August 21, 2012

My story is my story: How ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’ compares from book to film

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2005) by Jonathon Safran Foer is a powerful novel that bravely and ambitiously conveys how two of the most tragic events of modern history can have a lasting impact on those who have lived through them.

The senior characters of the novel lost all of their family and friends and barely escaped with their own lives during the Bombing of Dresden in 1945, and then, more than fifty years later, lost another loved one during the September 11 terrorist attacks.

At its heart of this story, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is about the all-pervasiveness of grief and how, even when one survives, their life can be destroyed forever.

The 2012 film, directed by Stephen Daldry of The Hours and Billy Elliot fame, is equally brave and equally ambitious. With September 11 as its sole focus, the film does not shy away from presenting the raw emotion that is still associated with the event.

The central character of the novel and its adaptation is Oskar Schell, an extraordinarily intelligent nine-year-old who is prone to eccentricities and who plunges into a deep depression when his father dies in the World Trade Center.

In the book, Oskar Schell is a unique, memorable character; he is thoughtful, creative and brilliantly strange – his innocent, childlike voice reminiscent of Jack in Emma Donoghue’s Room and Liesel Meminger in Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.

In the film, Oskar is portrayed convincingly by Thomas Horn – a 12-year-old who had no prior acting experience when was discovered as a participant on Jeoprady!

Horn does a brilliant job of conveying all the highs and all the lows at all the right times, and to the right depth; he captures many of Oskar’s eccentricities, without appearing like a caricature; and he copies Oskar’s “sing-song voice” perfectly.

It may just be my own interpretation, but I did pick up on some slight discrepancies between Safran Foer’s Oskar and the Oskar in the film – for one, Horn’s character is more headstrong, intense, loud and determined than I imagined Oskar to be. I pictured him to be quieter and to have a more delicate subtlety to his actions and behaviours. Aside from a brief allusion to his schoolyard bullying and a passing mention that he finds it difficult to talk to strangers, Horn’s Oskar Schell does not appear to suffer from the same level of social awkwardness and shyness as his literary counterpart.

Some of the more specific differences between the characters are:

  • In the book, Oskar has an obsessive penchant for white clothing, to the point that he wears nothing else. In the film, aside from the white Tae Kwon Do outfit that he wears to his father’s funeral, Oskar tends to wear bright colours, including yellow pants and an orange jacket.
  • One of the first odd behaviours that Oskar displays in the book, is making spare keys for assorted strangers. This is left from the film entirely.
  • In the film, Oskar loses a number of common turns of phrase, including “that sounds like one hundred dollars,” “it’s just that,” and saying “anyway” to move on from uncomfortable situations. He also has tendency to sound out acronyms phonetically. None of these behaviours were depicted in the film.

If the strength of the film is in its supporting cast, this film is superb – Tom Hanks, Viola Davis and John Goodman all shine with minimal screen-time. Sandra Bullock and Max Von Sydow are also marvelous.

The book is truly interactive – with marked-up, red ink filled pages; photos of door handles and other assorted objects; images from Oskar’s scrapbooks and his mind; almost blank pages with single words and sentences in the centre. These breaks from traditional prose add a dynamic, rich new element to the story and allow the reader to become completely immersed in the story.

Some of the images from these interactive pages are creatively adapted into the film – most noticeably, the body falling through the sky, which is echoed in Oskar’s imagination in the water dripping from the bathroom faucet.

But the film is not as faithful to the book’s storyline as it is to its imagery. The movie is told entirely from the perspective of Oskar – the other sides of the story, such as the perspectives of his Grandparents, are missing.

In the book, Oskar’s Grandmother and Grandfather tell their stories through a series of stream of conscious style letters. The letters, which were never meant to be read, allowed the characters to reveal themselves completely to the reader, without holding back a single thought, secret or desire.

In contrast, the Grandparents of the film have been relegated to minor characters – their stories are inconsequential to Oskar’s, and are therefore not told. One of the biggest tragedies in the book is that Oskar’s Grandfather spent his whole life pining for a lost love; a young woman named Anna who died in Dresden. Oskar’s Grandmother was not the love of his life, and she was reminded of it every day.

This subplot of the story is only hinted at in the film. The viewer knows that Oskar’s Grandfather came from Dresden and suffered a great tragedy, but the detail of this subplot is otherwise missing. It’s a shame, because this facet of the story added such an important element to the book – it caused the reader to question which is more heartbreaking: losing the love of your life, or knowing that the love of your life will forever be in love with someone else?

Anna and Dresden are not the only elements of the book that are significantly altered:
  • In the book, Oskar’s search companion is old Mr Black while ‘the renter’ follows at a distance, wishing that it were he. In the film, the renter gets his wish and Mr Black never gets the opportunity to find freedom beyond his apartment.
  • In the book, Oskar becomes confused at seeing his father’s name scrawled in coloured pen in an art store – it raises questions in his mind about whether his dad is really gone. In the film, he is always certain about his father’s death – the truth is never in question. 
  • The addition of the oxymoron battle is a nice touch on behalf of the filmmakers, which provides a vehicle for Oskar to connect with his Grandfather and overcome his fears whilst also adding a touch of comedic relief. 
  • In the film, Oskar and the renter do not dig up his father’s empty coffin. 
  • In the film, the clues that lead up to uncovering the secret of the key have also changed, and the search for the lock becomes as much of a personal journey for Oskar’s mother as it is for him.

It is depressing, but also acceptable, to read a novel where the pain and tragedy is set, unchangeable and irreparable from the very beginning. In Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, there is no chance of a happy ending. When you turn the last page of the book, the world is still bleak – and that’s okay. But it seems the filmmakers were not content without introducing a more positive resolution for the story.

In the film adaptation of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Oskar is given as much of a happy ending as possible. He is given the possibility of a relationship with his Grandfather; he becomes reconnected with his mother; he is able to overcome his own personal fears; and “solves reconnaissance mission six” by finding a hidden message from his father.

Even his mother leaves open the possibility of finding love again, saying “I’ll never fall in love for the first time again,” rather than insisting to her son “I’ll never fall in love again,” as she does in the book.

In this way, the film turns to fantasy where the book remains in the real. In real life there is no guarantee of a happy ending, and the pain that one experiences may not lead to personal growth – it may only lead to infinitely more pain.

The verdict:
Book or Big Screen? Book
The film is: 4. A fine adaptation that maintains the original’s exceptional qualities

I would be very happy to receive your comments and feedback on ‘Book or Big Screen’ – please click on the below link to tell me what film adaptation you are excited about, or to suggest the book/film that I should review next.

What’s coming next? A review of The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs.


  1. Thanks for your review! I read the book and liked it but so much of it was made up of Oskar's internal dialogue that I didn't think the film would be able to capture a real sense of him. I think it's a shame it's been given the Hollywood treatment so I probably won't see the movie.

    1. Hi Sue Ann! It definitely has received the Hollywood treatment, but I wouldn't be so hasty... If you enjoyed the book, I'm sure you will enjoy the film as well :)

  2. Aside from Sandra Bullock, there is little to convince me of seeing this... but I've heard some great things about it so maybe I'll rent it sometime.