The book is always better.
I knew this going into the movie theater. I also knew that even if François Duhamel had managed to construct a masterpiece, I would find fault in his interpretation of one of my favorite books.
But the fact is— Oscar nod be damned— “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”, the film, was disappointing for a number of reasons.
As with any adaptation, elements from the book were omitted in the film. Understandable. The book shifts perspectives and is predominantly told through stream of consciousness. Capturing the spirit of Jonathan Safran Foer’s work was no small feat.
But the film seemed to fixate on tragedy—without effectively capturing it. Of course, I cried. I cried a lot. Yet, I agree with what a lot of critics have said about the film: It manipulated the viewer, tugged at the heartstrings to create the illusion of a powerful delivery. The film made you cry —simply because it could. Duhamel’s only success was in eliciting a steady flow of tears — and considering the context, a majority of the work was cut out for him.
To be sure, Sept. 11 is a difficult, but essential, subject to broach. In the novel, Oskar’s voice is a passageway for the reader into the life of a family devastated by the terrorist attacks. But in the film, the viewer doesn’t really get the chance to get close to Oskar —because, like everyone else in Oskar’s life, the viewer is pushed away by his somewhat stubborn conviction that everyone is incapable of understanding his plight. Not to mention, I found Thomas Horn’s Oskar an annoying far cry from the brilliant nine-year-old of the novel.
So, instead, we are caught in a deluge of uncomfortable and depressing situations—the polite dinner guest caught in the crossfire, pitying the family, but much preferring to be anywhere else.
And beyond that?
Fragmented by dramatic voice overs, flashbacks and explosive run-ins between Oskar and his mother (Sandra Bullock), the storyline is gutted: Oskar’s relationship with his grandmother (Zoe Caldwell) is reduced to her occasional presence; the eccentric Mr. Black living in his building is sort of lumped into the character of Oskar’s grandfather (Max von Sydow)—who was easily the most likable character in the movie, which is bizarre, considering he doesn’t have any lines, and he abandoned Oskar’s grandmother before Oskar’s father (Tom Hanks) was born. The grandfather’s condition and backstory is simplified to, essentially: Everyone I knew is dead. Never mind that he was married to Oskar’s great-aunt before his grandmother—nor that his inability to speak and in large part, the reason he was unable to stay with his wife and son, sprung from his harrowing past. Oskar and his grandfather never dig up Thomas Schell’s grave. We never see Mr. Black’s fantastic catalogue of people whittled down to one-word descriptions. We get virtually no insight into Oskar’s grandparents’ relationship.
In place of these plot points are repeated episodes of Oskar listening to the answering machine that contain’s his father’s final words, Oskar throwing tantrums or Oskar revisiting “the worst day.”
And to make matters worse, there was far too little John Goodman.
I understand that movies based on novels are separate entities in their own right, and should be treated as such. But even as I mourn the incredible aspects of the book —in my opinion carelessly— omitted from the film, I believe that even if it
weren’t connected to a great novel, it would still be a mediocre movie.