Monday 5 September 2011

Devouring Films: Everything is Illuminated

I love how the tagline for this movie is 'Leave Normal Behind', as if implying that the character Elijah Wood portrays, Jonathan Safran Foer (yes the author... if you're confused, see my review for the book of Everything is Illuminated) is the normal one, and by leaving America and going to Ukraine to find the woman who saved his grandfather's life, he is stepping into a world that is completely mental. All I can say to this is no, no, no! Jonathan is probably the strangest character in the movie (even in aesthetics- giving Wood glasses that make his giant eyes ginormous makes him look almost creepy, and reminiscent of the character he plays in Sin City if you ask me) not least because he collects items in little plastic bags because he's afraid of forgetting anything. That's more than a little eccentric in my eyes...

So, the movie of Everything is Illuminated is very different from the book. Apart from making Jonathan very very odd, they've also taken out all the 'history of Trachimbrod' stuff that I wasn't too keen on anyway, cleaned up the dog (he is just scary rather than stinky in the film), and, possibly most alarmingly, have made Alex's grandfather Jewish, making his 'big secret' very different to what it was in the book. I have big problems with this plot change, but I'll come back to that later. What Everything is Illuminated (the movie) really is is a sort of travelogue of a young American's travels to a strange land, where they can't even comprehend vegetarianism (one of the scenes that I thought worked better in the movie than in the book) and they seem to be stuck in a sort of 1980s cultural world. Many things get lost in translation, guidebooks are completely useless, but in the end, Ukranians and Americans, Jews and non-Jews alike come to some sort of mutual understanding about their pasts and their futures.

While I was reading the book of Everything is Illuminated, two people at work told me that the film was really good, and that I should look out for the scene with the house surrounded by sunflowers. I was mildly interested, and I thought that sounded cool and all, but really, it was stunning. Like the most beautiful place you could think of, and the only way I can now envisage having a garden. It also helped that I really love sunflowers. If I'm totally honest though, I'm not really sure what the significance of the sunflowers was- there's no mention of them in the book, there was no discussion of them or their meaning or origin in the film, so I can only assume they were there because... they look nice? A fair enough reason, really, but it's just a tad inscrutable!

The thing that most baffled me about the movie though, was the way they changed the grandfather's story so wildly, but still had him ending up in the same position. I can't really say too much about it because it's a massive spoiler in both cases, but let's just say that in one case he's definitely not Jewish, and yet in the film he is actually Jewish, but acting as though he isn't. I'm not sure if even that gives too much away, but there is more to it than just that, so I think we're ok. Anyway, in his hidden past in the movie, there is basically no reason for him to do what he eventually does, because he is really guilt-free (unless he feels guilty for turning away from his God, which is possible, I suppose) whereas in the book, the reason for his guilt is a lot more clear, whether or not you would yourself condemn him for his actions. I did just think that this did make the movie implausible in the end, because they could have done something completely different with Alex's grandfather so that he would be able to have a more respectful ending. (If this has given away too much, seriously just come and punch me in the face. I would!)

In spite of this though, I really did find Everything is Illuminated an enjoyable watch, and I definitely wouldn't turn down a repeat viewing of it. Especially viewed as a separate entity to the book, I think it holds its own, whilst not going quite as deep as the book (because movies, in their essential nature, often fail to do so), it does have the advantage of also missing out some of the less interesting (I'm sorry, BORING) elements of the history of Trachimbrod. You win a little, you lose a little. But on the whole, yes I would recommend that you watch it, maybe even before you've read the book so you have nothing to compare it with. Give it a try, then come tell me what you think!


  1. Nice review and nice dancing around grandfather issue!!! I'm still confused enough that I don't think any plot was revealed. I really enjoy Elijah Wood and promise to give this one a try... Sometime.

  2. I just attended a performance of the stage version, and yes, it was very different from the film! Have not read the book.