It’s been over six years since Jonathan Safran Foer’s 9/11 novel took the literary (and hipster) world by storm. Though the book suffered from a critical backlash in many major publications including The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and faint almost praise from John Updike in The New Yorker, the film adaptation was quickly snapped up by Warner Bros., who also distributed Liev Schreiber’s adaptation of Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated (2005) starring Elijah Wood. After a lot of back and forth as far as writers and directors, we’ve gotten our first look at how one adapts one of those novels that the creative writing major you dated in college hands to you as your introduction to contemporary literary culture.
The success or failure of the novel was how the reader perceived Oskar Schell, the son of one of the victims of the World Trade Center collapse and the book’s primary narrator. Oskar is at once precocious and oblivious, clinically depressed and pending off panic attacks in the wake of his father’s death. This enviable role has been taken up by Thomas Horn, a name familiar to anyone who still watches Jeopardy before or during dinner. (Horn won $31,000 on the teen segment of the show when he was twelve years old.) When Oskar finds a mysterious key that belongs to his father, he goes on a journey around New York City trying to find what he needs to unlock. (It should probably be noted that this seek and ye shall find storyline is similar to Everything Is Illuminated, exchanging NYC for the Ukraine.)
Director Stephen Daldry is familiar with tackling literary narratives and bildungsromans, having made sense of The Hours and The Reader after showing us what happens when an English coal miner’s son wants to dance ballet in Billy Elliot. Screenwriter Eric Roth has a more historically focused background. He’s best known for his work on films like Munich, Ali, The Good Shepherd and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. This will also be Roth’s second stint writing for Tom Hanks who plays Oskar’s father. (Roth wrote Forrest Gump.)
The trailer doesn’t hint much about how Roth and Daldry plan to adapt the mostly epistolary novel’s more experimental methods of storytelling like changes in typography, though Oskar’s first person narration and vaguely magically realist imagery in the trailer are certainly a good start. They do, though, get straight to the point by showing what is probably a digital depiction of the World Trade Center only moments after the attacks. “THIS IS A 9/11 MOVIE” the trailer proclaims, “BUT IT WON’T BE AS DEPRESSING AS WORLD TRADE CENTER OR UNITED 93. WE PROMISE. HERE. LISTEN TO THE EDGE PLAY GUITAR.” (Some trailers speak in all lowercase but both Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo like to speak in all capitals for some reason.)
The biggest change seems to be making Oskar’s grieving mother (played with nuance by Sandra Bullock) more available to him, as well as adding a mainstream epicness to the piece by using U2′s “Where the Streets Have No Name” as a backdrop. With a team as well suited as Roth and Daldry and a cast that includes Viola Davis, John Goodman, James Gandolfini, Jeffrey Wright, and Max von Sydow, it’s probably not too much to hope that this adaptation will manage to be something more than “Extremely Cloying and Incredibly False” (as critic and columnist Henry Siegal described the book.)