The Reader: Book vs. Movie

My friend and I are having arguments over this point, so I'll be interested to hear other thoughts, but I contend that Hannah's character in the novel is far more largely nuanced and sympathetic than Kate Winslet's interpretation in the movie. Let me clarify, though, because I do not mean to imply that Kate Winslet's character is not nuanced or, in any way, unsympathetic. Her portrayal is just more nuanced and sympathetic in a smaller way.

For those of you who have NOT read the book or seen the movie, stop reading now. Plot spoilers ahead.

Schlink's pathos-filled novel The Reader follows Micheal Berg through his first serious romance and then contemplates the aftermath, as Micheal is forever changed by his interaction with Hannah. Hannah is beautiful, pensive, and obsessed with stories. It is not until later that we find out why she is so moved by fiction. The relationship between Micheal and Hannah is - some could argue - Lolita reversed: Hannah is 35 and Micheal is 15 and Hannah (presumably) realizes what she does to him. This 'presumably' in my opinion is where the major divergence between book and film resides.

First the book. Michael falls deeply in love with Hannah and because he is the narrator this makes sense to us. Hannah does not appear to us as a monster because Micheal does not see her as one. She is complicated, confusing, loving, demanding, and needy, but never - fully - monstrous. Our own interpolation of abuse, our own analysis of the inappropriate nature of this relationship introduces the monstrousness; Micheal, however, sees only the woman of his dreams. The fact that she functionally ruins him and his ability to exist in a healthy (age appropriate) relationship ever again still does not convince him that she has victimized him. It is only at the end when the Jewish woman ponders that Hannah has abused him that this idea is introduced to - and contemplated by - Micheal. Until then, he is deeply in love with the woman of his dreams. Even when she stands on trial and understands what she's done, he loves her.

The novel also allows the interpretation that she loves him, too. This is a critical interpretative point because it enables the readers to view Hannah as capable of love. I do not believe this is completely possible in the movie. In the novel, when Hannah slaps him, bloodies his lip, and then falls into his arms, crying, and then finally surrendering to him, she allows him to shelter her, to take care of her. It seems that she needs him to protect her, which could lead to love. Also, when Hannah comes to the pool, presumably, to say goodbye to Michael or, at least, to see him one final time, it is suggested that she cares for him. If she did not, she would just leave. Neither of these scenes are present in the movie, much to its detriment.

In the movie version, Kate Winslet provides a masterful performance, and if she doesn't win the Oscar, there are other things at play. She is immensely and completely Hannah in this sad, emotive version of the novel. Immediately, we are given more interpretative space in the movie - closed to us in the novel - because although Micheal is central, he is not the narrator. Hannah's actions stand alone without a filter. Though there are moments when she does seem to take pity on him - when she helps after he's sick or when she stiffly agrees that she loves him - the majority of their interaction appears to be between a love sick school boy and a conniving older woman, out for her own pleasure. They have sex a lot, but Hannah never exhibits a thoughtful caress; she is never sweet to him. In short, she's mean. When he spontaneously kisses her in front of the waitress at the outdoor cafe, she seems surprised and perhaps embarassed, but not in love. When she cries and laughs in the church as she listens to the children sing (we realize later that she must be imagining the women the church who burned to death because she refused to open the door) her laughter and tears suggests that she understands the unfairness, the beauty, and the vicissitudes of life. However, there is no suggestion that she attributes these feelings to Michael. Towards him, she remains unattached.

At the end of the movie, when Hannah and Michael meet after years of separation, she seems happy to see him and her eyes, finally, have a softness about them. When Michael shunts the opportunity to talk about their affair, her face clamps closed again and the years of defensive posturing move back in place. Even now, she cannot admit her deep feelings for him - if they ever existed. Perhaps she is embarassed about the way she looks or about their relationship or, perhaps, she realizes what she has lost and can never reclaim. (This final possibility would help to explain her sudden suicide, an act that keeps her away from Michael - but in the realm of his loving imagination - forever.)

In the end, perhaps it's not important that Hannah loved him. Perhaps the point is that Hannah, because of the vile atrocities she committed, is incapable of loving. If this is true, it makes Michael's life even more sad. Perhaps I'm being too sympathetic, too much of a romantic, to look for an ability to love in Hannah, but I don't do it for Hannah's sake. Her monstrousness or a victim-status is, perhaps, not ultimately the point. I am most concerned with Michael's selfless love that he carries with him his entire life for a woman who may or may not be worth the attention. The notion that she loved him back, in my mind justifies Michael's life-long sacrifice. As with most, great literature, it is open for interpretation, which is why, ultimately, I prefer this book over the movie. Kate Winslet's portrayal of Hannah is brilliant but she is a brilliant monster who feels very sorry for herself, and an illiterate woman victimized by her own pride and situation, but not a woman who loves. For Michael, this is a tragedy.

The novel contemplates a number of other provocative ideas that the movie also touches upon: how far does Nazi culpability go in German society? Is Michael guilty for Hannah's atrocities because he loved her? How much should subsequent German generations take responsibility for the transgressions of their parents? And finally: Can one right action in a life (or a mostly honest life) absolve a person of one atrocious act? At the end of the tale, Hannah learns to read, and as she says when Michael asks her what she has learned in her life, she answers that she has learned to read. To Hannah, this appears to be enough; but perhaps the humanistically expansive nature of reading has enabled her to understand her sins. In this way, this small statement may mean much more. For someone who loved stories and their enveloping, therapeutic nature, perhaps this was a type of redemption.

In my view, whether Hannah loved Michael is the hinge-pin of her character - not that she learned to read. Hannah effectively killed 300 people. A person like this may not be able to love another human being; in fact, they may willingly resist this. It must be better to stay away from everyone after committing a horrific act like that; falling in love, learning to empathize, would raise too many questions about the potential lives and loves of the people you killed. Best to stay aloof. Hannah in the movie DOES stay aloof and she is depraved and monstrous because of it; however, Hannah in the novel falls in love, if only a little, with the boy who loves her so completely he lives his entire life for her. Doesn't this small act of kindness at least make her human?


  1. I liked your analysis. You provide some good contrast & comparisons between the novel & the movie.

    However, the only part I feel miffed by is that you leave no ambiguity for the fact that Hannah never the "order/report" that she uncannily admitted in the trial.

    Thus, it seems like your automatically assume she is "monstrous" since she was the main person responsible for killing 300 lives in the church.

    My questions are this:
    - If we assume that she didn't write that "order/report," doesn't she deserve more sympathy?

    - Going along that previous assumption, why did she admit to something she didn't do? Was it because she was more terrified she didn't want anyone to know of her illiteracy? If so, what does this say about Hannah? Was it her vanity that got the best out of her?

  2. what year did the book end?

  3. Hi
    I liked your analysis. You've shed some light on the romance side of things (Hanna's ability to love, and that she loved Michael in her own way etc) that I didn't think of. I was just focusing on Michael's 'obsession' with her. I dislike how other critics state that M was raped by H, he was a willing participant. Of course, not saying their 'relationship' is morally correct, it is dysfunctional and it did mess him up in regards to 'healthy and normal' age-appropriate relationships. I just think that rape is something different altogether.
    It's a complex novel, and I also prefer it to the movie (although the movie was not too awful).
    Anyway, thanks!

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