Everything is Illuminated

Adaptations of popular novels are bound to come as a letdown for some people.Cult novels especially, with their legions of rabid fans carrying signed first editions, turn to bitter battlegrounds whenever the Hollywood recycling machine decides to take one on.Each excised scene and every erased minor character is lovingly eulogized like unknown soldiers that only the book’s faithful were aware of.Given the tossed-off quality and bottom line sequel-mania of the major studios, Lord of the Rings is as notable for its accuracy to the source material as it is for its special effects.

The curious thing about Everything is Illuminated, a new film from actor-turned-director Liev Schreiber, is that it’s severely hampered by a screenplay that waters down much of the book’s power, but the blow isn’t lethal.The film is still a moving rumination on memory and history, carefully modulating the balance between fish-out-of-water comedy and Holocaust drama.

The book, by Jonathan Safran Foer, spins the tale of a Jewish young man, also named Jonathan Safran Foer, who journeys to Russia to try and find the village from which his grandfather emigrated.The village no longer exists, unless you count a single old woman who collected the village’s remains and stored them since the invasion.Foer hires a spastic Ukrainian club kid named Alex to ferry him across the countryside in search of the village.Much of the book’s rollicking humor comes from Alex’s Pidgin English letters to Foer, acting as critique of a book-in-progress that Foer-the-character is writing.

It’s a noble effort, but Schreiber doesn’t quite manage to do justice to the book, which he optioned before it was even published.It is simply too expansive, effortlessly weaving Foer’s correspondence with Alex with absurdist scenes of the last days of the village and even a secondary subplot concerning Alex’s grandfather’s own implication in the massacre of Jews in a separate village.This last bit is the most egregious misstep of Schreiber’s adaptation, but to explain it here would require a huge spoiler.

The director has a reputation for being an actor’s actor, and his projects always show a serious attention to his craft. Everything is Illuminated is a labor of love, and the film conveys an emotional power that is sorely missing in much prestige moviemaking.Schreiber’s own family emigrated from Eastern Europe and he takes pains to give the film a klezmer feel in the comic first hour—it’s closest in spirit to the films of Emir Kusturica.The rolling fields of the Ukraine (actually shot in the Czech Republic) are brought to life in almost otherworldly color, underlined by the baby blue station wagon they rumble around in.Eugene Hutz, a hot property who also happens to front the band Gogol Bordello, plays Alex and his inspired malapropisms (“Jonfen, you are a very premium person”) give the dialogue a bizarre zest.As for Jonathan, he’s played by Frodo himself, Elijah Wood, although his character is much less interesting than he appears in the novel.

This is not to say that fans of the book won’t be able to appreciate the film version.The tone of the adaptation is wistful and—when it’s not boisterous—quiet, and its climax is bracing.It lacks the book’s range, but still captures its spirit.That in itself is remarkable.

Jesse Paddock