In The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink, fifteen-year-old Michael Berg meets and starts an affair with, thirty-year-old Hanna Schmitz when she helps him as he becomes sick on his way home one day. After a summer together, she mysteriously moves away and he does not see her again until he is working on his law degree years later. He watches as she gets convicted of heinous war crimes, and realizes how so many slightly puzzling things about the Hanna he knew to make sense now.
He also discovers her secret illiteracy, which was the cause of so many events in her life. Michael remains Hanna’s only acquaintance throughout her last years in jail. This post-war story brings up many big questions about love and how a person’s actions affect who they are. The movie adaptation, directed by Stephen Daldry and created by Mirage Enterprises, is an intermediate adaptation of the novel. The changes made only serve to create a more powerful story that drives in the emotional themes of religion, love, lust, blame, guilt, and parallels through time and generations even more strongly for the audience.
In the book, the concept of God and religion is very rarely breached. Michael tells the reader of his musings on sin as he starts feeling lust towards Hanna, reasoning that “…if having an active fantasy was as bad as the act you were fantasizing – then why not the satisfaction and the act itself?” (page 19). He concludes that he couldn’t stop thinking sinful thoughts.
In which case she also wanted the sin itself” (19). During the idyllic spring bike trip they take together, there is not a single mention of the church or choir which plays such a large role in the movie adaptation. In that version of this story, Michael finds Hanna crying with joy while watching a choir sing in a small church during their bike trip. It is the first time he sees her cry, rather than while they are fighting and she hits him across the face with a belt as happens in the book. The music from the choir appears throughout the movie, in somber scenes featuring an older, more weathered Michael contemplating his life with Hanna while going about his current lonely one. This music connects him to the past. In the very last scenes years later, Michael is seen taking his daughter, Julia, back to the church from the bike trip. As choral music plays, he explains that this is where Hanna is buried and starts telling the whole story of their affair to Julia. However, in the novel,l only briefly mentions that he goes to visit where Hanna is buried when he gets a letter, in her name, from the Jewish League Against Illiteracy thanking her for her donation.
Due to his illness, Michael falls very behind in school in Schlink’s novel. When Hanna discovers this, she shows a bit of compassion for Michael, by coercing him to catch up on his work. She withholds herself, telling him “if you don’t want to do your work, don’t come back” (35). When he expresses distaste for school, she asks him, “you’re working is idiotic? Idiotic? What do you think selling and punching tickets are?” (35). If the reader already kabout lovenows Hanna’s backstory, they know the passion in this outburst comes from Hanna’s struggles as an illiterate. Because of her lack of education, she has had to turn down jobs and opportunities that would have improved her life. But, she is determined not to let Michael slack off, and because of her insistence, he ends up working “like an idiot” (35) and passing tenth grade. This action adds a new dimension to Hanna. She gained nothing from doing this; it was selfless, to prevent another person from suffering anything like what she suffered and prevent Michael from falling behind his classmates and having to repeat an entire year at school. She showed she cared, at least a little, about Michael and his future. However, in the movie adaptation, this entire scene is cut. This does have the effect of making Hanna seem a little more callous, a little less caring. It may help convince the viewer that she is only in their relationship for her good, that she is purely using Michael and does not care for him as a person. Additionally, in the novel, her actions mark the first time that Hanna uses withholding her body and herself from Michael as a tool of power. As this scene was cut in the movie, the audience does not get as complete a picture of how she uses this upper hand to control Michael and his actions, as is shown later in the story when they start fighting more. He always gives in quickly for fear of losing her.
Michael marries Gertrud towards the end of law school, and while only married for a few years before divorcing, have one child together. Julia, their daughter, is mentioned several times in the novel, but is never a significant character and is met in person only once or twice. In the movie adaptation, however, the viewer meets Julia in one of the first scenes, as an older Michael meets her for lunch. They also watch Julia grow up through Michael’s flashbacks and flashforwards. These scenes build on the ideas of intergenerational relationships and the role of a child in their parents’ world. Michael talks many times throughout his law school years of the conflict that occurred between his parents’ generation and his generation, of all the anger the younger one directed at the older one for allowing, and perpetuating, the horrors of the Holocaust and World War II. These scenes also create an interesting parallel between Michael and Julia and the mother and daughter who survived the church bombing, in which Hanna was almost directly responsible for the deaths of several hundred women locked in there. The mother saved her daughter, and it was largely due to her daughter’s survival that they received justice, as her book was used in the court trial. This parent-child relationship is even further mirrored in the strange many times in public they are mistaken for mother and son, and on the bike tri,p they act as so.
Michael even explains that he “registered us as mother and son while she just signed her name” (54). All of these parental parallels are buried eep in the novel. Julia is only mentioned as a product of Michael’s failed marriage, and in a cursory statement when he visits Hanna in prison.
The movie fleshes out Julia’s character and turns her into a much more significant character, which then works to highlight these parallels. By the end of the film, when Michael takes her to visit the choir church from the bike trip where Hanna is buried, it seems right now that the audience has a more solid view of who Julia is as a person and her place in Michael’s life. It feels as if Michael, the story itself, and the audience are all getting closure as she asks “who was she?”, and Michael explains that he was fifteen when it all started. The Reader deals with many themes such as love, lust, religion, guilt, blame, and how to deal with the past and the actions of people you love. While the book is a significant work of art in itself, the movie adaption uses the few significant changes it makes from the novel as a tool to reinforce these themes and create even more emotional power for the audience. Some viewers may see these changes as making the movie a less “faithful” adaptation and thus a worse version of the story; however, it is important to remember that a movie adaptation is a work of art in itself, rather than a replica of the story outlined in the original novel. These changes make the movie an intermediate adaption of the original novel.