Book vs. Movie: Everything is Illuminated

Hello, my beloved readers!
Another day, another book vs. movie post. Today I want to talk about the rather weird novel Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer and its adaptation!

The Plot:

Jonathan, a young American, travels to Ukraine to find the woman who had saved his grandfather’s life during the Nazi invasion. He enlists the help of both Alex and his grandfather who run an agency specialized in that kind of thing. All of them end up finding more than they had bargained for…

Book vs. Movie:

Okay, I’ll kick it off with the novel. The special thing about this book is that it tells two stories. We have Jonathan who travels to Ukraine and cruises the countryside in search of his grandfather’s past. And then we have the story of Trochenbrod, the Jewish shtetl he is looking for.
For some reason, the book reminded me a lot of Nick Cave’s And the Ass saw the Angel. Not because the story is similar, but because both books gave off the same vibe.

To be honest, I am not a big fan of the novel. I found large portions of the book somewhat unsettling and several chapters made me cringe. That’s especially true for the story dealing with Trochenbrod which is filled with weird moments of eroticism followed by horror.
The actual story of Jonathan isn’t that entertaining and mostly consists of bad jokes making for an even more irritating contrast with the other half of the book.

What annoyed me the most, however, were the parts of the book attributed to Alex, Jonathan’s Ukranian guide and, later in the book, friend.
His English is relatively decent, however, he often uses words that don’t quite match what he wants to say, although the meaning is somehow related. It’s a bit like typing a regular sentence and then using a thesaurus to swap a word that’s just not quite on point. I know this was supposed to be funny, but it simply lacked charm and had me rolling my eyes after the second chapter.

I had hoped that the adaptation might be more inspiring and decided to give it a shot despite my disappointing experience with the novel.
First of all, I liked the casting. Eugene Hütz (singer of Gogol Bordello and actual Ukrainian) plays Alex. The choice for this role was absolutely on point. Hütz nailed the character and delivered exactly what I had pictured from the book. Elijah Wood as Jonathan also does a rather good job and gives us characters with just the perfect cringe-level.

For the film, the second story about the shtetl was dropped which I appreciated a lot. The fact that you couldn’t even tell that they had basically scraped half of the book should tell you enough about the importance of that story. Instead, the focus is on Jonathan and his quest.

Many of the jokes work better on screen. Alex still talks in his slightly off English but as he doesn’t constantly repeat the same words and generally doesn’t have all that much to say, it’s far more enjoyable than in the book. Furthermore, many jokes stem from him speaking with his grandfather in Ukrainian/Russian (often insulting Jonathan) and then translating something very different him. That’s also something that works on screen but simply not on paper.

The film was actually pretty decent throughout the first half. It felt like a wacky little indie-comedy and I could roll with that. However, there is a point where the story takes a more tragic and sad turn. Did I mention that the town they are looking for was completely eradicated by the Nazis? Something like that doesn’t blend in with the jokes from before. It’s extremely hard to do a tragic-comedy and I think it might be impossible to do it with a topic like this. For me, the contrast between the serious bits and the funny moments was just too harsh to create a film that feels like one piece that should go together.

While I certainly enjoyed the adaptation far more than the original book, I am still not sold on this one. I can see the potential but it doesn’t quite work out. To be honest, you won’t miss much if you give Everything is Illuminated a pass, whatever form it may be in.

Did you prefer the book or the movie? Let me know in the comments!

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