Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay this year. It’s a hilarious, touching and edgy war satire about a boy in Hitler’s Youth Army who discovers his mother is hiding a young Jewish girl in their walls. A heavily indoctrinated 10-year-old whose imaginary friend is Adolf himself, played expertly by Waititi, this unconventional film has touches of Life is Beautiful and Moonrise Kingdom.
Taking the unexpected levity of Life is Beautiful and infusing it with the awkward, sentimental and comedic Moonrise Kingdom, he presents a layered comedy with heart and spirit. Featuring a cast including: Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, Thomasin Mackenzie and introducing Roman Griffin Davis and Archie Yates, it’s a wonderful film with many strong performances.
The film was adpated from Caging Skies by Christine Leunens (Primordial Soup), a Belgian-New Zealand author who will probably derive some good exposure from Jojo Rabbit. While the novel serves as the inspiration for Jojo Rabbit, it’s really just the premise that matters as Waititi takes the tone from sinister drama to candid comedy. The novel itself has received mixed reviews with many readers only broaching it in the build-up or aftermath of Jojo Rabbit. Some have criticised it for being too slow-moving, others have seen it as two novels glued together taking a sharp turn towards the middle. While the idea is intriguing and inspired Waititi to write Jojo Rabbit, it’s a case of a film actually improving the original source material.
The question is whether an adapted screenplay should serve as a direct translation of a novel or as a standalone work. While there are many examples of both, it’s this writer’s opinion that adapted films should be their own beast. Jojo Rabbit is an excellent example of this, but it seems as though there are conditional factors at play.
If Caging Skies already had a big following, a loyal fan base and an author who had more say on the finished product, this adaptation may have been met with more opposition. If Leunens had cemented her story in the pop culture stratosphere it would have been difficult to dislodge this from the public mindset. If the novel had been more reverred it would have necessitated a much closer adaptation.
Some will watch an adaptation to see how the interpretation measured against their understanding of the story. How did you envision the characters? What kind of environment did it take place in? Watching another person’s recreation can serve as a fascinating comparison and revision of your thoughts and imagination. Some people read books because they’ve enjoyed the film so much, making it easier for them to assign visual approximations for places and people in the story with a grip on the basic story line. The interchangeability of films and novels is an interesting space for discussion and contrasts.
While essentially doing a direct translation of an author’s vision can be effected, it will always feel hijacked under another director. Unless the author is directly involved in the creative adaptation and execution of a film, it will tend towards becoming someone else’s version of the vision. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s a way of creating a piece of art and entertainment that has its own life and path. Both products come from imagination, writing and world-building, but what’s the use of stealing the imaginative world of one and transplanting it? The bottom line is that the film business is a business, so it’s really what will serve the box office best at the end of the day. Yet, it just seems like a wasted opportunity to build a monument to a world that already exists!
Surely it’s better to take inspiration and create something fresh, something that the screenwriter and director can take ownership of. Avoid the accurate and faithful to the nth degree adaptation. Allow the new burst of creativity to derive something that isn’t borrowed, something that’s new. Directors are hired to create films for screenplays they didn’t write all the time, but it’s so much richer when the originator of the content is allowed to interpret it for themselves. This is what separated the auteurs from the filmmakers. It’s about passion, creative control and leave one’s signature on the film. Unfortunately, this isn’t easy to achieve when it’s a professional job… lacking the director’s full impetus and suffers from the restraint of building someone else’s dream.
Stephen King describes Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, two great films, as two of his novels that received the best adaptations of his work with Frank Darabont in command. Unfortunately, this is a rarity and perhaps represents the perfect alignment in terms of a great story being adopted by an accomplished film-maker and fan of the work. King has had many books adapted and it’s usually not as perfect a fit. Jojo Rabbit demonstrates what can be achieved when a director is able to take the story and make his own.