Book vs. Movie: THE READER

Kate_winslet_the_reader_movie_image__1_ One of the movies getting a lot of attention this Oscar season is "The Reader", which is about the relationship between a German teenager who becomes physically and emotionally involved with an older woman in the 60s. The woman turns out to have been a Nazi guard, and is tried in a German court after the Holocaust. The book spans the whole relationship and tell the story from the point of view of Michael Berg, the boy – later the man – whose life was so affected by Hanna Schmitz.

"The Reader" is based on a book of the same name by Bernhard Schlink. I must have bought the book years ago, as it has been sitting on my shelf for a long time with a price tag from The Strand, but I had never read it. I saw the movie a few weeks ago, and decided upon returning home to pick up the book and read it too.

The story is quite compelling. Hanna and Michael develop an admittedly inappropriate sexual relationship after a chance meeting in a street. The relationship, however, goes deeper than that. Hanna - a rather cold, private woman –  asks Michael to read books to her during their afternoon trysts, and it is then that she reveals vulnerability and her quixotic emotions. Michael, a sensitive and inexperienced teenager, quickly falls in love with Hanna and learns to tolerate her mood swings and bad temper.

After a few months together, Hanna disappears without a word. Years later, Michael (then a law student) discovers that she is one of several Nazi guards on trial in a nearby town. He attends every day of the trial as part of a seminar he's taking in law school. The second half of the book and movie explore Hanna's guilt, Michael's reaction to learning about who she really was, and the complex path their relationship takes from there.

I'll start with the movie. I liked it a lot – probably the most of any Oscar movie this season (along with "Vicky Cristina Barcelona".The acting is very good. Kate Winslet does an admirable job of portraying a difficult and often extremely unlikeable woman. Both the younger and the older Michael Bergs (the latter played by Ralph Fiennes) are equally convincing. The movie is sad and serious, and ultimately quite thought-provoking.

ReaderThe book is equally good, but for different reasons. I appreciated the visual aspect of the movie – getting to see the characters, the courtroom, even the (empty) concentration camp scenes. The book, meanwhile, really fleshed out the moral quandaries of the story in a way the movie simply couldn't. I got a much better sense from the book of how much Michael really loved Hanna his whole life. The book also explored the philosophical questions of guilt and responsibility – the main themes of the story – much more successfully than the movie did. I don't fault the acting (never will a bad word about Ralph Fiennes be written on this blog!), or even the screenplay, for that – there are just certain things a book can communicate better than a movie.

For me, the book and the movie complemented each other perfectly. Each of the experiences of reading and watching were made richer by the other. I loved having the visual hooks of the movie in my mind as I was reading, and reading the book really made the movie even more thought-provoking.

I recommend them both. I usually prefer to read a book before seeing it as a movie, but the reverse worked just fine for me here.

I'd love to hear from others on this – did you have a preference for the book or the movie?


  • February 21, 2009 - 8:36 am | Permalink

    I’ve got the book, but haven’t read it. My mother-in-law raved over the movie, so we decided to go, but it’s not showing here anymore.

  • February 21, 2009 - 9:48 am | Permalink

    I haven’t read the book yet but I have watched quite a few Oscar movies and The Reader was one I particuarily enjoyed. There’s been a lot of chatter about Winslet’s performances and if the Academy picked the right film to recognize her- I think she does a great job in The Reader and while Revolutionary Road was good I liked The Reader better.

  • February 21, 2009 - 10:48 am | Permalink

    We read the book for my book group and it wasn’t a big hit. There was plenty to discuss though and sometimes that’s all you need in a book club pick. I haven’t seen the movie yet.

  • February 21, 2009 - 3:14 pm | Permalink

    I prefer the book, but I agree that they complemented each other perfectly. 🙂

  • February 22, 2009 - 2:29 pm | Permalink

    Now I’m just going to HAVE TO read this book (and then see the movie). You’ve convinced me! I also felt the same way about Atonement. I adored the book and found the movie just as good, although for different reasons.

  • February 22, 2009 - 7:28 pm | Permalink

    I just saw the movie last night and thought it was very, very well done. I still cannot decide if I want to read the book though! I’m leaning toward yes, though, as I find myself thinking about the characters today, all day. It would be nice to have the opportunity to know what is going on inside them.

  • February 24, 2009 - 10:18 am | Permalink

    I’m really glad to hear that you liked the movie version. I’ve read the book and have been afraid to see the movie because I often don’t like the transition from book to movie. However, I’ll try and see this one even if I have to wait for the DVD.

  • Kiki
    February 25, 2009 - 8:45 pm | Permalink

    I read the book when it came out in 1995 and for some reason did not like it–even though I read a lot of books like this (WW2 and Holocaust memoirs/fiction, etc.). One friend saw the movie and said it was great (adn of course gorgeous and talented Kate Winslet won!) and my other friend is reading the book right now and asked me why I didn’t like it! I honestly can’t remember except that maybe I would like it now that I am older and now have children (I am pretty sure I read it while pregnant with my first, since she was born in ’95!)and find I view a lot of things very differently…I am going to re-read this one, with a hopeful outlook! I also really want to read it again before the movie!

  • March 5, 2009 - 8:10 am | Permalink

    I haven’t read the book or seen the movie yet, but I plan on doing both. Thanks for telling us a bit about both.

  • Nicole
    October 16, 2009 - 1:32 am | Permalink

    would you be able to tell me the books that are mentioned in the movie? The books that he read to her. I havent read the book yet, but am planning to do so as well as the books that were mentioned in the movie, but I do not have the movie and cannot remember the names of the books mentioned

  • Darby Lohrding
    February 27, 2010 - 5:24 pm | Permalink

    I stumbled across this book quite a while ago, by mention on talk radio. I loved reading this book and gave a copy to my Mom along to several others, they disappointedly (sp?) did not share my passion for this story. It never surprised me that this story was made into a movie….it’s a great love story; a great story in general and I learned so much from the character’s emotions! I have not seen the movie, for in my mind the story is perfect with actor’s and settings…..I don’t wish to view someone else’s view of this book on the big screen for I have my own.
    Thanks for your thoughts!
    darbyscloset at yahoo dot com

  • October 25, 2011 - 4:07 pm | Permalink

    Were there any changes and modifications in the movie? Sometimes when a movie is derived from a book, its plot becomes completely different. Hence it’s a great relief that you’ve concluded that the book and the movie complemented each other perfectly.

  • John Laudenslager
    December 6, 2011 - 10:41 pm | Permalink

    I saw some of the last of the movie on TV. There were people around, I had trouble hearing, but the dialog compelled me to search for the book, which led here. Your review: itself compelling.

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