I had to think quite hard on this one as nothing immediately sprang to mind. In general, because I love film AND books, I tend to look for the benefits each medium brings to the tale it’s telling, rather than focus on where one is better than the other. Like many people, I tend to find books more explicit and detailed than the film counterparts, but that’s not always a bad thing.
‘Completely desecrated’ is a pretty harsh label as well. At first I thought of film adaptations I’d been disappointed with, but nothing matched this. So then I started going through the ‘bad’ films and that was when I remembered The Good German. Oh yes, that was a film that desecrated the book! The film on its own is simply appalling – all style over substance, very little relevant from the book remains and so the shocks of the murder-mystery are completely lost. If I had not read the book, I would have struggled to see what the film was actually supposed to be about. And when you look at the line up: Clooney, Blanchett – you certainly expect more.
What made this worse for me was that there are some pivotal moments, explaining the abhorrent behaviour of some main characters and what motivated them to act in the way they did during the war, such as the Jewish girl who sold out her own people, in order to protect the illegitimate child she had with a senior SS man. These are real ‘Sophie’s Choice’ moments – examining the very core of human behaviour and love: the unthinkable things you might do to strangers, in order to protect your own. In the film, they are thrown off with such a blase shrug, I remember being more angry at the end of viewing the film, rather than disappointed (hence the ‘desecrated’). How can you change the fundamental motivation of a character so much and then just dismiss it as if it were not important? All it does is create a completely abominable character and therefore destroy any way you could accept a romantic story for them – you want them tossed in jail and the key thrown away!
You can’t change key motivations for a character in translating it from book to film – you still need them to have things make sense: would Harry Potter have been the same person if his parents had survived? No, he’d probably have been somewhere between Ron and Neville…Would Bella Swan have been so intrigued by Edward, if he had not been so troubled with her? Probably not – he would have left school, she would have traipsed around, facebooked a bit and done well in her exams before heading off to school in somewhere a little sunnier than Forks. If you had changed these elements in taking the story from page to screen, I can’t see how the story would have worked. Unfortunately, that is exactly what The Good German did – and that is why it ruined the book.
By contrast to the film, the narrative of the book is all subtleties and hints – you feel as if you are sneaking around Berlin with the protagonist, spying through the cracks to see a number of threads that pull together into an amazing web of intrigue and lies. The book immerses you in the atmosphere of the Berlin of the early post-war months, an era I’d never read about before. It is July 1945, the time of the Potsdam Conference. The author leads you through the city, bringing to life the ruinous aftermath of war: bombed out houses, ever-present soldiers of various nationalities, roads blocked by rubble, empty spaces where, before, Berliners had lived.
The protagonist is an American journalist, Jake Geismar, who returns to cover the Potsdam Conference, but finds himself walking familiar streets from his pre-war life and meeting up with his former lover.
Interlaced with this personal quest story is a really intriguing murder mystery, that begins with an American soldier’s body washing up at the conference, sodden money filling his pockets. So many elements drift through this book, eventually finding traction and taking the story to a fantastic climax, it feels natural and believable. If someone had told me at the end of the book that it had been based on a true story, I could have completely believed it.
If you’ve never come across this book and fancy something a little noir-ish, set in one of the most interesting cities/times of the modern age, then I would heartily recommend it. If you’re considering watching the film, I would recommend you boil your head instead – probably less painful.
Synopsis With World War II finally ending, Jake Geismar, former Berlin correspondent for CBS, has wangled one of the coveted press slots for the Potsdam Conference. His assignment: a series of articles on the Allied occupation. His personal agenda: to find Lena, the German mistress he left behind at the outbreak of the war.
When Jake stumbles on a murder — an American soldier washes up on the conference grounds — he thinks he has found the key that will unlock his Berlin story. What Jake finds instead is a larger story of corruption and intrigue reaching deep into the heart of the occupation. Berlin in July 1945 is like nowhere else — a tragedy, and a feverish party after the end of the world.
As Jake searches the ruins for Lena, he discovers that years of war have led to unimaginable displacement and degradation. As he hunts for the soldier’s killer, he learns that Berlin has become a city of secrets, a lunar landscape that seethes with social and political tension. When the two searches become entangled, Jake comes to understand that the American Military Government is already fighting a new enemy in the east, busily identifying the “good Germans” who can help win the next war. And hanging over everything is the larger crime, a crime so huge that it seems — the worst irony — beyond punishment.
At once a murder mystery, a moving love story, and a riveting portrait of a unique time and place, The Good German is a historical thriller of the first rank.