“The thing about exploring is that you have to know whether the thing you’ve found is worth finding. Some things are just sitting there, minding their own business, waiting to be discovered.”
Directed by Mark Herman and based on the historical Holocaust novel written by John Boyne, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas is set during World War II and is told from the perspective of eight-year-old Bruno (Asa Butterfield), the son of a high-ranking Nazi commandant, whose family is forced to move to Auschwitz when Bruno’s father (David Thewlis) is promoted. Away from his friends and growing increasingly bored, Bruno ventures outside of his backyard, defying his mother’s (Vera Farmiga) rules, in search of something to do. Here, Bruno meets Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a young Jewish boy who, unbeknownst to Bruno, is an inmate in a concentration camp, which Bruno believes to be a farm. Their friendship grows with Bruno’s frequent visits, but their innocent secret quickly sets into motion a tragic and devastating sequence of events.
The following post is a review of the film adaptation in comparison to the book. You can read my review of the book on its own here.
I first watched this film after a friend had seen a stage production of the story, telling me how harrowing it was, so I quickly put the film and my ‘to watch’ list. And she wasn’t half wrong.
The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas is a heartbreaking story that deals with its setting and subject matter in a unique and arresting manner. It may not have a heavy historical feel to it or really focus on the brutality of the situation, using the Holocaust as merely a backdrop to this family drama, but what it does do excellently is to experience a haunting situation through the eyes of a young boy, taking us on what can only be described as of the most uncomfortable children’s adventures of all time.
As Bruno’s innocent actions lead to devastating results, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas has one of the saddest and shocking twists ever written, and it is for this ending that many people will read the book and subsequently watch the film in the first place.
I didn’t particularly enjoy the way this ending was written in the book, with the book and the film handling the scene very differently (I will go into this better in my list of differences in the film compared to the book below), but the way the film reduced me to tears is the reason why I will watch it over and over again.
There are moments in the middle where the film feels like it’s losing its way a little, but when it all comes to a close you’ll know why you stuck around.
As well as this tear-jerker of an ending, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas is filled with fantastic performances. Asa Butterfield is phenomenal in the lead role alongside Jack Scanlon, two very impressive actors for their age. But the casting of Mother and Father is spot on, too, with Vera Farmiga and David Thewlis making the story more powerful and its characters easy to engage with.
It is these performances and the emotion that they emanate that make this film such a breathtaking watch. But with the change in ending being the reason for my preference towards the film over the book, there are also some major qualities that the film adaptation loses.
Differences From The Book:
I’ll begin with a few of the minor changes from the book alongside my opinion of how they affected the film, and then go into the big difference in the ending afterwards.
So, to begin with:
- The story isn’t primarily told from Bruno’s perspective in the film, as it is in the book. This has some positives, as I will go on to explain in the following points, but this also deters from the innocence and naivety of having a young person narrative, dealing with the subject matter much more dramatically than how Bruno saw things.
- This change in perspective means that there is a bigger focus on other characters, giving the film a stronger family dynamic and allowing us to see more of how Bruno’s mother and sister are coping and adapting to the changes, rather than only Bruno’s blurred understanding of it. Seeing how Bruno’s mother slowly breaks down and becomes more and more emotional and how his sister is so quickly influenced by her Nazi teachings makes the story all the more shocking, which is a great advantage of the film.
- With a better focus on these other characters, too, this makes Bruno’s Mother and Father more likeable, which can be seen as both a good and a bad thing. It’s certainly a positive to see the emotional side of Bruno’s mother, and there’s no harm in liking her character, but with the adaptation making Father more approachable and even sympathetic, this can also be seen as a flaw. Then again, casting Harry Potter‘s Lupin in the role was always going to have that likeable effect, as brilliant as Thewlis is.
- Whilst Mother is more likeable in the film, there is a fundamental reason as to why we don’t see so much of this emotional side to her character in the book. In the book, she appears to be more aware of what’s actually going, which is the more realistic of likelihoods, whereas in the film she comes across as quite misled by her husband. There is a great scene in the film, however, when a Lieutenant comments that “They smell even worse when they burn”, which is when it first hits her that there’s more to be told. As I said, though, it was more likely that she knew exactly what was going on, which is why we probably shouldn’t warm to her so much.
- There is a lot more talk about Hitler in the book, and Bruno even gets to meet him. I’m not sure why Herman would choose to avoid this, as it would add a lot more historical context and make the matter even more disturbing, but I suppose it would have felt a little awkward at the same time.
- There’s also a scene in the book where Bruno has to have his head shaved because he has lice. This means that, in the final scenes, Bruno blends into his surroundings better, whilst he has to wear a hat in the film. Again, another minor change that doesn’t make much a difference, and was probably only missed out to save time.
And now onto the ending:
- To give a brief synopsis, the last scene follows Bruno, wearing the Jewish inmates’ pyjamas as a disguise, sneak into the extermination camp to help Shmuel find his father.
- The book manages to capture this scene in two or three pages and doesn’t detail exactly what happens at the end, encouraging you to use your imagination. So it’s all about how you read these few paragraphs and your personal reaction to it.
- The reason I prefer the film’s ending is because it has more of focus on Bruno’s family searching for him, whereas the book puts its focus on only the two boys. So instead of just seeing Bruno and Shmuel not knowing exactly what they’ve gotten themselves into in, this is contrasted in the film with scenes of Bruno’s family frantically trying to find him in the rain, finding his clothes outside of the camp and realising what has happened, and ending with them cursing to the sky.
- With the film literally giving you the visuals, everything is set out in front of you, not leaving anything unsaid or to imagine for yourself. It is these details that I wanted to read and to be told, as when I read the book I felt as if Bruno had vanished into thin air and that his family didn’t really notice, so it is all about how you read it.
- I feel that with the film giving much more detail than the brief, emotionless couple of pages in the book, the film gives a better emphasis on this emotional scene and, therefore, gives a bigger impact on how the story concludes.
This is the first time I have had a preference for the film over the book, but the book just doesn’t have any of the emotional impact that the film manages to capture. The book is certainly still worth a read, as it is a distinctive and inspiring piece of literature, but it is the film that remains one of my favourites.