The Reader: Book Into Film


The Reader is the highly acclaimed novel by German writer Bernhard Schlink.  It was first published in 1995 in Europe and the English translation came out two years later.  Anthony Minghella (Cold Mountain, 2003) was said to be the original director of the film adaptation, with his friend Sydney Pollack (Sketches of Frank Gehry, 2005) producing.   Their untimely death sadly altered the scene somewhat, even though they were still named as producers when the Awards Season arrived.  Thus the poignant acknowledgement from Kate Winslet as she received her Oscar Best Actress Award.

Selected as a New York Times Notable Book and a Los Angeles Times Book of the Year, the novel’s 218 pages are packed densely with poignant images and thought-provoking moral questions.  The first part takes place in the 1950’s. 15 year-old Michael Berg gets sick on his way home from school and is helped by a woman, Hanna Schmitz.  Thus sparks the sexual encounter and later love affair between the two.  Every time they meet, Hanna makes sure Michael reads to her literature from Homer to Chekhov.

After a while, Hanna disappears, and not until Michael becomes a law student does he see her again, this time in a post-war trial of Nazi criminals.  Hanna turns out to be a guard at a concentration camp during the Holocaust.  As Michael is awash by torrents of conflicting emotions while watching the trial, he is aghast at a personal secret Hanna refuses to reveal, one which could have saved her from a lengthy prison term.  Her only statement of defence is wrapped in one sentence:  “What would you have done?”  She asked the judge.

The last part of the book is in the present day.  Michael, now a lawyer, is still haunted by his past and the residual emotional ambivalence upon the release of Hanna from prison.  The story wraps up with a heart-wrenching ending.

Hidden behind the romantic facade is a story that deals with a deeply complex set of moral issues; the love affair between a 30 some year-old woman and a 15 year-old boy is only the initial spark.  This is not a Holocaust novel, but rather, an incisive depiction of psychological dilemma confronting a new, post-war generation in Germany.  The moral burden that Michael faces is heavy, seemingly unresolvable and yet born by the collective psyche:

“I wanted simultaneously to understand Hanna’s crime and to condemn it… When I tried to understand it, I had the feeling I was failing to condemn it as it must be condemned.  When I condemned it as it must be condemned, there was no room for understanding… it was impossible to do both.”

I read the book  a while back but have delayed seeing the movie, directed by Stephen Daldry and screenplay by David Hare (both of The Hours, 2002).  First off, I could imagine the film, having the advantage of transporting the literary into visual realism, can go all out gratuitously to depict the love affair between Michael and Hanna.  Further, the very complex moral issues the book deals with would be a challenge to transfer into film, making it less effective and maybe even trivializing the crux of the matter.

Well, I was both right and wrong.  The first part of the movie depicting the seduction of Michael (18 year-old David Kross) by Hanna (Kate Winslet) and which gradually grows into a full-fledged love affair does carry some gratuitous erotic sequences.  However, having watched the movie I have also come to appreciate the necessity of this relationship.  The love affair between Michael and Hanna is the very analogy of a younger generation having had to deal with the conflicting emotions of loving their own parents, many of whom were involved in the atrocities of the Nazi regime.

Both Winslet and Kross have delivered a most affective cinematic rendering of an otherwise despicable affair.  Winslet has brought out an exceptional performance, from a simple and passionate young woman to a grey-haired, seemingly amoral and yet deeply tormented prisoner.   The irony of the movie is that, by crafting a visually appealing cinematic offering, it has won over its viewers’ heart (especially Winslet fans), resulting in a much more sympathetic rendition of someone who has a hand in the death of hundreds of Jews under her guard.

Likewise, the portrayal of the older Michael (Ralph Fiennes) is less effective than it deserves.  Maybe due to his limited scenes, it appears that Fiennes lacks the time to dwell himself fully in the character to elicit the spectrum of conflicting emotions.  It may also be the weaker script, compared to the book, that has shrouded some critical issues with ambiguity.

But I did appreciate the scene where a distressed Michael consults with his professor (Bruno Ganz), who  distinguishes between law and morality.   The law has nothing to do with right or wrong, he tells Michael.  What’s legal doesn’t make it right.  Implication follows that duty and legality do not excuse wrongdoings.  While the  law regulates the behavior, it is morality that constrains the heart.

While the movie is appealing visually and offers some riveting performance, I urge viewers to be the reader.  That’s what I did, re-read the book as soon as I got home, and appreciated the written words even more.

Book and Movie

~ ~ ~ Ripples

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink, translated by Carol Brown Janeway, published by Vintage International, 2008,  218 pages.

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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

8 thoughts on “The Reader: Book Into Film”

  1. I read “The Reader” a few years ago. Do you think it would be better to re-read the book before seeing the movie?


    I think it all depends on your personal purpose. For me, I’m interested in the creative process of turning book into film. That’s why I’d usually read the book first, then see how it’s re-created visually. So in a sense, it’s more of a critical and analytical way of approaching a movie. But if you just want to relax and enjoy the film, regardless whether it’s true to the original or not, then just go and enjoy it. In either case, we’re still taking the film on its own merits, as a genre different from the literary.

    For this movie though, I feel that the film has left some ambiguity in its treatment of the subject matter(s), that I had to re-read it and get the original intent of the author. Thanks for giving me the chance to clear this up… I’d like to know what you think about the film too.



  2. The Reader starts in Hong Kong today. It’s definitely on my must see list. Now it makes me wonder if I should read the book first?

    Kate Winslet is no longer that young girl in Titanic, the more mature Winslet definitely shines in Revoluntary Road. She did a great job.

    Looking forward to seeing her in The Reader.

    Thank for your post Arti.


  3. Finally saw The Reader yesterday.

    Kate Winslet did a superb performance and so did young Michael Berg (David Kross). No doubt in my mind that this German actor will reach Oscar stardom one day.

    The Reader is a slow-moving but absorbing story of sexual awakening and moral dilemmas. Beautifully shot with great cinematography.

    I thorougly enjoyed the matinee and so did my school chum’s mother, a 80-year-old lady. We went for a bit afterward and talked about the film for over an hour.

    Thanks for sharing Arti.

    I urge everyone who has seen The Reader to read the book. Somehow, I feel it has not pursued as vigorously the inherent issues as the author had intended. Film itself has its appeal of course, leading to a different result. Thanks for sharing you viewing experience.



  4. Hi Arti,

    Just watched the movie. Thanks for the review! It was a good one! I watched the movie because of your review! 🙂



    Thanks for reading and leaving your comment!



  5. Hi Arti, have been looking at your reviews of books into film. I haven’t yet seen the latest Emma – though it’s sitting on our family room table right now waiting, and I haven’t seen or read the Swedish “girl” movies. However, I have read and seen this, and so went back to some notes I made when I saw it. I read the book in 1999, and saw the film in 2009. The book though was pretty vivid still – which says something, eh? about the book.

    I liked the film pretty much and you’ve written a really nice review of what was a rather good film. As you say, it couldn’t bring out the full complexity of the novel. The point that I think the film most failed in was the very point implied by the title, and that is “literacy”. Her lack of literacy is tied in the book to her inability to understand and think through her behaviour. We may not agree that you need to be able to read to be moral but I think the implication in the book is that reading opens our minds to moral complexity, encourages us to think beyond, say, “the Law” to “the morality” as the Professor talks over with Michael. Schlink’s message I think is that it was only through her literacy that she understood exactly what she’d done, saw the difference between blindly following rules and living a moral life. This was, I thought, made clear in the book, but in the film there was only one very brief line given by the prison official that made that point. My husband, who didn’t know the book, missed it and so did the others I saw it with AND that I think was a shame because to me it missed a significant point Schlink was making. The relationship between literacy and morality is problematical, I think, but that is I believe one of Schlink’s messages here.


    1. whisperinggums,

      It’s been a while since I read the book and saw the movie, but I’ll try to respond to your thoughtful comment from memory of both. You have brought out an excellent point about the connection between literacy and the capacity for self-reflection. Reminds me of a Wittgenstein quote: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” After she has learned to read in prison, Hanna reads stories of concentration camps to understand the internal worlds of the victims. But I can also see the dangerous waters the author would be treading if he did not handle the issue delicately enough, since, as you’ve suggested in your comment, there’s a very fine line between actual drawing a direct relation between literacy and morality, and that which you have described in your comment, that literacy opens up a world of thoughtful examination. I’m sure Schlink would not want to be misunderstood that he was drawing a direct causation between literacy and morality.

      From her action at the end, the poignancy I feel isn’t because so much about the guilt she is feeling, but the coldness she sees in the reception of Michael towards her, the lack of love and acceptance. It is hopelessness she will be stepping out into once released from prison. There isn’t much to look forward to even given freedom if she remains condemned and unforgiven… although she has tried to amend her wrongs by a little act of kindness at the end.

      Whew… what a story isn’t it. I’m excited to hear opinions shared here. Thank you again for your thought-provoking comment. I look forward to more exchanges in our mutual visits of WG and RE. 😉


  6. Nicely said Arti… the ending is certainly complex and encompasses intersecting issues which is probably the reality when people make the decision she did. It is certainly a standout story and one you can just keep teasing out the nuances if you are prepared to. I know some readers (ha?) couldn’t get past her “child abuse” of Michael and couldn’t see through to all the layers of power, morality, love, guilt, forgiveness that Schlink was exploring. (Which perhaps proves that “literacy” isn’t the only path to thinking!!)


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