At the start of the third episode of Netflix’s adaptation of All the Light We Cannot See, the character of Etienne — on the page a traumatized Great War veteran who conquers his agoraphobia out of devotion to his blind great-niece — comes peeling out of nowhere on a motorbike, vintage machine gun in hand. After participating in the death of an unnamed Nazi, he bellows upstairs to his great-niece about the secret radio transmissions she’s been sending, presumably assuming that if she’s blind, everybody else in their occupied French seaside town might be deaf.
It was here that I paused my viewing to reflect — not for the first time and not for the last time, but definitely in the most blatant instance — that it was very strange that, in adapting Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel as a four-part series, Netflix selected a creative team that either disliked the book or, much more likely, didn’t trust that its delicate sensory pleasures would translate to the screen.
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All the Light We Cannot See has good things going for it, including a radiant lead performance from newcomer Aria Mia Loberti. It’s very nicely shot and James Newton Howard’s swelling score offers no doubt on when you’re supposed to feel things. But its similarity to the book dwindles with almost every passing moment to the point that, by the aforementioned third episode, almost nothing that happens on the screen has any connection to what was on the page. And almost every change makes the material louder, clumsier and less emotionally rich.
If the light mentioned in the title refers to subtle gradations on a spectrum, the light in the limited series is like having somebody activate their iPhone flashlight app in your eyes. It’s a handsomely produced mess.
For at least the first hour, series writer Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders, FX’s A Christmas Carol) maintains the book’s two parallel narratives, which go backward and forward in time culminating in the battle of Saint-Malo in August of 1944.
Teenage Marie-Laure (Loberti) has been blind since childhood (Nell Sutton affectingly plays the younger Marie) and, after fleeing Paris and the Nazi occupation, Marie and her Papa (Mark Ruffalo) have taken up residency in coastal Saint-Malo with the aforementioned traumatized agoraphobe (Hugh Laurie). But Papa has gone missing, Etienne is nowhere to be found and Marie is stuck sending radio transmissions out into the ether.
One person listening is sincere young Nazi Werner (Louis Hofmann), who is in Saint-Malo monitoring radio signals for the Germans. Werner is brilliant and tasked with rooting out resistance missives. Sure, he’s a Nazi, but he’s always got a worse Nazi barking orders at him, so he’s redeemable.
Plus, 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, mostly gave weekly lectures explaining the title of the book and series.
Oh, and helping to make clear that Werner is a Good Nazi — most of the deaths he’s responsible for are offscreen and thoroughly sanitized — our attractive protagonists are being menaced by The Worst Nazi, Lars Eidinger’s Reinhold von Rumpel. A jewel collector for the Reich, von Rumpel is dying of cancer and thinks Marie and her papa know the location of one particularly significant 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 rubble — extended suspense pieces that work because of the twinkle-toed restlessness of Doerr’s storytelling, which goes from storyline to storyline and flashback to flashback with zippy chapters that are rarely more than a page or two long. I understand why Knight would have felt a TV adaptation needed more action, but inserting half a dozen, “Oh no, is a Nazi with no name or character about to shoot one of our heroes?” conflicts and bouncing main characters off of walls in weightless CG bombings just makes a specific story generic.
Knight feels the need to give pretexts for the flashbacks in the clumsiest ways possible, sticking Eidinger with several contrived monologues that he delivers with the salivating glee of somebody in a different show. Most of Marie’s flashbacks are interchangeable with her main scenes and therefore pointless to her character development (limited on the page as well), while Werner’s flashbacks feel completely gutted by the decision to sanitize his moral conflict to make him more generally likable. He’s just a bright, hunky kid conscripted into an evil regime that everybody other than him believes in, which makes him a complete bore.
It’s a story of grand metaphors that Shawn Levy, directing all four episodes, hasn’t really found any way to visualize. There isn’t even an attempt to engage with Marie’s heightened perception of the world, with even the few careful sound design choices getting blasted out by bombs and whatnot. The treatment of the radio, especially its deadly and magical applications in this period, is so rudimentary that at one point, the only way the show can think to emphasize radio’s power in the story is to have a largely forgotten tertiary character — one of the most important characters in the book — literally hug a radio. (I’ll repeat: A character shows her appreciation for radio and its power by hugging it.) And while the glorious models that Papa designs for Marie to help her acclimate herself to cities she cannot see have fleeting moments, nobody can figure out the purpose of the models, nor how to tie them into Papa’s job, which is depicted here as “carrying around keys.”
I think The Queen’s Gambit was probably an ideal template here, both as a smart, well-mounted piece of populist entertainment for grown-ups and as a show that found ways, however theatrical, to aestheticize ideas. Instead, All the Light We Cannot See turns ideas into platitudes and foregrounds generic war tropes, an unmysterious mystery and impatiently rushes to connect the parallel narrative threads in unconvincing ways.
Loberti, a legally blind graduate student with no acting training, is such a good and pure presence that she almost salvages the show around her, grounding the series’ sense of jeopardy and even selling long and strange scenes in which her secret radio transmissions are treated as a diary. Her counterpart, Hofmann, is simply miscast. He looks way too old, especially in the flashbacks, for the show’s wholesale excusing of his Nazi ties. It doesn’t help Hofmann that Knight has erased or minimized all of the characters — Jutta, Fredrick, Volkheimer — who were integral to his arc.
Similarly, the showier aspects of Etienne’s trauma are gone, replaced with a bland heroism and by-the-numbers World War I flashbacks, though Laurie’s haunted eyes and bushy beard make the character lightly effective — more so than the one-dimensional saintliness of Papa, whom Ruffalo plays with a kindly, sing-song Euro accent.
Pulitzer Prize-winning novels are apparently tough to adapt. Doerr’s win came between The Goldfinch (disastrously adapted) and The Sympathizer (coming to HBO next year), and I’m pretty sure that nobody who loved All the Light We Cannot See on the page will enjoy this emaciated, barely connected version. Might it play better for non-readers who can just enjoy the clichés, the cinematography, the radio-hugging and the way Loberti is able to bring vitality to even the most banal of moments? I’m still skeptical.
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