Irish author John Boyne chats about his internationally acclaimed book-turned -film ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’
When I first read ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ back in 2006, it was hard to believe an Irish author had penned such a telling tale of the Holocaust. The Dublin born author John Boyne, a former Waterstones employee, had so seamlessly ushered readers into the WWII setting through the ever-innocent eyes of Bruno, the son of a Nazi solider overseeing the local concentration camp. From there we read on as our young hero strikes up an unlikely friendship with one of the local Jewish boys behind the camp walls.
Now, two years on and three million sales later, the internationally acclaimed novel is set for the silver-screen with an all star cast including ‘Harry Potter’ actor David Thewlis and ‘The Departed’ star Vera Farmiga. Judging by the book’s fairly melancholic subject matter, you might expect writer John Boyne to be equally ‘tortured’ but in fact the 37-year old Dubliner is warm and welcoming as we chat about the new movie adaptation of his most successful novel to date – ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’.
Q: Did the success of ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ surprise you?
A: I didn’t expect it to be translated into thirty odd languages or even a movie but as an author you can’t think in those terms. You have to be more concerned with the novel itself – making it as good as it can be. When I finished writing it the first thing I thought was – do I think this is going to reach an audience? And yeah, I felt this one would go on to do more than the previous novels I had published. The story felt strong enough to reach a wider audience.
Q: This was your first venture into children’s literature, why did you decide to write for children instead of adults?
A: I wasn’t aware of it when I started. I remember being about three chapters in before that became clear to me. I think it was because of the tone and the fact it’s told from the perspective of the nine-year-old Bruno. So the first audience always needed to be children but what surprised me, a joyful surprise, was how it spread out to adults too. In fact when it was coming up to publication, I did think there was no reason why adults couldn’t read it. Now I don’t call it a children’s book, I just think of it as a book.
Q: How did the film option come about?
A: It was strange process. The book came out in January 2006 and in late 2005 it was in proof form. Mark Herman read it because his agent works in the same agencies as mine. David Heyman, who produced the Harry Potter series, also managed to get a copy. First, they both approached me separately about adapting it. Mark wanted to direct and David was looking to produce. So when they eventually realised of each other’s interest, they got in contact and it progressed from there.
Q: Were you nervous about someone else adapting it for the big screen?
A: Not after meeting Mark, it just seemed like a good fit. We talked extensively about the book before he wrote the screenplay and he would always sent me drafts and I’d send back my notes. From the beginning, Mark had said if there are one or two things I wanted included just ask. For me, that was the ending and the final close up shot of the two boys holding hands. Beyond that I was never overly precious about it. I always felt whatever happens with the movie, it doesn’t affect the book. It doesn’t make it any better or worse.
Q: So you see the film as separate entity to the book?
A: If you had asked me that six months ago, I would have said yes but now I’ve seen the movie, I almost see it as just another translation. Mark has been so faithful to the book, not just to the story but to the tone. I actually feel the book and movie are partly mine and partly Mark’s. I’m quite happy to share it. I’m happy that kids will see the movie and go read the book and vice versa, it’s all generating interest in the literature and subject.
Q: Characterisation is obviously central to the book. Now that you’ve seen the film, do you think they did your characters justice?
A: I was very happy with it. We talked about who we were interested in, which is a truly surreal experience as you throw out these big Hollywood names. I’m a big fan of David Thewlis and he’s playing a very different role from his Harry Potter image in this one. As for the children, the first time I met them was on set in Budapest. They were shooting the opening scene and I remember Asa running towards me. Immediately I thought he had the right look for Bruno. It was the same for Jack, who plays Shmuel. The two of them seemed to have understood their characters perfectly. I don’t know if it was their parents going through it with them or what but they really seem to care about these characters.
Q: Did you spend much time on the set?
A: I visited twice for a week each time. At the start, it’s a little awkward because I was conscious of Mark and not wanting to get in his way. All I really wanted to do was hang out see what it was like on a film set! So that first week I was there I just thought- behave and don’t get in anyways way. Everyone was very welcoming; I was especially excited when I met Jim Norton, aka Bishop Brennan from Father Ted! I was beyond excited. One night we had a cast dinner out and I remember trying to explain to Vera Farmiga (The Departed) the whole concept of Bishop Brennan getting getting kicked up the arse. God knows what she thought of me…
Q: How was the local reaction to filming?
A: Well a lot of locals worked on the crew. I know that there were some who approached because they were familiar with the book. And I suppose there were some who had a family history associated with the subject matter. They all seemed to really care about it and wanted to be part of it. Though I do think they were surprised to find an Irishmen wrote it.
Q: The story is a work of fiction in a factual setting; were you nervous how audiences would react to a fictional Nazis story?
A: When I was writing it, I was concerned with how the German audience and the Jewish audience would respond. In terms of German audiences, I didn’t want to write clichés and stereotypes. I wanted to represent all facades of the German people at the time. So the grandmother character, for example, is a really important character. In fact my one regret is that I didn’t give her more scenes. I don’t think I wrote it to judgmental. We know the facts of the war, the Holocaust and there they are, here’s a story. When I visit places like Germany, some people do ask serious questions about the factual side of things but I think that’s good. That’s part of the dialogue that comes with writing literature.
Q: Now that you’ve had a taste of Hollywood, do you see yourself moving into film?
A: (Laughs) I’ve never written a screenplay in my life; it’s not how I write. My first love is literature and for the moment I think that’s where I’ll stay. If something else was to be optioned in the future, great. It’s certainly been one hell of a ride with ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’.
THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS opens in Irish cinemas now