This review was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the series being covered here wouldn’t exist.
Every so often, there is a clip that goes viral of filmmaker Michael Haneke reflecting on, among many things, how atrocity is depicted in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. He speaks at length about his perspective on why there are films that he considers to be misguided in how they try to dramatize some of the most painful chapters in human history. Following this, the interviewer proceeds to ask the other subjects in the room if they agree. When the camera pans over to reveal none other than John Krasinski, in a moment that feels like it could have been lifted from the office comedy he remains most known for, there is a long pause followed by him clumsily attempting to respond to the weighty questions being posed. The interview lives in internet infamy, not because Haneke is necessarily right about everything he says or that there isn’t a conversation to be had, but because of the way Krasinksi is one of the absolute last people you’d expect to turn to on matters of such import.
This feeling of someone most known for comedy being out of their depth on immense topics of history and violence is the best way to describe the well-intentioned though profoundly lacking four-episode Netflix series All the Light We Cannot See. Helmed by Shawn Levy, who previously directed films like Free Guy and The Adam Project, it is a work that is noticeably far outside his tonal wheelhouse, plunging us into the all-consuming destruction and chaos of World War II. Based upon the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name by Anthony Doerr, it tells the story of Marie-Laure, a blind French teenager whose love of literature knows no bounds.
Played with a grace and grit that goes mostly wasted by newcomer Aria Mia Loberti in her debut performance, Marie-Laure is living alone in the German-occupied coastal city of Saint-Malo, France, and sending out nightly broadcasts via the radio in her attic. In addition to holding greater importance for the ongoing war, she hopes that these messages will reach her father, Mark Ruffalo‘s Daniel LeBlanc, who has since gone missing but who we come to know via extended flashbacks. We also see the world through the eyes of the German soldier Werner (Louis Hofmann) who listens in on these broadcasts out of interest even as he is supposed to be relaying the location they are coming from so they can be snuffed out. It is unfortunate that Netflix’s adaptation ends up doing most of the smothering of what was originally a vibrant story.
Does ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ Live up to the Book?
The series takes its broad strokes from the novel, but there is a prevailing stiffness to the experience. Where the models that Daniel makes for Marie-Laure are done with meticulous care, they’re merely an approximation of the vibrancy of the world that Doerr details. This could almost be fitting and justify some of the revisions the series makes, just like last year’s TIFF premiere All Quiet on the Western Front was able to do in decisive and tragic fashion, but it comes across as superficial rather than sweeping. Without getting into too many of the changes, especially as much of it comes down to a heavily altered ending that is awkwardly cut short, this takes place scene by scene as much as it does on a structural level. As we jump back and forth through time, everything feels a bit too neatly staged for how painful of a story this is. Some losses are depicted on-screen that were left more uncertain in the novel while other, more decisive ones from the book are rendered open-ended. Alteration itself is not always a bad thing in the process of adapting a story, but the issue is that each one here doesn’t add anything to the experience. Instead, they mostly take away what were rather crucial stylistic and thematic decisions from the more nuanced novel for little discernable purpose.
It often feels like we are watching a filmed version of a play, rather than a cinematic adaptation, until Netflix’s All the Light We Cannot See desperately leans into shallow spectacle and empty explosions that come across as tactless. The power of the novel was how understated it could be and what it chose not to go into detail about just as much as what it did. For all the ways Ruffalo and Loberti try to battle against the misguided narrative playing out around them, whatever emotional resonance they find comes despite most creative decisions. We don’t discern the minutiae of the characters and the struggles they are going through; all the more deeply felt moments end up getting lost in the shuffle of contrived cliffhangers at the end of episodes, which risks falling into exactly what Haneke was cautioning against. There is a fundamental lack of depth put into the finer details. The longer we get into the series, the more it increasingly abandons the subtle strengths of the source material for standard storytelling. Netflix’s adaptation continually trims out key themes and developments rather than introducing anything new, making for a more explosive yet empty experience.
‘All the Light We Cannot See’ Deserves a Better Adaptation Than This
Some of this comes down to how there are only four episodes, which Levy has referred to as more of a singular film, but it’s also hard to say whether more would have helped. Even with all the time in the world, Netflix’s All the Light We Cannot See is an adaptation that feels like it would be lacking no matter what. With each moment only scratching the surface of the ideas that were put forth in beautiful yet harrowing detail in the lyrical novel, the series does a disservice to the story. It isn’t a complete disaster due to the work of the cast, but it is disappointing to see how it sands down all the more memorable elements of the source material for something more superficial. If there is a small saving grace to the whole affair, it is that this version of All the Light We Cannot See may prompt more people to read the book for themselves so that they can see this story done right while this insufficient adaptation gets washed away from collective memory.
The Big Picture
- The four-episode Netflix series All the Light We Cannot See fails to capture the depth and subtleties of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel it is based on.
- The adaptation is superficial and lacking in emotional resonance, relying instead on shallow spectacle.
- Despite the efforts of the cast, the series disappointingly excises key themes and developments, ultimately doing a disservice to the story.
All the Light We Cannot See had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and will be available to stream starting November 2 on Netflix.
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