Kate Winslet and David Kross in The Reader.
Photo: The Weinstein Company
David Hare, writer of the screenplay of The Reader, shares with Oprah.com his thoughts on adapting such a beloved novel, working with Stephen Daldry and what things audiences can learn about postwar Germany. The Reader was chosen as an Oprah's Book Club selection in 1999.

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Q: What was it about The Reader that drew you to the project?

A: It's a subject no one has made a film about in the English language, which is the situation of the generation after the great crime and the dilemma that they're born into and have to live with. There has been so much done about the victims of the crime but little about the succeeding generation, the children of the perpetrators of those crimes.
Q: As a writer, what is the biggest challenge you face when adapting an already beloved work?

A: For the Germans, The Reader is a work of incredible importance, and it's studied in schools. As far the Germans are concerned, it's [similar to] Great Expectations, and it's a work everyone knows.[Bernhard] Schlink  wanted it translated into English so that it might introduce into other cultures events that they knew almost nothing about. There are parts of the world where they don't know much about mid-20th–century European history. The challenge in [writing the screenplay] was making it make sense to those who knew nothing about the subject and for those who knew everything about it. For example, I invented the seminar scene [when Michael is in school] to discuss what happened at the trials. There was a whole strange silence in Germany that followed 1945, and Germans know about them, but you have to explain why there was this extraordinary gap between the camps and why no one was indicted for what happened.
Q: Bernhard expressed his enthusiasm and joy with the movie adaptation  and your work in particular. Did you work closely with him at all during the process of writing the screenplay?

A: I've done three literary adaptations, and in each case they were all novels that survived years of scrutiny. The more I worked on a particular book, more respect I had for it. You would be absolutely crazy not to go back to the person who thought up [the story]. The deeper you dig, the more searching you do, the more questions you have are. I always made it a rule to work as closely as I can with the author of the book. After I finish each draft, I showed it to Bernhard and we discussed the issues that were raised.
Q: Capturing the postwar elements of Germany is done so poignantly and heartbreakingly in both the book and the movie. The story was, at least, not one many Americans know about or understand. As an English filmmaker, how did you prepare to express those elements and emotions?

A: I think that you have to fight the idea that everything that happened in the camps was committed by a separate category of people who are monsters. That's hard to explain to an American audience with no history of an extreme dictatorial regime. Americans have been a democracy since its founding. In such circumstances, people do things that wouldn't otherwise do. Perfectly ordinary people get taken up and involved in events that rightly appall and sicken you. But they're not committed by separate group of people. Ordinary people become part of the killing machine, partly to save their own lives. There are an awful lot of people who live under a dictatorship who are caught up in that machine and do things they wouldn't otherwise do. Countries that haven't experienced that can be quite naïve when a country is taken over by such rule. It would be comforting to believe that war crimes are only created by monsters. I do think that the complexity of Kate Winslet's performance in that role is something people respond to. While you watch the film, you go through a hundred different feelings. You're being horrified, and then you feel close to her and feel some sympathy for her.
Q: There were some parts of the book that were dropped for the movie, most notably that there was probably some more focus on the character of Hanna than of Michael. Bernhard mentioned that he felt it was a decision made to allow the story to flow more seamlessly for the screen, since the character of Michael is played by two different actors. What were your thoughts in this process? Was it for the sake of the story or was there something else?

A: It's more about (director) Stephen Daldry. He's a thorough director and shot more than they eventually used. When you embark on a film with him, you can kiss goodbye to two years of your life! He will look at the events from every possible angle and constantly be asking if we're missing out on something. So we were filming for a long time, but we had to edit quickly. When you're writing about three different periods, especially during the time when Michael is writing to Hanna, which covers an immense ground, you have make decisions like that.
Q: You've worked with Stephen Daldry before (on the 2002 movie The Hours). Can you tell us what your working relationship is like and why the pairing is so successful?

A: I love working with him. Kate Winslet was saying you can suggest anything to him and he will listen to you. Stephen will listen to an idea from the caterer if they had a good idea for a scene. He doesn't have to pretend he's an auteur and all things stem from him. He never makes anyone feel small. But that doesn't mean he isn't in control. It's his film. But he makes everyone want to work to their best ability.

Learn more about The Reader

Q&A with Bernhard Schlink


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