaking than I usually go for.

  12. I really want to read this book and see the movie but of course I have to read the book first. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  13. Great review!! I have been curious about this book. I had seen the movie cover at the DVD store and my curiousity was piqued even further. I will have to add this to my list of someday reads!

  14. I haven't read this one yet but I've been meaning to. I would like to read it and then watch the movie immediately and compare the two experiences also. Great post!

  15. Sandy - Thank you. I had much more to say, but I figured I should stop while I was ahead. LOL
    It packs an emotional punch, that's for sure.

    Molly - This would be a great selection for CB James' challenge next year. I'll be looking forward to reading your thoughts on both the movie and the book.

    Diane - It really is a heartbreaking story.

    Kathy - I'd be curious to know what you think of the movie if you do get to watch it, Kathy.

    Susan - Thanks, Susan. I imagine your movie choices are pretty limited during those early years as it is. :-) I'm sure the time with them is worth it though.

    Aarti - Thank you, Aarti. My poor cat decided to climb into my arms near the end and got a little wet from my tears.

    Marie - You raise some valid points. I think that's why when a child reads a book like this, it's best to have a parent reading along side him or her. Any inaccuracies can be discussed as well as the value of any lessons that can be learned from it.

    I take it you're not a fan of Philippa Gregory's books? :-)

  16. Beth - I can understand. Books and movies like this can be tough to read or watch.

    Alisha - I'm glad I read the book first too. I probably shouldn't have jumped right from one to the other like I did, but I have a tendency to do that when I have the movie on hand.

    Kathleen - Thanks. It's definitely a good book to spur discussion.

    Jen - The ending is a bit much, but I think it goes along with the idea that the story is more like a fable. It is a sad movie and definitely won't appeal to everyone.

    Samantha - I prefer to read the book before seeing the movie too in most cases.

    April - Thank you. I hope you do get a chance to read and watch it. I'd love to know what you think.

    Staci - Thanks. I've really enjoyed writing these book/movie reviews. I may not always come across as coherent, but it's fun to see the two side by side.

  17. Wendy, I've never read Philippa Gregory; if she lies about the slaughter of millions of people the way Boyne does, I doubt I would like her. Children shouldn't read the book at all- it has nothing of value to teach that can't be found in other, better books.

  18. One more thing. It would accomplish nothing for a parent to share this with a child unless the parent were educated enough about the Holocaust to know what utter crap this book is. And if the parent isn't, then what's the point? It's just validating and spreading the lies.

  19. One last thing and I promise I'll stop! I shouldn't say that Boyne is a liar. That implies that I think he's deliberately misleading people. I don't believe that. I think that what he wrote is irresponsible and inaccurate but I'm sure it wasn't intentional on his part. That doesn't make it any less damaging though.

  20. Great review! I've seen the movie but haven't had time to sit down with the book. I may have to make time for it now. Thanks for the post.

  21. Ok between your review and Marie's comments, I think I need to read this book to figure out what to think.
    I appreciate your well written personal review and Marie's candid comments.

  22. Ryan - Thank you for your kind comment and for stopping by. I hope you will like the book if you do decide to read it.

    Wisteria - Nothing like a little controversy to stir up interest, eh? I'm like that too, wanting to know what all the fuss is about. :-)

  23. I haven't read this yet, the more recent reviews have made me think twice. Maybe I'll just watch the movie ;)

  24. Stacy - It's not a book for everyone, but I'm glad I read it.

  25. I am way behind in my comments and sorry about that. I wanted to comment here because I thought your review was great and insightful. But I also skimmed a little as I read it because this book is on my tbr pile for the coming year as is "The Welsh Girl". I look forward to returning to reading your post after i read them. I have read good and not so good reviews of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas so I am very interested to read it and see what I think.

  26. Amy - I am behind in my comments too, so I understand. I haven't had much time online. I'll play catch up this weekend, I think.

    Thank you for your kind words. I look forward to reading your thoughts on both The Welsh Girl and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.

  27. I read this book a few months ago and haven't written a review as I have mixed feelings. I also have the movie sitting here waiting to be watched. I appreciated your thorough and thoughtful review of the book and movie. The comments that followed have brought about some great discussion.

    I am a parent of a son who is 11 and I felt that Bruno was innocent in some ways and mature in others. I understand Marie's point that a child of a Nazi would most likely be raised to hate Jews although maybe Bruno's father was mixed in his feelings about Jews. Many germans were forced to believe this way and had to act the part even if they didn't believe so that leaves that option open. The other officer was much more vocal about his feelings about the Jews.
    I believe that the author may have taken the reality of the concentration camps and infused it with the innocence of children and the outside view through their eyes. I will have to give it more thought after I watch the movie and write up my review. I found the ending surprising and heartbreaking and have not wanted to watch the movie as I knew what would happen.

    As a parent, I am not sure that my son would understand the concept of the book without explaining more about the holocaust. I have a friend who is Jewish and was deeply touched by this book. Although, she didn't feel that her 13 year old son would be emotionally ready to read it. So, there are different perspectives.

  28. Bonnie - I'd definitely be interested in reading your thoughts about the movie. I think the movie grounded the novel a bit more for me in some respects. I think that comes, in part, from not being limited to the point of view of just one character and such a young one at that.

    On another point you make, I wish more had been said about the grandmother and her position. She clearly disapproved of the camps and I wonder if it went beyond that and she didn't agree with the treatment of the Jewish people at that time. I am sure that had an influence on Bruno as well. Since we were so much in Bruno's head, we really don't know where anyone else stood, do we?

    Although I liked this book overall, it definitely has it's drawbacks. I am glad I read it though.

    Thank you for your comment!

  29. I haven't read the book, but I've seen the movie. I wondered how Bruno would get close enough to the fence without anyone noticing, but since I have no first-hand experience with a concentration camp (thank God) I can't say.

    Anyway, I posted your review on War Through the Generations.

    Diary of an Eccentric

  30. Anna - It does take a little bit of suspension of disbelief. :-)

  31. I really enjoyed this one, but maybe it was because I didn't over analyze and just absorbed it. Glad to hear the movie was good. I do want to see it.

  32. Melissa - That's pretty much what I tried to do too, Melissa.


Thank you for taking the time to visit Musings of a Bookish Kitty. Don't be shy! I would love to hear from you. Due to a recent increase in spam, I will be moderating all comments for the foreseeable future. Please be patient with me as it may take a few hours before I am able to approve your comment.