Sunday, March 11, 2012

In Which Trai Reviews 'Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close'

I apologize for the incredibly long break, everyone--as often happens, I am a college student with little time to read, let alone sit down and review, as new semesters start, and I had to save my backlog for when I had more time (namely, now!). Here we go!

The Book: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

The Author: Jonathan Safran Foer (husband of Nicole Krauss, whose book A History of Love I reviewed in 2010)

How I Found It: I was interested in the film adaptation, and curious to read the book when I learned that Krauss, whose book I'd really liked, and Foer were a literary power couple! And thank you to the fine folks at Kobo who offered the ebook at a discount during a sale, which prompted my purchase! :)

The Review: Oskar Schell is an interesting young boy. Others might call him odd. He can be socially tone deaf and perhaps too imaginative for others. Tests to figure out whether he has Asperger's proved inconclusive, and Oskar's parents and grandmother were left to figure out how to engage with and teach their child about the world.

Oskar's dad, Thomas Schell, seems to have found the perfect ways. He engages with Oskar through games (such as "reconnaissance expedition") and imaginary stories, like when he tells Oskar that New York once had a sixth borough. As a result, Oskar is closest to his father, a jeweler whose own father left the family before he was born.

Oskar and his mother are devastated when Thomas is killed in the 9/11 attacks, leaving his mother and grandmother grieving and Thomas adrift without his touchstone. An accident in his father's closet one day leads him to discover a key in an envelope marked BLACK. Oskar is mystified by this key and convinced that it is a clue in a last expedition set up by his father. He then decides to go to see every Black in the five boroughs, searching for the truth behind the key, wondering what it could possibly mean.

This book is not for everyone, I think I'll say right off. It can be construed as gimmicky. There are pages upon pages of pictures taken by Oskar in his journeys interspersed with the narrative. There's a numerical cypher that goes on for pages and pages that I tried valiantly to read (not even to decode!), only to stop when I thought my eyeballs would bleed. There's even the general premise of a post-9/11 story, which some argued was too soon to be taking on when Foer published the book in 2005. Those who think the book sounds too cutesy or like a cheap gimmick had better stay away; you'll probably feel exactly that if you were to read it.

I was somewhere in the middle. I sometimes wasn't a fan of Foer's technique (the pictures got tiring, especially when the same ones came up several times, and the aforementioned numerical cypher was too clever for me), but I appreciated the story and found it ultimately touching, if mostly sad. The book had a deep emotional core that resonated with me. Interspersed with Oskar's narrative is the tale of his grandparents--Thomas' father explaining why he left his son before he was even born; Thomas' mother telling her side of the story, her history with Thomas' father. Their story is one of love and loss, just like Oskar's. Both stories are about fathers and sons, about the search for human connection.

The importance of human relationships really struck me as I read through the book. Oskar has difficulty relating with people, but his quest to find every Black in the five boroughs brings him in contact with all manner of people. There's a Mr. Black not far from him who has a card catalogue of every person he's ever known with a one-word description of them. That alone showcases the importance of human relationships--that one Mr. Black goes so far as to catalogue every person he's ever formed a relationship with or felt connected to in some way. Mr. Black joins Oskar for part of his quest, and one Black they come to has passed away--she was a waitress at the Windows on the World restaurant who perished in 9/11, just like Oskar's father. It was episodes like this that served to show just how connected people can be in such a large city, a theme the movie played up.

If the book is not for everyone, the movie isn't, either. It was condemned by some critics as maudlin and overdone. For me, it was one of those rare movies I preferred to the book. The movie did away with some of those gimmicky things that bothered me about the book, and made some adaptational choices I felt streamlined the story and made it work a bit better than Foer's occasionally overstuffed tale.

For a start, Thomas Horn's turn as Oskar was touching as well as exceptionally forceful and driven. I'm really curious to see where this kid goes in the future. Eric Roth, the writer of the screenplay, chose to downplay the more noticeable of Oskar's characteristics that could indicate Asperger's. He was portrayed more as having anxiety in social situations and being slightly phobic of certain triggering things (briefcases, foreigners, etc.) after 9/11. The elements were there, but not dwelt on; Oskar's personality is left to stand on its own, without harping on a possible diagnosis. Horn was both charming and touching, and gave Oskar life that didn't always come off on page, for me, as Oskar in the book was sometimes a bit too outrageous and unbelievable. Paring down his character a bit was a wise choice, in my opinion.

Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock did extraordinarily well. Tom Hanks' scenes with Horn were full of warmth and you could really see the bond between Oskar and Thomas. Thomas' games are here shown to be a bit more than Oskar's narration in the book has us believe; they are Thomas' way of getting his son out into the world to talk to people. Hanks has few scenes with his on-screen wife, but the best is undoubtedly the emotional phone call between them where Linda realizes Thomas is at the World Trade Center. We don't see all that much of Linda, but her scenes with Oskar are well-played, if sometimes tough to watch, as both of them lash out in their grief. The increased focus on Oskar's mother as opposed to her role in the novel was something I appreciated, especially towards the end of the film; I felt she was portrayed in a slightly more forgiving light, and that her and Oskar were shown to have potential for a better future understanding of each other.

(I thank Roth for taking out the subplot involving Linda dating again; as it was portrayed in Foer's novel, it contributed to the unfortunate portrayals of moving on after grief wherein children are hostile and cannot accept that their parent has found someone else. It is realistic, but often is the only type of situation shown, and often portrayed as somewhat insurmountable, with tensions remaining between the second partner and the child[ren]. This was the case with Foer's novel and it was one of the things I wasn't happy with.)

Oskar's grandparents' story is not shown at all, but elements of the presence of elders in the story still remain. The scene where Oskar's grandmother lies on the floor with him following the 9/11 attacks made me cry; Zoe Caldwell did well. Mr. Black, he of the card catalogue, is conflated with the grandmother's mysteriously silent lodger, played excellently by Max von Sydow. He never speaks a word, but his expressive face and scribblings on a notepad are enough to get his message across. von Sydow's Oscar nomination was well-deserved.

Overall, I preferred the movie to the book, as it toned down the more hyperbolic elements of Foer's story, and let the more human, realistic elements speak for themselves. The book, however, is not without merit; I recommend that anyone who saw the film without reading the book give the book a try, as the story of Oskar's grandparents lends greater depth to the story, a half without which Oskar's story isn't whole. Though the book and movie are not for everyone, I recommend them to anyone who wants to read about grief and recovery, and about the human connections that bind us all together.

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