Q&A with Bernhard Schlink
Bernhard Schlink, author of The Reader, the book from which the movie was based, shares with Oprah.com his thoughts on Kate Winslet's Oscar®-winning performance and provides some insight to his stunning novel. The Reader was chosen as an Oprah's Book Club selection in 1999.
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Q: The guilt felt by all the characters, for their own varying reasons, is incredibly palatable. In the case of Michael, it certainly felt that as a young adult he was attempting to shoulder the guilt for both his actions and Hanna's. Was it your intention, in his actions as a grown man, for him to exorcise some of that guilt?
A: The guilt that Michael Berg feels is the guilt of keeping the secrets of those who committed the crimes of the Holocaust. Certainly he loves Hanna and feels some solidarity toward her, and he never fully stops loving her, though later he reduces communication drastically. But she still plays a role in his life, and he wants her to play a role. The feeling of guilt is from Michael knowing someone who committed crimes like that. That is still with Michael.
Q: Do you think Michael is capable of ever letting go of the impact his relationship with Hanna had on him? It's strange in that, certainly, our first loves stay with us somehow, no matter how they might have hurt us or who they turned out to be. Could the same be said of Michael?
A: Well, it was a first love, and it had been particularly powerful love situation. Hanna's age, her experience, combined with both her softness and her cruelty, made her a very complex woman. More complex than a 16-year-old would have experienced. In the second act of the book, meeting her again in the courtroom, you realize that the experience will stay with him for the rest of his life.
Q: A light seems to turn on for Michael during the trial regarding who Hanna truly might be, beyond just discovering that she's illiterate. Was it your intention that the reader would see her differently as well?
A: Yes. When Michael realizes what she's done and he sees beyond the cruelty that showed up in some moments earlier. He sees there is some much deeper and bigger cruelty that is part of her personality.
Q: Was Hanna's illiteracy meant to exonerate her in any way of her actions? And was her admission that she was visited by the ghosts of the dead meant to convey she'd come to terms with what her complicity meant?
A: I think this one of the scenes in particular that is beautifully done in the movie. Hanna never fully understands what she's done. After she's convicted, she gets a notion, but she never fully understands. In the book and the movie, she says the dead are dead, which indicates pretty clearly that she understands something. But it doesn't exonerate her. Her illiteracy is just what made her become a guard. If you look at the times of the Holocaust, and the biographies that have resulted from those times, you learn there are all kinds of reasons people like Hanna got into what they did.
Q: Your novel deals with the idea of the legacies we are left and how we grapple with the consequences afterward. You wrote, "The pain I went through because of my love for Hanna was, in a way, the fate of my generation, a German fate." How do you feel about the movie interpretation of this theme?
A: I really like the movie, and I think everyone involved in the movie did a great job [with this theme]. The focus of the movie is more on Hanna than it was in the book, which was on Michael, and certainly there are many good reasons for that. You have this powerful actress, Kate Winslet, while Michael is represented by two different actors, so there is less identification for the viewer as a result. Also, I think they were more interested in talking about her than him. Still, I think the second-generation situation comes out pretty well.
Q: In the book, Michael turns to his father for advice. This passage was incredibly telling as to who Michael was as a result of his upbringing, and the conclusion to the chapter wherein his father confesses the pain of parenting. It's particularly heartbreaking in that all people come to terms with the humanity of their parents. However, in the movie, Michael turns to his professor. What do you think of this change?
A: Well, it's one of the decisions we talked a lot about, and I can say I understand why they did what they did. They thought Michael talking to his father and professor and then to the judge would be too much, so they tried to get these different conversations in this one communication between Michael and his professor. I missed the conversation with the father, though.
Q: Are there any hesitancies or misgivings you have as an author upon learning your work will be adapted for the screen?
A: Oh no! I love movies, so I always hoped it would become a movie, and I had informed myself about Stephen Daldry and was happy when I learned he would direct the movie. I love his other movies, and I think he's a great director. As an author, you can't expect a movie to be an illustration of the book. If that's what you hope for, you shouldn't sell the rights. As an author, you hope for a director and a cast that will make something wonderful out of your book. I think that's what they all did with the movie.
Q: What was your impression of the actors and how they interpreted your characters? What are your thoughts on the overall interpretation of the work?
A: I think the cast was great. From Kate, who really brings all of the nuances in Hanna's personality to the screen. [Kate's portrayal] is both soft and cruel, both determined and helpless, as well as and sensuous and cold. She is in a way frightened, but she has her own kind of courage. All these different aspects to Hanna were beautifully represented. David Kross was wonderful, and Ralph Fiennes was, as always, a pleasure.
Q: What has been your lasting feeling from the renewed attention to your work as a result of the film?
A: It's joy. I simply enjoy it. I enjoyed seeing the movie. I enjoyed the communications between Stephen and (screenwriter) David Hare and me. I enjoyed the meeting the actors and actresses. It's wonderful to learn what reaches people, and I like hearing and seeing what moves people about the story.
What did Kate Winslet say after winning the Oscar® for her performance in The Reader?