At the beginning of the third episode of Netflix’s adaptation of All the light we can’t see, the character Etienne – on the page a traumatized World War I veteran who overcomes his agoraphobia out of devotion to his blind grandniece – emerges from nowhere on a motorcycle, vintage machine gun in hand. After participating in the death of an unnamed Nazi, he roars upstairs to his great-niece about the secret radio transmissions she has been sending, presumably thinking that if she is blind, everyone else in their occupied French seaside resort could be deaf.
It was here that I paused my viewing to reflect – not for the first time and not for the last time, but certainly at its most egregious – that it was very strange that, through Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel to adapt it into a four-part series, Netflix selected a creative team that either hated the book or, much more likely, didn’t trust its delicate sensory pleasures to translate to the screen.
All the light we can’t see
It comes down to
A hollowed-out adaptation of rich source material.
All the light we can’t see has good things to offer, including a radiant leading role by newcomer Aria Mia Loberti. It’s very nicely recorded and James Newton Howard’s swelling score leaves no doubt as to when you should be feeling things. But the similarity to the book diminishes with almost every moment, to the point that, in the aforementioned third episode, almost nothing that happens on screen has any connection to what was on the page. And virtually every change makes the material louder, clunkier and less emotionally rich.
If the light mentioned in the title refers to subtle gradations in a spectrum, the light in the limited series is like someone activating their iPhone flashlight app in your eyes. It’s a beautifully produced mess.
At least for the first hour, series writer Steven Knight (Peaky blindersFXing A Christmas carol) maintains the book’s two parallel stories, which move back and forth in time, culminating in the Battle of Saint-Malo in August 1944.
Teenager Marie-Laure (Loberti) has been blind since childhood (Nell Sutton aptly plays the younger Marie) and after fleeing Paris and the Nazi occupation, Marie and her dad (Mark Ruffalo) have moved into the coastal region of Saint-Malo with the aforementioned traumatized agoraphobe (Hugh Laurie). But Dad is missing, Etienne is nowhere to be found and Marie is stuck sending radio broadcasts into the airwaves.
One person listening is the earnest young Nazi Werner (Louis Hofmann), who monitors radio signals for the Germans in Saint-Malo. Werner is young, brilliant and charged with eradicating resistance missions. Sure, he’s a Nazi, but there are always worse Nazis barking orders at him, so he’s redeemable.
Furthermore, Marie and Werner have something in common: they both grew up listening to radio broadcasts from a mysterious “professor” who, if the dialogue in the series is to be trusted, usually gave weekly lectures that revealed the title of the book and the series was explained.
Oh and just to drive home the point that Werner is a good Nazi – most of the deaths he is responsible for are off-screen and thoroughly sanitized – our attractive protagonists are threatened by the worst Nazi, Lars Eidinger’s Reinhold von Rumpel. Von Rumpel, a jewelry collector for the Reich, is dying of cancer and believes that Marie and her father know the location of a particularly important stone that he believes offers immortality to its possessor.
A strict adaptation of the book would have spent a LONG time with Marie hiding in an attic and Werner trapped in the rubble – extended suspense pieces that work because of the twinkling restlessness of Doerr’s stories, moving from storyline to storyline and from flashback to go flashback. with spicy chapters that are rarely longer than a page or two. I understand why Knight felt a TV adaptation needed more action, but he added half a dozen: “Oh no, is a Nazi with no name or character about to shoot one of our heroes?” conflict and main characters bouncing off walls in weightless CG bombardment just makes a specific story generic.
Knight feels the need to provide pretexts for the flashbacks in the clumsiest of ways, holding Eidinger to several contrived monologues that he delivers with the drool-worthy glee of someone in another show. Most of Marie’s flashbacks are interchangeable with her main scenes and therefore pointless to her character development (also limited on the page), while Werner’s flashbacks feel completely gutted by the decision to resolve his moral conflict to make him more sympathetic overall to make. He’s just a smart, good-looking guy who’s been recruited into an evil regime that everyone but him believes in, which makes him a complete bore.
It’s a story full of grand metaphors that Shawn Levy, who directs all four episodes, hasn’t really been able to visualize yet. There’s not even an attempt to tap into Marie’s heightened perception of the world, with even the few careful sound design choices blown away by bombs and the like. The treatment of radio, especially its deadly and magical uses in this period, is so rudimentary that at one point the only way the show can emphasize radio’s power in the story is through a largely forgotten tertiary character – one of the most important characters in the book – literally hugs a radio. (I repeat: a character shows her appreciation for radio and its power by embracing it.) And while the glorious models Dad designs for Marie to help her acclimatize to cities she can’t see have fleeting moments, no one can the purpose of the models, nor how to connect them to Dad’s work, which is depicted here as ‘carrying keys’.
I think The Queen’s Gambit was probably an ideal template here, both as smart, well-edited populist entertainment for adults and as a show that found ways, however theatrical, to aestheticize ideas. Instead of, All the light we can’t see turns ideas into platitudes and foregrounds generic war tropes, a non-mystery mystery and rushes impatiently to connect the parallel storylines in unconvincing ways.
Loberti, a legally blind graduate student with no acting training, is such a good and pure presence that she almost saves the show around her, grounding the series’ sense of danger and even selling long and strange scenes involving her secret radio broadcasts are handled. as a diary. Her counterpart, Hofmann, is simply a misconception. He looks way too old, especially in the flashbacks, for the show’s wholesale apology of his Nazi ties. It doesn’t help Hofmann that Knight erased or minimized all the characters – Jutta, Fredrick, Volkheimer – who were integral to his arc.
Likewise, the flashy aspects of Etienne’s trauma are gone, replaced by bland heroism and World War I flashbacks, though Laurie’s haunted eyes and bushy beard make the character somewhat effective—even more so than the one-dimensional saintliness of Dad, who plays Ruffalo plays with a friendly, sing-along Euro accent.
Pulitzer Prize-winning novels are apparently difficult to adapt. Dorr’s victory intervened The goldfinch (disastrously edited) and The sympathizer (coming to HBO next year), and I’m pretty sure no one liked it All the light we can’t see on the page will enjoy this emaciated, barely connected version. Could it work better for non-readers who can simply enjoy the clichés, the cinematography, the radio banter and the way Loberti can bring vitality to even the most banal moments? I’m still skeptical.