I've never done a book-to-film review before! Oh, wait. Does that completely blow all my credibility out of the water?! Maybe you should just forget that I ever mentioned that...these are not the droids you are looking for (insert hand waving here for effect).
Okay, lets get back on track (but really, if you've read any of my other posts, you should know that I insert the occasional aside and random thought) and get my credibility back! I actually spent part of my time at college earning a degree in Advanced Visual Communications, which focused on Film/TV/Stage production design and set decorating. I learned how films were made and even interned in the Art Department of a couple television shows (but that's a tale for another time). My point is that when it comes to the creation of a film, I actually have a little extra knowledge to apply. So, even though I've never done a proper book-film-review, I think I can do a comprehensive and fun assessment!
Let's do this!
Since this website is primarily all-about-them-books, lets start off with my standard synopsis, etc.
SYNOPSIS: When Germany invaded Poland, Stuka bombers devastated Warsaw—and the city's zoo along with it. With most of their animals dead, zookeepers Jan and Antonina Zabinski began smuggling Jews into empty cages. Another dozen "guests" hid inside the Zabinskis' villa, emerging after dark for dinner, socializing, and, during rare moments of calm, piano concerts. Jan, active in the Polish resistance, kept ammunition buried in the elephant enclosure and stashed explosives in the animal hospital.
Meanwhile, Antonina kept her unusual household afloat, caring for both its human and its animal inhabitants—otters, a badger, hyena pups, lynxes.With her exuberant prose and exquisite sensitivity to the natural world, Diane Ackerman engages us viscerally in the lives of the zoo animals, their keepers, and their hidden visitors. She shows us how Antonina refused to give in to the penetrating fear of discovery, keeping alive an atmosphere of play and innocence even as Europe crumbled around her.
GENRE: Historical Non-Fiction
BOOK RATING: ★★★★☆ / 4 Excellently researched and heart-wrenching stars.
By now I think you've realized that this real life story has been adapted from Diane Ackerman's book to the big screen...and if you haven't realized that...well...guess what? The Zookeeper's Wife is a big deal film now! Whew, you're all caught up.
So let's talk details...
The film stars Jessica Chastain as the lead, Antonina Zabinski. Actor Johan Heldenbergh is her husband, Dr. Jan Zabinski, and Daniel Brühl is Lutz Heck.
The film is directed by Niki Caro and written by Angela Workman. Rated PG-13 and 126 minutes long.
I think that takes care of all the particulars, so let's get into the review!
I had the opportunity to view the film early, so I did something that I don't normally do...I watched the film before I read the book! I know, don't yell at me. Seriously. HEY! I saw that eye-roll. Okay, but in my defense it actually worked out pretty well. I read the book in a few days immediately after viewing the film, so everything was fresh. It timed out perfectly for my brain to maintain the maximum information.
With any adaptation from book to screen there will always be differences and edits. It's for the greater good. What flows well on the page doesn't work well on screen. Especially if there are diary entries or first person accounts, as there are in The Zookeeper's Wife (the book). It needs to be streamlined and all the extra details are better when they are shown in a panoramic pan or establishing shot, rather than an actor or actress drawing particular attention to them. So it makes sense that a lot of things will be cut or combined from the book into a final and complete film. And I think that choices that were made for The Zookeeper's Wife were fantastic.
It's probably fair to point out that this is a very emotional and heart-wrenching story. So if you're prone to eye leakage, then you might need tissues, for book or film. But the immediacy and impact of the film definitely requires extra preparation on that front. And while I will attempt to not give away any major spoilers, since this a non-fiction book and true story, I think it's safe to liberally sprinkle the facts throughout this review.
The opening of the film and the book are largely the same. The introduction to the people and the Warsaw Zoo. It's a gorgeous film opening with all the animals and greenery. It makes everything feel so alive and idyllic (spoiler alert: this doesn't last long). Here's where I first noticed a discrepancy from the book. The book describes Jan with his bicycle that he always rode through the zoo. In the film it is Antonina (Jessica Chastain) who rides around the zoo as her general transportation as she interacts with the animals and works. It's easy to understand why this small switch was made. It's titled The Zookeeper's Wife, so it makes sense that when deciding which parts of the book to cut or condense that the filmmakers would angle the focus to Antonina. It grounded the film and kept it from becoming too scattered with information (so here's where I tell you to absolutely read the book at some point, because all the extra information that had to be cut from the film to maintain a good flow is interesting). But I'm just using the bicycle as a small example of what changes are made for a better visual. Because the opening sequence is gorgeous and highly effective (don't worry, I won't be mentioning all the little differences, this is really the only one).
In the first 15 minutes or so we fall in love with the zoo animals. And we see the magic touch and voice that Antonina has with the animals as well as other people, something which is given many different instances throughout the book, but the film was able to illustrate very effectively in a small amount of time. Oh the magic of film making.
Aaaaaaaand then it all goes to hell. Not as in the film was suddenly bad, but as in the beginning of the bombings of Warsaw. I'll spare you the gruesome details, but I will say that for a PG-13 rating there is a lot of violence shown on screen. Not exactly surprising since it's WWII in Warsaw. But if you're an animal lover it can be hard to see. Still, it's the focus on the human element and what the eventually empty zoo leads to that deserves to be seen and known. It's a truly amazing story.
In the pages of the book the Warsaw bombings and war efforts are spread out over a longer period before the Nazi invasion. The Zabinksis spend time in and out of the city and the zoo as well as time away from each other as Jan fights in the war. In the film however this is mostly cut out and boiled down into a matter of days (once again necessary for time constraints but the book has a lot of great information to impart if you're curious). A lot of Jan's actions and battles are edited out of the film for necessary reasons throughout the film, so we miss out on a lot of his character and temperment. So I'll say here that in the book he is described as a very self-assured man and a man of decision. He did not seek or claim glory but his every action was self-described as what he felt anyone in his position would do because the times called for it. It was nothing more or less than what his inherent humanity demanded he do.
Immediately following the bombing the German zookeeper and Nazi, Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), asserts his dominance over the zoo and the Zabinksi's lives. The actors do an amazing job of dancing between all the different relationships and their escalating nuances. Here's where we taken the largest deviance to the book and actual facts. In an effort to compact all the Nazi altercations and influences and people down into the film, Lutz Heck essentially takes on all the roles of many officials throughout the book. He is the big bad wolf that comes to visit and keep that sense of doom and danger lingering. It's a very effective method of storytelling but it does mean that his relationship with the Zabinskis was sensationalized. Some of the real facts and attrocities that he was party to were cut to make way for a cleaner and more linear plot point, his attraction to Antonina. It was much easier to convey on film, although a bit predictable.
It seems amazing, and probably a bit horrible of me, to have come this far in my comparison without having mentioned the persecution of the Jewish people and the amazing ways that the Zabinskis were able, with the help of many other heroic people, to save and relocated friends and strangers from the Warsaw ghetto. I think that I haven't really gone into detail because this is the part of both film and book that I wouldn't want to spoil. For the genius and compassion and daring plans are what truly drives and makes up this tale. We know that it happened but it is the HOW that we take the time to read or see and discover. So I won't spoil it! Nor will I give away the ending.
I loved the different riches that were injected into the movie. In the beginning it was the richness of color. Then in the middle it was the richness of emotion. And by the end it was the richness of detail. Every bit of this film had a level of attentiveness that was easy to respect and, not quite enjoy, because it's a war film and a hard story to absorb, but appreciate seems to be an apt word. For all of the harsh and violent and very real moments, it was the scene with the children boarding the train that nearly did me in. It was incredibly hard not to break down into full sorrow and tears at that moment of the film. And for me that is the mark of truly great storytelling. I'm starting to tear up even now as I write this, so I can also attest that it's a film (and book) that will stay with you, never to be forgotten. And it shouldn't be.
As far as the overall adaptation from book-to-film goes, this was a big success. I found all the edits to be completely effective and done with a care and eye to the story as a whole. I don't think the film ever lost sight of the truth, even when it was bent here and there to create a better visual experience. I am incredibly grateful that I was able to learn about this real life story through not just one, but two impactful mediums. I recommend both the book and the film for the complete experience but even taking the time to absorb just one is worth it, just to know the story of the Zabinskis, The Warsaw Zoo, and all the people who were saved.
For more on the film, keep scrolling for video clips!
The Zookeeper's Wife opens in theaters March 31st, 2017!
All photos, Credit: Anne Marie Fox / Focus Features
Photos and film clips used with the permission of Focus Features