Janet's Spotlight: "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas"

October 23, 2008 9:43:03 AM PDT
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is an award-winning international best seller about a child's view of a Nazi concentration camp.The book, popular among children and adults, has been brought to life on the big screen by the producer of the Harry Potter movies and his creative team. The movie was featured last night at the Chicago International Film Festival and will open in theaters on Friday, November 7.

(news release)The Boy in the Striped Pajamas ( boyinthestripedpajamas.com ) tells the story of eight year-old Bruno, the sheltered son of a Nazi officer. The father's promotion takes the family from their comfortable home in Berlin to a desolate area where the lonely boy finds nothing to do and no-one to play with. Crushed by boredom and compelled by curiosity, Bruno ignores his mother's repeated instructions not to explore the back yard and heads for the "farm" he has seen in the near distance. There he meets Shmuel, a boy his own age who lives a parallel, alien existence on the other side of a barbed wire fence. Bruno's encounter with the boy in the striped pajamas leads him from innocence to a dawning awareness of the adult world around them as his meetings with Shmuel develop into a friendship with devastating consequences.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a fable intended to provide a unique perspective on the effects of prejudice, hatred and violence on innocent people, particularly children, during wartime, according to the film makers. Through the eyes of a fanciful, eight year-old German boy who is largely shielded from the realities of the war, we witness a forbidden friendship that develops between Bruno, son of a Nazi commandant, and Shmuel, a Jewish boy imprisoned in a concentration camp. Although physically separated by a barbed wire fence, the boys' lives become inescapably intertwined.

"It goes without saying that a work of fiction set in the time and place of the Holocaust is contentious and any writers who tackle such stories had better be sure of their intentions before they begin. This is perhaps particularly important in the case of a book written for children," says John Boyne, author of the bestselling novel The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. "For me, a 34-year-old Irish writer, it seemed that the only respectful way to approach the subject was through innocence, with a fable told from the point of view of a rather naive child who couldn't possibly understand the horrors of what he was caught up in. I believe that this naivet? is as close as someone of my generation can get to the dreadfulness of that period."

Boyne continues: "What happens in this place? Bruno wonders. Why are there so many people on the other side of the fence? Simple questions, perhaps, but at a basic level, aren't these the questions we still ask? And perhaps that's the job for any writer or artist, to keep looking for answers, to make sure those questions continue so that no one ever forgets why they needed to be raised in the first place."

David Heyman, the producer behind the Harry Potter franchise, became captivated by the novel The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, although it was director and screenwriter Mark Herman who optioned the book. When he and Herman met and discovered that they had similar thoughts and sensibilities about the project, they decided to work together. Both of them recognized that a work of fiction set within the context of the Holocaust is controversial territory but they were passionate in their response to the story as a compelling and accessible human drama with a perennially important message. They agreed with Boyne that every attempt to explore the dark heart of the Nazi era in the effort to enlighten new generations so that they neither forget nor repeat what happened is not only valid but also necessary.

"When I read the book, I could immediately imagine a film," says director Herman. "But I could also imagine a film that was going to be very difficult to get off the ground because of the extremely sensitive nature of the subject."

"One of Graham Greene's characters says that hate is a failure of imagination," says producer Heyman. "I firmly believe that and I also believe that the enormity of the Holocaust ? the scale of the barbarity, the number of the dead and displaced and exponentially, of the lives destroyed - makes it impossible to get the measure of because the figures are frankly inconceivable. If you are trying to introduce a child to that not-so-distant period in time, those numbers are extremely distancing. I think John Boyne found an exceptionally emotive and effective way to address that by focusing his story on two boys and one family."

Heyman continues: "I'm drawn to human stories, and this is first and foremost a human tale. Whilst it is a Holocaust story set in 1940s Germany, for me, it's timeless. With all the conflicts going on today, whether in Rwanda, Somalia, Palestine, Israel, Darfur, Zimbabwe or Iraq, this story seems to me to be as relevant today as at any time in history. It's one that resonates with me and has touched thousands of readers around the world. That children have the potential and the ability to overcome differences in culture and identity; that people ultimately can get along if they're not encouraged to hate; that governments, institutions and the media can and do cultivate conflict and distrust ? these are timely ideas with universal relevance and I think this story makes them accessible to anyone."

"The Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel says if you weren't there, don't write about it," says author Boyne. "And to a point, I agree with that. At the same time, we're told that we must never forget. So I believe that, as the decades go on, it is up to artists to find new ways of telling this story, of reminding the world of those who died. If you approach the subject in a non-exploitative way, trying not to trivialize it but to tell the story another way to reach a new audience, you are accomplishing your goal. I always tell children who have read my book 'If you were moved by it, if the story of these two boys is interesting to you, here's a list of books you should read.' And those books are by people such as Wiesel, Primo Levi and Anne Frank ? writers who experienced the Holocaust and have the moral authority. I hope that artists today can do that: get children interested and direct them to the books they should be reading."

Every member of the production team behind The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is very clear that they were filming a work of fiction and not a documentary. Nevertheless, as the story draws from history, meticulous care was taken to respect the historical context.

"We were extremely concerned with authenticity," says Herman. "When researching the adaptation, I learned that the camp commandants were sworn to secrecy under threat of certain death to keep their activities top secret. They were forbidden to tell anybody, including their own families, what their 'work' entailed. This was helpful when writing the script, particularly to explain why the commandant hadn't told his wife about the extermination program - she thinks it is a labor camp and only accidentally discovers the truth. An audience today has the benefit of historical hindsight - certain things would be obvious to them. It would seem to an audience today that surely the wife knew; she's living next to a concentration camp, surely she knew. But some of them didn't know. The commandant's wife at Auschwitz, for example, was living virtually on top of the camp without knowing it was a death camp for two years. The fascination of the story is that these two boys, from either side of the fence, don't actually know what's going on."

"Mark has intensified the drama of the family and brought in this adult viewpoint of the Mother gradually discovering what is going on in the camp which was much less developed in the book," says co-producer Rosie Alison of Heyday Films, who coordinated the historical research for the film. "He also added a Nazi propaganda film which emerged from our research, a repellent 14-minute short purporting to show life in the camps: recreational activities, convivial dining, smiling faces. Mark decided to shoot a version for the film so that Bruno has a few glimpses of it and thinks he knows what the camp is like because he's seen the footage and it looks quite nice. This slightly and briefly renews his faith in his father."

"This is a story based on history and we were careful to treat that history with respect," Alison says. "It's a very oblique drama - everything is seen from the other side of the fence until the very end and the reality of the camp is kept out of sight until the closing scenes. The most controversial aspect of the story, perhaps its greatest use of artistic license, is Shmuel's presence in the concentration camp. It is probably the area where fiction and truth separate the most in our film because the unimaginably horrible fact is that most children arriving in the camps were immediately sent to their deaths. By 1944, however, particularly in Auschwitz, there were children still surviving and there are individual cases of children kept alive, whether for medical experiments or for specific jobs (such as a documented instance of two boys kept at Treblinka to feed the ducks in the pond). There are famous photographs of child survivors at the liberation of the camps but it is true that they were generally taken straight from the transport into the gas chambers and Shmuel's story therefore requires a suspension of disbelief."

"History has a pattern of repeating itself and I think that it's very important that these stories are told, in whatever form and by whomever, as long as the emotional content is real and true," says producer David Heyman. "This is the story of an ordinary family, ordinary people who through ignorance, innocence or unquestioning obedience to authority - no matter how appalling the demands of that authority - recognizably embody Hannah Arendt's 'banality of evil'. I hope that young people and other audiences will be moved by The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and come away with a greater understanding of the personal cost of such tragedy and their kinship with the participants ? perpetrators and victims alike.

"The film was made with honesty, passion and conviction by people who have great respect and admiration for those who survived, and great respect and admiration for those who did not," Heyman adds. "I do think it is very important to keep this story alive so we don't repeat it and anything we do to this end, any step we take to make one person look at the world a little bit differently I think is worth taking."

ABOUT MARK HERMAN, DIRECTOR/SCREENWRITER/EXECUTIVE PRODUCER

Mark entered the film industry in his late twenties having trained as an animator at the National Film School in England, and after studying film at Leeds Polytechnic, also in the U.K. His first feature-length project was "Blame It On the Bellboy," a comedy about mistaken identity starring Dudley Moore and Brian Brown.

Herman then went on to write and direct the critically acclaimed "Brassed Off", following the members of a colliery brass band struggling to survive amid the closure of the local mine. He then adapted and directed "Little Voice" from Jim Cartwright's play "The Rise and Fall of Little Voice". Jane Horrocks starred as a young woman whose only escape from the drudgery of life comes through imitating the singers her late father admired.

Herman was nominated for two BAFTA Awards for Best Screenplay for "Little Voice" and for Best Screenplay for "Brassed Off". He was also nominated for the British Independent Film Awards Best Screenplay for "Purely Belter", and won both the Writers Guild of Great Britain Best Screenplay Award and France's coveted Cesar Award for Best Foreign Film for "Brassed Off."

More recently, Herman has written and directed "Purely Belter" and "Hope Springs."

ABOUT JOHN BOYNE, AUTHOR OF THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS

John Boyne was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1971. He studied English Literature at Trinity College, Dublin, and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, where he was awarded the Curtis Brown prize for that year's outstanding student writer. His early work was mostly short stories, the first of which, published in New Irish Writing, was short-listed for a Hennessy Literary Award in Ireland. He has published 5 other novels. "The Thief of Time" (2000) tells the story of Matthieu Zela, a man who cannot age. "The Congress of Rough Riders" (2001) is an account of the life of Buffalo Bill Cody, told from the viewpoint of his fictional great-grandson William. "Crippen" (2004) is a retelling of the famous 1910 murder case, and was a Borders' New Voices choice in the USA. "Next of Kin" (2006) is a psychological drama in the vein of Patricia Highsmith, based around the events of the 1936 Abdication Crisis in England. "Mutiny on the Bounty" (2008) is a fresh re-telling of the Bounty story seen through the eyes of a fourteen year old cabin boy.

His novel THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS was published in early 2006 and quickly found an international audience among both children and adults. In Ireland it won two Irish Book Awards: Children's Book of the Year and People's Choice Book of the Year, and was short-listed for the overall Irish Novel of the Year Award. It has been short-listed for many international prizes: the Ottakar's Children's Book Prize (UK), the British Book Award (UK), the Paolo Ungari Prize (Italy) and the Borders' Original Voices Award (USA). As of late April 2007, it had spent 66 weeks at number one in the Irish Bestseller Charts. The book was a Top 10 bestseller in the UK and many European countries, reached number one in Australia, and was a New York Times bestseller.

He writes regularly for the Irish Times and the Sunday Tribune newspapers in Ireland and has contributed articles to many other newspapers and magazines. His novels are published in 35 languages. He lives in Dublin where he is working on his seventh novel.

ABOUT THE PRODUCTION

A Miramax Films presentation, in association with BBC Films, a Heyday Films production, THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS was shot on location and in the studio in Hungary over 9 weeks in the summer of 2007. The film is adapted from JOHN BOYNE's award-winning novel and written for the screen and directed by MARK HERMAN whose previous films include "Brassed Off", "Little Voice" and "Hope Springs". The film is produced by Heyday Films' DAVID HEYMAN, producer of the "Harry Potter" franchise as well as "I Am Legend" starring Will Smith, and the upcoming "Yes Man" starring Jim Carrey for Warner Bros. MARK HERMAN is also an executive producer on the film as well as CHRISTINE LANGAN ("The Queen"). The film is co-produced by Heyday's ROSIE ALISON, with Hungarian production services provided by GABOR VARADI ("Taxidermia," "8MM 2") and PETER MISKOLCZI ("Taxidermia," "8MM 2").

The cast includes ASA BUTTERFIELD ("Son of Rambow", "Ashes to Ashes") who stars as Bruno alongside newcomer JACK SCANLON making his feature film debut as Shmuel. Bruno's father and mother are played by DAVID THEWLIS ("Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix", "Naked") and VERA FARMIGA ("The Departed", "Breaking and Entering"); his sister Gretel is played by AMBER BEATTIE ("Supernatural", "Walking to Nairobi"). Also starring in the film are RICHARD JOHNSON ("Jump!," "Waking the Dead"), SHEILA HANCOCK ("The Russian Bride","Three Men and a Little Lady"), RUPERT FRIEND ("The Libertine", "Pride and Prejudice"), DAVID HAYMAN ("Waking the Dead", "Where the Truth Lies"), JIM NORTON ("Waking the Dead", "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets") and CARA HORGAN ("The Libertine", "Hotel Infinity").


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