Adaptation, by its very nature, is transformative. A screenwriter must necessarily make changes to another form of written work in order for that work to function in the medium of film. Fans of the original work will often judge the value of the adaptation by fidelity to the source material, judging a film by how much it adheres to the story beats, tone, and even specific dialogue that they remember and appreciate from the work they grew to love in the first place. But sometimes the adaptational process subjects the original work to such transformative pressures that it’s barely recognizable.
Take, for instance, Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit. Ostensibly, Waititi adapted the screenplay from a novel by Christine Leunens titled Caging Skies, but if you’re familiar with the kinds of films Waititi makes, Caging Skies seems like an exceedingly odd choice to inspire this particular filmmaker. Most notably, Caging Skies is a very, very bleak story. It is so bleak, in fact, that even though the book jacket for the recent U.S. printing describes the story as “darkly comic,” that darkness is so stifling that I struggle to understand why anyone would think it’s remotely funny. And yet, when you look at Jojo Rabbit, the bones of this story are still there, even if radically altered to serve different ends.
This post contains spoilers for Jojo Rabbit.
The Boyhood Whimsy and Coming of Age of Jojo Rabbit
Waititi’s film follows a preteen boy named Jojo growing up in World War II-era Germany. Jojo lives with his mother, as his father went off to fight in the war and never returned, and he participates in the Hitler Youth. Acting as a surrogate father is Jojo’s imaginary friend, a wildly flamboyant and childish personification of Hitler himself as portrayed by Waititi. Jojo is overtaken by nationalistic fervor for his country, much to his mother’s concern, which she masks behind eccentricity in trying to keep him childish and free from hateful indoctrination.
However, Jojo’s life changes when an accident during a Hitler Youth activity leaves him injured from a grenade blast, scarring his face. It’s then that he comes to realize that maybe he and his mother are not alone in their home, as he discovers a Jewish teenager named Elsa living in their walls. Elsa threatens Jojo’s life should he tell anyone, but Jojo worries about what will happen to his mother if word got out that they were harboring a Jew. So Jojo and Elsa are left at an impasse, as neither wants to tell Jojo’s mother about their knowledge of one another for fear of the danger that would put her in.
So Jojo endeavors to study his unexpected roommate in a sort of anthropological study of Judaism, which is largely founded on the farcically demonic caricatures he was taught in the Hitler Youth but is gradually chipped away as he comes to recognize Elsa’s humanity, even if he has trouble admitting it as such to himself. Meanwhile, Jojo starts to suspect that maybe his mother is more involved with the resistance to the German government than he had ever suspected, and just as he starts to recognize his prepubescent romantic feelings for Elsa, Jojo discovers his mother hanging dead in the city square, executed for her treason.
Though initially angry at Elsa, Jojo still makes efforts to hide her from government investigation. She’s the last bit of family he has left in the world, and he starts to realize that perhaps Jews aren’t the monsters he was indoctrinated to believe. This arc completes when Jojo finally murders his pleading, sniveling faux-friend, Faux Hitler, leaving the ways in which he was misled in childhood behind him in favor of enlightened empathy.
As the Allied forces invade, liberating the city, Elsa asks Jojo who has won the war. Jojo, in a moment of weakness, tells her that the Germans have won, but he quickly reassures her that he’ll help her escape in the post-battle chaos. As she leaves the house for the first time since being hidden there, it becomes obvious that the Allies have won, that Jojo told a fib, and that she is free. The final moments are happy ones, as the pair laugh joyously at the possibilities that await them.
The Dark Hearts of Broken People in Caging Skies
Christine Leunens’ book follows a very similar path to Taika Waititi’s adaptation in the broadly plotted strokes, though a multitude of minor and major details compound to make the book very distinct from what Waititi would later do with it. For instance, Johannes has no cute or childish nickname, and he lives with his mother, father, and elderly grandmother in Austria, not Germany. Johannes does not become injured during a Hitler Youth activity, but during an actual air raid in which he was enlisted as a child soldier. He is not just scarred on his face, but half of his face is left paralyzed, and one of his arms has been partially amputated. Hitler never makes an appearance, imaginary or otherwise.
Johannes’ discovery of Elsa is largely the same, but their secret correspondence takes place over a period of years, rather than weeks or months, so Johannes grows up to be a young man over the course of the war. During that time, Johannes’ father is arrested as a member of the resistance and sent to a concentration camp. Johannes’ mother meets much the same fate as she does in the film, but her attitude is much less whimsical in the book, more pointedly oblivious in an effort to convey normalcy to her son rather than distract him. Left as the only provider for his household with a disability that prevents him from getting sufficient work, Johannes starts to become embittered toward Elsa as an unwanted houseguest, though he refuses to reveal her to his grandmother out of loyalty to his mother’s wishes. Even more than that, Johannes has adolescent feelings of lust for Elsa, hating her for being the reason his parents were killed, but also bearing affection for her as the only person who understands him and listens to him, as ugly and isolated as he has become.
Johannes’ lie is also the same, as he tells Elsa that the German army has fought off the Allied forces and declared victory. But this moment, one of the last moments of the film, arrives at about the halfway point of the book. If the point of this story were the same as the adaptation that Waititi decided to make, this would be the logical place to end it, or it would at least serve as the climax before an epilogue. But it’s here that Leunens’ purpose becomes very distinct from Waititi’s, more so than the tone or constructive details ever could.
When Johannes lies to Elsa, that lie stays intact. He does not promise to help Elsa escape, only to continue keeping her hidden. This lie is born out of shame, lust, and loneliness, as Johannes remains in a state of arrested development by shackling his imprisoned childhood crush’s fate to his own when he’s forced to navigate a world that is leaving his hateful ideology behind. At first, Johannes is conflicted about his lie, but ultimately he’s pleased enough with his choice that his grandmother starts to suspect that he’s bringing a girl around. Grandma’s suspicion is only made more troublesome by Elsa’s increased carelessness as she loses hope of ever having a normal life again.
When Johannes’ grandmother eventually dies, this offers Elsa a bit more freedom to roam the house, but the pair gradually start to resent each other as more years go on. This hatred becomes exacerbated as Johannes continues to struggle supporting them, because his rations are limited to just his own and he has no means to provide enough food for two people without using his grandmother as an excuse. This hardship becomes so severe that Johannes has to sell off all the furniture and eventually abandon the house itself, smuggling Elsa into an apartment building. By this point, Elsa and Johannes are bitterly resentful of one another. She suspects that he hasn’t been honest with her, and Johannes is struggling more and more to maintain the lie. He tries to ameliorate Elsa’s isolation with a cat, but this only adds stress to the situation and the cat ends up flying out the skylight window. Their shouting matches lead the neighbors to believe that Johannes has a secret “wife,” and it’s during one of these fights that Johannes reveals, in a half-hearted, guilt-ridden attempt at a joke, that he’s been keeping her hidden from the world not for her safety, but out of love. She realizes the lie, a full four years after the end of the war, and she leaves.
Why One Story Became Two
Caging Skies is making very pointed critiques of German Nazi nationalism, toxic masculinity, confusion of possession for love, and the ways that men hold women hostage because they cannot cope with their own pain. Any sense of levity the book has is quickly subsumed by the bleak hopelessness of its message, leaving us alone with a sickly twisted narrator who is incapable of recognizing the moral of his own story. It’s not a story about how people can change and grow, but rather about how people are doomed to fall victim to the harmful messaging that they internalize in their culture.
Taika Waititi joked during the Q&A after Jojo Rabbit’s screening at Fantastic Fest that he only read about half of Caging Skies on his mother’s recommendation before writing the screenplay, and it would not surprise me in the least to learn that Waititi never did finish reading it. Certain changes to the source material are obvious for a Taika Waititi project, such as the focus on Jojo’s absent father figure, the emphasis of Jojo’s coming of age, and the film’s generally lighter tone and reliance on humor. If Waititi had made a straight adaptation of Caging Skies, it would be just about the most unlikely thing to ever grace Waititi’s filmography, spitting in the face of the optimism of films like Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
So why adapt Caging Skies at all? Obviously I cannot speak for Waititi, but it seems as though Caging Skies was a form of incidental inspiration. He read part of a book that he probably didn’t care for much, then rewrote the story to suit his own ends, dabbling with themes of boyhood and growing up in a comic, fanciful manner that pays enough homage to the structure and story beats of the novel that it just can’t be cited as a wholly original work. Jojo Rabbit probably feels like such a strange adaptation because it’s hardly an adaptation at all, adding subplots about authority figures in Jojo’s life that have no comparable equivalent in the novel and completely excising anything that contradicts the idea that Jojo is capable of overcoming the culture he was born into. Like any adaptation, Jojo Rabbit took on some of the personality of the person doing the adapting. What makes Jojo Rabbit unique is that the writer took something he likely objected to and transformed it into something he loved.
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