When his father (David Thewlis) gets a promotion, little Bruno (Asa Butterfield) and his family
have to move to a new home by an odd farm, one where the workers wear their pajamas during
the day. It's when he sneaks off to explore the farm that Bruno meets and befriends Shmuel (Jack
Scanlon), a boy about his own age who isn't allowed outside the fence, for reasons neither of
them quite understand.
While several films (Life is Beautiful, Jakob the Liar) have shown Holocaust stories that involve
young children, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is unique in that it's done almost entirely from
Bruno's innocent, sheltered point of view.
The atrocities all lurk off camera, more visible to us because we know what's really going on.
Bruno's default position, however, is that his father is a wonderful man who does good things,
and the film never deviates from that view, or the assumptions it guides the little boy to make.
Even when Shmuel is beaten by his father's assistant, the scary Lt. Kotler (Rupert Friend), Bruno
still believes the adults in his world must be acting on a higher wisdom.
Some of the best horror involves a child, and some of the best drama happens when someone
doesn't realize a terrible mistake they're making. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas uses both of these
elements in a powerful story about childhood innocence and adult monsters.
Writer-director Mark Herman (Hope Springs) was hungry for a new idea when his agent passed
him a pre-publication copy of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a young-adult novel written by one
of the years writing and directing a romantic comedy, Herman wanted his next project to have
some dramatic weight to it. "So when this arrived," he explains, "I just thought, 'This is the one.'
It blew me away."
Bruno (Asa Butterfield) is a 1930s German schoolboy who's proud to learn that his
military-officer father (David Thewlis) has received a very important promotion, but not as
happy to learn it means moving away to a new home outside the city. Much to the young boy's
surprise, his family's new home is near a farm that his father is in charge of, one protected by
high fences where the workers wear their black-and-white striped Pajamas all the time. Despite
many warnings from his mother (Vera Farmiga), Bruno eventually wanders out to see the farm
and meets Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a Jewish boy his own age who isn't quite sure why he's inside
the barrier. As the summer rolls on, Bruno brings balls, checkerboards, and sandwiches out to
the fence to share with his new friend, a friend everyone tells him he should hate.
On the film's press day, Herman took a break between roundtable interviews and photo
sessions to sit down with CS Weekly to talk about adaptations, trying to be lighthearted with a
Holocaust film, and tripping up his audiences.
Considering how it came to you, did John Boyne work with you at all on this?
This is the fourth adaptation I've done. On all the previous three, I've hardly ever met the
original author or playwright. But just for this one...I did a film called Brassed Off, which was
then transferred from film onto the stage, so I knew how it felt to hand over your baby to
someone you don't know [chuckles]. I bought the film rights to Striped Pajamas myself, because I
wanted to be my own boss for a few months and simply be on my own. I was buying my own
freedom. John had sold the rights to me personally, and contractually that's normally goodbye.
But in this case I was very keen to have his approval and support throughout. I'd send him
every draft just to get his notes. There were many discussions. Like I say, it wasn't contractual,
just a desire on my part to have his approval. That carried on through the filmmaking process.
We invited him to set, and to have an author still aboard a film doing publicity, that's quite a
How faithful an adaptation is this?
Well, one of the most rewarding things is everybody says it's very, very faithful, but in fact,
when you analyze it, it's very different. I mean, John thinks it's incredibly faithful. I think that's
because it's faithful in spirit. There are a lot of very good scenes that I've cut out that were in the
book, they worked very well in the book, but they just wouldn't work on screen. I suppose a
major part of the screenwriter's job is to know what not to write.
Do you think of yourself as a director who writes his own material or as a writer who gets to
[laughs] It's hard to answer this question because I've never known anything different. I often
find it very useful, and I think actors find it useful, that the writer's there on set. One of the fears
I have of directing somebody else's writing is that I don't fully understand a certain aspect of it.
At least when it's your own writing, you know absolutely everything about it. Sometimes
you've invented these characters. I think the actors find that useful, that they can not only talk to
the director, but they're actually talking to the person who wrote it.
Is the process of writing different for you when you adapt, as opposed to creating from scratch?
It is a different process with a book. The first thing I did on this was simply to lift all the
dialogue onto the computer and then realize immediately that 80% of the book is the two kids at
the fence. This won't work, because people are going to be irritated by the kids if they're on
screen that long. So you hone it down and that creates a space for something else, which is the
development of the family life. At least you have a first step that isn't your own; it's simply
words on screen from the book. Then you hack away at that and swap it around. One of the first
changes I made was to make it chronological, because the book goes back and forth with
With an original I spend so long plotting. If I use Brassed Off as an example, I spent a long time
plotting it but then from writing page one of the screenplay it was probably just two days. It just
whistled off. As long as you've got the whole plot in your head.
Would you ever write something for someone else to direct?
I might. I would actually write in a very, very different way. There have been projects where I've
written the same draft number, but in two different ways, an A and a B. One to get a certain cast
aboard and another one to get the studio interested. It's the same version of the script, just
doctored towards different things.
Striped Pajamas is told almost entirely from Bruno's perspective, so a huge amount of it depends
on the audience's understanding. Were there a lot of challenges writing a screenplay with so
much subtlety to it?
Well, you're walking a very dangerous line, especially with this subject matter. Even down to
long discussions with the designer of the film. You've got the fence and the camp in the
distance. Things like that, it's dangerous, because people might say, "That doesn't look like a
concentration camp," and you don't want to upset anyone through not being authentic or
realistic. But the trouble is, we're having to tell a story where the child thinks this is a farm, so
it's got to look like a farm, through the eyes of a child. I suppose, like most good horror movies,
the monster is hidden until the last few minutes. That's when it's revealed in all its gory horror.
Now, this is a fictional story that's grounded in reality -- did you do a lot of research for this
past what was in the book?
Yeah, when I was writing the screenplay I did a lot of research. I mean, most research these days
is on the internet. You get into some pretty dark places. You find yourself on a website you
really shouldn't be on, you shouldn't be at. Then you click a link and then you're at one you
really shouldn't be at. I think what was scariest is there are a lot of these sites that are
present-day movements, which is scarier than anything.
Also, at 50-whatever-I-am, you think you know about the Holocaust. But you know so little. To
find out more and more about what happened, instances that happened at the time, is actually
pretty disturbing. I think we'd all been to those dark places. Me as a screenwriter, the actors, the
designer, the costumer. We'd all done our own research and been to some of these horrible
places, so by the time we started shooting the film, we were very keen to put all that behind us
and have a good time making the film. It sounds ridiculous to have a laugh making a Holocaust
film, but it was very important with the kids there that we didn't all walk around being suicidal.
That's an interesting point. Because it's Bruno's view, a lot of the Nazis are seen in a very
humanized light, especially Father. Was this a hard selling point?
Well, it's not a sympathetic light. I'm not sure humanizing is the right word. I suppose I was
keen to avoid cliché Nazis. One of the terrifying things about that time was they were human
beings who had families and kids and loved their families and kids. In the film he can play
chess with his son one night and the next day go out and kill several hundred people. Again,
through the research, looking at Rudolph Hoess' family life. There's a picture of his garden
swings, and just beyond it is Auschwitz. The closest you get to cliché is Rupert Friend's
character, Lieutenant Kotler. But then there are moments, like at the dinner party, when he starts
talking about his father. Again, it's a family thing and they are human beings. One of the reasons
we shot it with a straight English accent is that it opens out. It's not just about Nazis and
Germans, it's about human beings. Not that you need to have an English accent to be a human
In the book the camp actually is Auschwitz, isn't it?
Yeah. It's such a sensitive subject. Again, it works in the book because you can imagine certain
things, but on screen if you're saying this is Auschwitz, people say, "That house wasn't there,"
and "Which commandant is David Thewlis playing?" That muddles it all up. It's not very good
for the movie, really. My favorite scene in the book was a scene when Hitler comes to dinner to
give him the job in the first place. Fantastic scene. I started to write it in the first draft and then
just thought, "I can't get away with that." You can't put a real person in this fictional story. That's
very dangerous. It could almost be comedic. So I took that out. I thought to be non-specific
would be better.
The propaganda film that father makes was your addition, yes?
Yeah. One of the things that worried me -- again, works very well in the book, but on the screen
-- the naiveté of Bruno. I worried that on screen it might look like stupidity rather than naiveté,
because he's on screen so long. To combat that, I felt he needed to ask more questions, which he
does in the film. Also, just to underline at that time the German people were being fed that kind
of propaganda. But it serves a dual purpose in the screenplay. It's at a time when he's most
doubting his father. He catches a glimpse of this propaganda, falls for it, and it confirms his trust
in his father, ironically.
Bruno's family seems to represent all the different faces Germans could wear during the war. His
father's a devout Nazi officer. His mother's horrified at what's going on but makes no attempt to
stop it. His sister (Amber Beattie) doesn't know what's going on but embraces the ideology. How
much of this was deliberate construction?
And the grandfather, who is, I think, the worst character in the lot of them, David Thewlis's
father. Yes, that is design. Again, not really in the book, because the book is so entirely about
Bruno and inside Bruno's head. There are no scenes that he doesn't see or hear. That's one of the
things I put in the screenplay, was more to do with the family life. Certainly, Mother's thread is
born out of the screenplay. I felt you needed a character that was a mild conscience in a way,
somebody who knew it was a camp but didn't know the extent of it until she has an awful
discovery. What isn't symbolized, I think, is that portion of the population that knew the extent
of it but didn't want to know, or pretended they didn't.
Very early on, once the tone is set, it's apparent there's only a few ways this story can end --
none of them good. It has sort of an awful finality to it. Is it hard to write a film that has such a
sense of impending, predetermined doom?
I think people know it's not going to be a happy ending, but I don't think they know the extent
of the unhappiness. What was the best part of the screenwriting process was to maintain a sense
of dread throughout. There's a sense of dread, you think it's not going to turn out great. Without
giving away the ending, it is really the final minute that shocks people. There's a Hollywood
element to the ending, which is not in the book, but it misguides the audience, which I like, and
then the rug is pulled from under their feet immediately after that. I like what that does to an
|Both the review and the interview were written
by Peter Clines for CS Magazine
Books and Wands
|The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
Potter film alum David Thewlis (Prof. Remus
Lupin) stars in a new movie adaptation of the
novel, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, by John
The following is a review of the film and an
interview with the writer/director, Mark Herman,
excerpted from Creative Screenwriting Magazine.
The film was given four stars by the magazine.
|"Lightning Over New York City" photography by Christopher Imperato.
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