Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Movie vs. Book: "Child 44: Where it Fell Short"

I recently reviewed the book Child 44 written by Tom Rob Smith, which you can read here. I didn't have much in the way of criticism for the book. I thought there was a balanced level of suspense, historical revelation of Soviet Union horrors, and character development. The psychological components of brainwashing, post traumatic stress disorder, fear, greed and psychopathic behavior were not clinical, but they definitely hit on all the right notes to bring the human struggle to life while propelling readers through an unrelenting thriller.

However, as is often the case, something was lost in the recent film adaptation of the book. If you haven't read my Movie vs. Book comparisons before, I feel it's important that you understand I am very open minded and I embrace the art of adaptation. I find adaptation an art form in itself. How do you take this finished and best-selling piece of literature and translate it to a different art form? It requires hard decision making, cuts, streamlining and simplification.

I've read that many book authors opt not to translate their own works into screenplays because of how different the writing medium is from writing a novel. In screenplays you have to break down the story and lay out the bare bones, "kill your darlings," and then leave room for the director's cut and vision. It would be hard to do that to a piece of work that you labored over in order to achieve the sense of finality; enough so, at least, to offer it to the world as a completed work. Some author's have been up to the task, most recently Gillian Flynn wrote the screenplay for Gone Girl and her adaptation was incredible.

{All the Spoilers}

What fell flat in the adaptation of Child 44 was a change from the original plot that I thought could have made the movie stronger. In the first scene of the book, Leo (Tom Hardy) is abducted in the woods to be food for a family (because Russia was starving its people and burning their own country so the Nazi's would never gain a sense of having conquered anything...which is just crazy, but true story). Leo had been out hunting with his younger brother Andre. Andre has bad vision, but obviously they lack the resources for glasses so he is unable to clearly see what happens after he helps set up the string snatch trap for a stray cat. Andre fails to successfully time his pull on the string because he cannot see, and soon he finds himself alone in the woods because his brother has been abducted.

To be clear: this is the opening scene to the book and has everything to do with the murders of countless children many years later. Andre is obviously scarred deeply by this sudden disappearance by his older and more capable brother. He endures the psychological components of abandonment, relating his brother's disappearance to his failure to perform the catching of the stray cat with the string trap. Andre also endures years of abuse from his mother who projects onto Andre the fact that she lost the son who meant the most to her that day in the woods.

Andre discovers a photo of Leo years later, a propaganda shot at the end of WWII and realizes his brother is alive. And so, in a sick psychological calculation, Andre begins killing innocent children along the rail road tracks, leaving clues that only his brother would understand. Crime scenes designed to get the attention of Leo, who now works as a high ranking official in the MGB. The string, the chewed bark stuffed in the children's mouths (a method taught to Andre by Leo to stave off hunger), and numerous other clues.

Source: IndieWire
What Andre doesn't take into account is that in the Soviet Union, serial murder is supposed to be impossible due to the security of Communism's societal structure and purge. The murders go unnoticed for years, and Leo lives in suppression of his former life, having suffered a head injury that made him forget who he was before he became an adopted son, a war hero, and a ranking officer in the secret police.

The book does not make it clear that the killer is Andre until we inhabit his perspective during one of his ritualistic murders. Andre removes his glasses, making the world the blur it was the day his brother disappeared, and he feeds off the terror of these children, having never dealt with his own emotions about the disappearance and abandonment. So these sacrifices of children are all a trail of bread crumbs leading Leo back to his true identity, and back to his brother.

There are some pretty interesting psychological explorations on both sides of this. And yet - the movie completely changes this most crucial plot point. I don't know if Richard Price, the screenplay writer, thought this change would simplify the story and allow the thriller aspect to become a more prominent and audience appealing force behind the film - or if he thought the brother bond would just be too complicated to portray with all the other action happening around Leo as his murder investigation destroys his life.

In the film, the murderer is a scarred orphan and previous German prisoner of war reenacting his torture as a prisoner by basically water boarding and drowning his child victims. The murderer's motivations stems no further than his anger at the Russian government for how he was treated as an orphan, and his post traumatic stress disorder brought to a psychotic level. So, yes, there is incentive to catch the killer - he's murdering innocent children in a ritualistic way. However, the emotional component and link to Leo on a personal level really would have elevated the film.

The film was satisfactory. Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace turned in excellent performances, and their relationship is really at the center of the film. That's not to downplay the thriller aspect which is occurring all around them, but the marriage between these two individuals is as impacted by the state as it is by Leo's effort to redeem himself as a man who has done a great wrong in years of blind obedience.

Perhaps there just wasn't enough time to catch all of the nuances and complications in the relationships in this film. I will allow for that, there is only so much you can cram into two hours and ten minutes. However, I feel like eliminating this key bond between Leo and Andre that existed in the book and came to a beautiful and emotionally complex scene at the climax of the story, really made the success of capturing the murderer in the film an unremarkable achievement. Yes, it allowed Leo and Raisa to gain their position back in society, but it did not reveal the depth of character within Leo.

Source: EW
Leo's transformation in the film is less apparent. In the film, his demotion in rank and the constant changing of uniform for disguise to move through the confines of a heavily policed system parallels a lot of what is occurring within him internally. However, I feel like that with this emotional revelation stripped away from his character, Tom Hardy is more of an empty shell just embarking on a journey to fill his life with purpose by finding the murderer. And that's okay, but I can't help but feel that the adaptation lacked this significant and psychologically gripping back story that would have endeared Leo to us even more as viewers.


  1. No but this is so true. I loved this book and while I liked the movie, I think people who hadn't read it would be missing out on so much.

  2. You write really good and detailed reviews. Can't wait to read more!!

  3. I agree wholeheartedly with your well-written review. I liked the movie, but the nuances were lost. And I think Tom Hardy could've easily delivered it closer to how the book played out. Also, Gary Oldman was kinda wasted as a minor character.

  4. When the opening scene in the book was left out I knew it wasn't going to go well haha.

  5. I post your article on my Facebook page. Good luck with your writing.

  6. The movie was an outrage. That plot point literally made the book. I agree with your thoughts on book-film adaption as an art form, but I still have not seen any film that has been as good/better than the book. Point one out, I dare you. Creating your own vision of a story in your head will always be superior than what someone else shows it to you as from their perspective. That is our individual creativity speaking and I believe that it is our creativity what makes us different from one another.

    1. I love books and love movies and yes,it is very hard to find a movie which is as good/better than the book.i think that just show how big a challenge it is,almost impossible.however i would like to point out 2 instances where the movie is better than book,perhaps because its adaptation is more freely based on books.those are Forrest Gump and Children of Men.excellent movies

  7. "The Shining" movie introduced a lot more ambiguouity into the back story than the book did. Thus it was more interesting and better than the book.

  8. I agree i was devastated to find out a book that i absolutely loved which intrigued but also educated me was turned into such a basic and highly modified film adaptation. Though the acting was good i would not of cared if they left out a few scenes of the book that would have been expensive and hard to do but they changed so many scenes that would not have been costly and were easy to do but yet still changed them but if they had not have done that then it would have been a more popular film and have a higher rotten tomatoes film review score.

  9. I just saw the movie and couldn't even watch it all the way through, I was so confused by it. Child 44 is one of my favorite books, the plot around Leo and his brother made the book together with the strong description of the Soviet life during Stalin's time, the fear, the denouncements, the poverty and class differences.

    All of that was not shown nor felt in the movie at all. The first chapter of the book, where Leo and Andre goes to hunt the cat, kicks you in to the mentality of the time and place immediately. When starting to watch the movie I was looking forward to this scene so much and was greatly disappointed was it did not come.

  10. I'm sitting here watching the movie for the first time, and, I'm about to just turn it to be honest. I'm the type of person who prefers books over movies... so when I see a book turned into a movie, I want it to be close enough to the book that I can see it come to life. I look at absolutely every single detail. The casting in this movie, was actually surprisingly pretty good. However; what made Child 44 one of my favorite books was everything about the story. The fact that the entire plot was changed, makes me pretty disgusted by the screenplay writer. The directing is ok, as far as lighting and camera angles. Not that it really has anything to do with the book. Just a side note. But I'm honestly really really upset with this movie. How can they even call it Child 44? It's not really like the book. They took the idea and the characters and pretty much changed everything else. I just feel like any movie based off of a book should be like you're reading it, in live action. I understand some things should be left out or cut, to save film time. But to actually just capture the vision... this didn't do any of that, in my personal opinion.

  11. I've only just seen the film and I am astounded that what I considered to be one if the most critical elemnts of the story, the long-lost-brother foundation of the killings, has been ripped out. This isn't the film I wanted/hoped to see, and calling it Child 44 is misleading!