Warning: Spoilers in article
The television adaptation of Anthony Doerr’s 2014 novel “All the Light We Cannot See” was released on Nov. 2, 2023 and has been added to a long list of lackluster adaptations by Netflix.
Doerr’s novel follows blind 12-year-old Marie-Laure LeBlanc and her father Daniel, who flee Nazi-occupied Paris to the city of Saint-Malo in the northwest of France. Saint-Malo holds secrets, a radio host named “The Professor” (who just so happens to be LeBlanc’s great uncle) and a jewel more valuable than life itself.
Intertwined with Marie-Laure’s story is the story of Werner Pfennig, a German orphan whose promising radio prowess gets him caught up in the Nazi party. As Marie-Laure and Werner grow up in times of war, their lives, humanity and freedom are at stake. Doerr’s expert prose shows readers that even in the darkest of times, humanity prevails. The novel is a triumph from a critical and reader standpoint, as the winner of both the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and a spot on Barack Obama’s 2015 summer reading list.
With such looming source material, it is a marvel that one would even attempt to replicate this revered story on screen. But Canadian Director Shawn Levy, known for his work on “Night at the Museum” and “Stranger Things” felt he was up to the challenge.
“When I read the first draft of the first episode of the adaptation, my plan was to produce the show, maybe direct an episode,” said Levy in a recent interview with People Magazine. “But after I read it, I knew I needed to do it all myself.”
Levy’s passion for the project doesn’t exactly translate to the screen. While the casting of newcomer Aria Mia Loberti was an inspired choice, the rest of the adaptation leaves little to praise. The script is built of cliches, the pacing is frenzied and the intersection of timelines is messy, turning Doerr’s delicately woven book into a tangled knot. Perhaps most importantly, the seemingly insignificant changes that Levy makes to the plot have detrimental effects on the meaning of Doerr’s original work.
For example, in the book Marie-Laure’s beloved father Daniel goes missing while on a trip to Paris. Readers later learn that he was captured and sent to a German prison camp, where he died of influenza. But in the show, Daniel is tortured and killed by the “villain” of the show, Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel. The Sergeant Major sought out Daniel to question him about the priceless jewel, the Sea of Flames.
Sgt. von Rumpel is searching for the stone because he believes it has the power to cure him of cancer. He questions Daniel, who was last in possession of it through his work at a museum in Paris. Daniel refuses to answer von Rumpel and is shot and killed by the Sergeant on screen.
In making Daniel’s death a personal matter, the show creates a villain out of Rumpel and takes from the message of Doerr’s work. One of the key points of “All the Light We Cannot See” is that war is futile and impersonal. War brings out the horrific side of humanity, but there is hope and goodness in people, it is the light we cannot see.
It is important to recognize that anyone who aided Nazi interests, including people like Werner, committed horrific wrongdoings. To vilify a specific character relieves Werner of culpability when the point of Doerr’s story is that we are all to blame. It takes away from the message that humanity is capable of doing bad things the same way we are capable of goodness.
Doerr’s book faces the complexity of World War II head-on, while the series shies away from the challenge. It makes for a show that is generic and boring, despite the acting being exceptional.
Tarnished messaging aside, the four-episode season is horribly paced. Doerr’s novel is just over 500 pages long, certainly long enough to warrant six to eight episodes. The book switches between alternating timelines and points of view, an easy task in literature but more difficult for a show, especially one this short. Rushed timelines and backstories create a hard-to-follow present timeline, and leave the show lacking the vivid emotions the book holds.
Ultimately, this adaptation falls flat in comparison to its original source material — a situation Netflix knows all too well.