But I just discovered that the reverse is sometimes true. When you're not so impressed with a piece of fiction, it can, at times, seem a lot better up there on the screen than on the page. Such was my experience with the film version of Jonathan Safran Foer's first novel Everything Is Illuminated, set to open nationwide next week, starring Elijah Wood, and written and directed by actor Liev Schreiber.
When the novel appeared in 2002 to near unanimous, even excessive, praise, I was not among the swayed. Foer had done some clever and intriguing things, especially for someone in his 20s. But he seemed like yet another talented writers' workshop alum who knew more about literature than he did about life, and was sometimes too cheeky for his own good, especially when it came to his depiction of the Jewish past. I was convinced that he wasn't yet the genius the critics had claimed him to be. (His second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, out from Houghton Mifflin, leaves even more to be desired than his debut effort.)
Not that Illuminated doesn't have its allures. The plot concerns a young Jewish American, named, like the author, Jonathan Safran Foer, who makes his way to Eastern Europe, armed with only some well-worn family stories and a faded photograph of the woman, named Augustine, who supposedly saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Jonathan desperately wants to find her, and so is teamed up with a comic trio of Ukrainian locals: an equally young translator named Alex, who does his best to maul the English language in his adopted hip-hop manner; Alex's own grizzled grandfather, who insists he is blind, but will nonetheless serve as the driver on this expedition; and the grandfather's so-called seeing-eye dog, named Sammy Davis Junior Junior, in honor of the elderly man's favorite entertainer. Together, this mad quartet sets out on an ever more maddening road trip to find the truth about Jonathan's grandfather's little shtetl, Trachimbrod.
All About Shtetl Life
But there's more to the novel than this engaging journey, and it's these sections that I found unsettling. While Foer's quartet searches in the present, the author stops the narrative every 20 pages or so to move back in time and reconstruct the history of the shtetl, from its beginnings in the 1700s till the murderous onslaught of the Nazis in the early 1940s.
Many critics thought these interludes were highly imaginative; I considered them tedious. But Foer had done his homework. He'd read books about shtetl life, then turned everything inside out, using language and describing acts that turned the supposed piety of this world on its head, something akin to a scurrilous version of a painting by Marc Chagall.
To my mind, this excursion into the past, which was done with a rather distasteful emphasis on the scatological and sexual, and rendered in a language that was often excessive and sometimes offensive, made the book far longer than it needed to be. But shtetl Jews being depicted as clowns and less than angelic always seems to please a New York audience, since the publishing and critical worlds are often made up of Jews who are uncomfortable with their Jewishness.
In both narrative strands, Foer clogs the story with modernist techniques, jumping about in time, doing stream of consciousness, repeating words and phrases in an endless flood across the page, as if he had to ceaselessly prove his Joycean bona fides to reinforce that he was a very young genius at work.
The book did, however, get him a lot of attention, especially catching the eye of Schreiber, who had ambitions to write and direct, and was drawn to the material because of his own family connections to Eastern Europe. The Jewish actor seems to have understood early on that he would not be able to switch back and forth between the two narratives, and so decided to focus on the present-day journey and leave the history of Trachimbrod behind. This not only helped clarify the narrative, but got rid of a lot of material that I found objectionable. Also, out of necessity, Schreiber condensed a lot of the plot, and made the humor sharper and more focused, which was all to the good.
Schreiber as actor and director understood instinctually that the narrative motion – no matter how many tricks Foer used to postpone or fragment it – had its most moving culmination in the meeting of the woman known as Augustine who was said to be Foer's grandfather's savior. These are the most beautiful moments in the book, and Schreiber treats them with the reverence and beauty they deserve. They are the core of the movie and one of its great achievements.
And Schreiber the director cast the film so that this meeting would be invested with nearly overwhelming power.
While watching the film, I would have wagered that three of the four main parts had been cast with real Ukrainians and not actors, something like what had been done in the classic Italian movie "Bicycle Thief," and to the same powerful effect. These actors were so authentic, so natural, that at times it seemed as if we were watching real life transpire in front of us.
Not that these performers have had such conventional training. The 33-year-old Eugene Hutz who plays Alex is better known as a singer and lyricist for the gypsy punk rock band known as Gogol Bordello. "Illuminated" actually marks his film debut, though watching him you would never know he hadn't acted before. He only arrived in the United States in 1996, and has generally made his living through music. But Schreiber said he knew immediately upon talking to Hutz, who was first consulted about contributing music to the film, that this was his Alex. Within moments of the actor's entrance on screen, you know why.
As it turns out, Boris Leskin, who plays Alex's grandfather, worked as an actor for 28 years in the Soviet Union before immigrating to the United States in 1979. Leskin was trying for the third time to pass the exam to procure a taxi-driver's license when director John Schlesinger cast him in "The Falcon and the Snowman." Other film roles followed.
As for Laryssa Lauret, who plays Lista, the woman mistaken by her visitors for Augustine, she has worked for 40 years in TV and theater. Her longest-running parts have been on two daytime soap operas, as a physician on "The Doctors" and in a role on "The Guiding Light."
Foer probably could not have asked for any greater realization of his work than what comes through in the moving interactions among these three. Once you see the look in Lauret's eyes when her visitors arrive at her home – a cottage with a sunflower-filled yard that looks like something straight out of a Grimm's fairy tale – it will never be forgotten.
The only drawback is Elijah Wood, and it's not his fault. The character Jonathan Safran Foer is a bit of a cipher in the book, and has been conceived of in that way for the movie. He's a Candide-type, an innocent led by his guides to moments of illumination. Wood does his best under the circumstances, but there's no way to avoid it; Alex has all the best lines.
After the meeting with Lista, the movie lessens considerably in intensity, and the way Schreiber brings it to a conclusion flirts dangerously with sentimentality. Here, Foer the novelist bests him. It would be unfair to disclose what happens, but let it be said that everything that Foer hints at in the conclusion, Schreiber has made emphatic. It doesn't undo all the excellent things he's achieved up till that point, but it makes you wish he'd trusted the material more or the instincts that had guided him till then.