The Boy in the Striped Pajamas Book vs Movie Review

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne (2006)

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas directed by Mark Herman (2008)

This was requested by Nikol Kola, so thank you for suggesting it because I would not have thought to cover it otherwise!

This story is about Bruno, a young German boy whose Nazi father is put in charge of a concentration camp. They move into the house near the camp; however Bruno is naïve and doesn’t realize the truth of the situation.

This movie stays pretty close to the book, but even so there were some changes that caused me to have different feelings towards the two of them.

I am going to get right into the plot, which means there will be spoilers going forward!

Bruno and family

In the book I liked Bruno right from the start. I found him enduring, sweet, smart, while also being very innocent and naïve. To me, he read like a believable boy. We also hear how adventurous he is and that he likes “exploring”. I thought Boyne did a great job at including different details about him and the tone the book is written in gave Bruno a distinct personality and I felt connected to him.

The book begins with him being told he and his family is moving, then while in his home near Auschwitz, we get flashbacks where we hear about his father’s promotion. We also learn that Bruno’s grandmother, his father’s mother, disapproved of Bruno’s dad being a Nazi.

We see all of this in the movie as well, but the movie is told chronologically.

In both the grandmother ended up dying part way through. In the movie they say she died when the city was bombed. In the book we are told she got sick. In both, Hitler has sent some kind of garland and the wife comments that the grandmother would roll in her grave if she knew something from Hitler was at her funeral.

Pavel

In both he meets a man named Pavel who cuts their vegetable before dinner, and also helps serves the food. One day Bruno hurts his knee, and Pavel comes running out and helps him. Through talking with Pavel, he learns that he was once a doctor. Bruno doesn’t understand that Pavel is one of the prisoners from the camp who is brought over to help serve them. He thinks he chose to give up being a doctor, not realizing the truth.

In the movie, when the mother finds out he helped Bruno, she thanks Pavel. In the book, she doesn’t thank him, but tells one of the other servants that if anyone asks, they can say she helped Bruno. Bruno thinks she is saying this so she can get the credit, but really, she says it because the father would be upset is he knew a Jewish person had tended to his sons leg.

In a later scene, Pavel is serving dinner, but he is slow ans this upsets the father. They have another soldier, Lt. Kotler with them that evening, and he beats Pavel up which is very upsetting for Bruno to see.

Lt. Kotler

 Speaking of Lt. Kotler, he is a 19-year-old who is stationed at this camp. In both he is a jerk to Bruno. While at that dinner, one of the reasons he strikes out at Pavel is because he brings up his father and paints himself in a corner when he mentions that his father left the country in 1938. He is on the spot due to having a father who apparently didn’t like Hitler and the Nazi movement.

In the movie, he is removed from his station due to hiding this information about his father.

In the book, Bruno’s mother was having an affair with Kotler. The father finds out, and this is why he is removed.

Bruno’s mother

Speaking of the mother, in the movie she was not having an affair and in general she was made to be more likeable in the movie. As said, she hesitantly thanks Pavel, and when she sees her daughter with all of her Nazi posters and stuff on the wall we see she is bothered by it. This didn’t really make sense to me though. The dad is a big deal in the Nazi military, they are here so he can run these camps, like why would you be surprised or bothered that your daughter is super in to the Nazi party??

But as time goes on she learns about the crematoriums and is aghast that they are doing that. She goes into a depression and as time goes by, she gets the husband to agree to have her and the children live elsewhere. I did read that it is rumored that the real wife of the Aushwitz leader-she learned about the crematoriams and after this wouldn’t sleep in the same room with her husband and later moved away. But then other articles say the opposite, that she was aware and was proud of her husband’s accomplishments. But this is a work of fiction at the end of the day so despite the historical aspect, we can’t look at this book or movie to get a reliable idea on the wife.

In the book the mom wants to move away after awhile but it isn’t because she has issues with what is being done. She just misses life and her friends back home.

Schmuel

In both, Bruno is exploring the area and he comes to the electric, barbed wire fence. He sees a boy on the other side, wearing the striped pajamas he has noticed the people over there wearing. We find out his name is Schmuel, and throughout Bruno’s time there, he returns to this spot on a regular basis and he and Schmuel talk and become friends.

Bruno still doesn’t get exactly why Schmuel is over there but assumes it must be fairly nice. There is a part in the book when he slips and mentions Schmuel to his sister. He doesn’t want her knowing, so then he lies and says it is the name of his imaginary friend. She asks him what this imaginary friend tells him about and he says, “‘…yesterday he told me that his grandfather hasn’t been seen for days and no one knows where he is and whenever he asks his father about him he starts crying and hugs him so hard that he’s worried he’s going to squeeze him to death.’ Bruno got to the end of his sentence and realized that his voice had gone very quiet. These were things that Shmuel had told him, but for some reason he hadn’t really understood at the time how sad that must have made his friend. When Bruno said them out loud himself, he felt terrible that he hadn’t tried to say anything to cheer Shmuel up and instead had started talking about something silly, like exploring. I’ll say sorry for that tomorrow, he told himself.”

This moment wasn’t in the movie, but I wish it had been. It shows us how self-centered Bruno can be and that is one of the reasons he is oblivious at times to what is going on with Schmuel.

Though I guess maybe the movie doesn’t have this scene, is because in the movie Bruno isn’t quite as oblivious. He is taught about how the Nazi’s think every Jewish person is terrible and in general how they are out to ruin Germany. He then sees Schmuel the next day and says something about how they are supposed to be enemy’s, which was a littlev cheessy. He also sees his dad watching a propaganda video about the concentration camps and they are made out to be nice. Bruno sees this and assumes that it must not be bad for Bruno.

With that in mind, I would say movie Bruno wasn’t quite as naïve as book Bruno, but rather he wanted to believe that the Nazi’s were telling the truth and that his father wouldn’t allow for the place to be bad.

Shmuel in the kitchen

As we learned with Pavel, they will get people from the camp to help in the house. One day, Bruno sees Schmuel in the kitchen cleaning glassware. In the book, he encourages Schmuel to eat something, but he keeps saying he shouldn’t and that Kotler (who was still around at this point and who had beaten up Pavel just recently) will know. Bruno convinces him though and he eats something. Kotler then comes in and gets mad that he is talking to Bruno and threateningly asks if he has been sneaking into the food. Schmuel says that Bruno gave him the food and that Bruno is his friend. Kotler turns to Bruno, and Bruno is scared and denies knowing Schmuel but says nothing of the food. He goes to his room and is racked with guilt for not standing up for Schmuel.

In the movie, it doesn’t take much convincing to get Schmuel to eat and Kotler walks in while he is eating. When Schmuel says it was Bruno, Bruno lies even worse here and says Schmuel stole the food. He feels horrible when he is back up in his room.

In both, he later sees Schmuel and he has been beaten up. Bruno sincerely apologizes though and Schmuel accepts his apology.

The ending

In the book, Bruno gets lice and they shave his head.

Then, he later finds out that he will be leaving soon with his mom and sister. In both, he tells Schmuel this. Schmuel’s dad has recently gone missing, and Bruno says that if he could get to Schmuel’s side, he could help him find him. Schmuel says how Bruno himself said he looked like Schmuel now due to his shaved head and proposes that the next day, he can bring Bruno some “stiped pajamas” and Bruno can change, get under the fence, and help Schmuel find his dad in the camp. This is the same in the movie, however in the movie he doesn’t get lice and so he has all of his hair. They wear caps though, so they say he can hide his hair under the hat.

The next day Bruno changes, leaving his regular clothes outside the fence. They then walk through the camp and Bruno quickly sees what a sad, terrible place it is and wants to go home. He had promised Schmuel he would help look for his dad though so he stays. In the book they look for 90 minutes before they are told to go on a march. In the movie, the march happens right away.

They are marched in a group into one of the crematoriums, although they do not realize that is what it is. Book and movie end with both of them dying along with the other men that were brought in with them.

In the movie, the parents see what is happening and the scenes are intercut, to make the audience wonder if they will save Bruno in time.

In the book, they don’t realize what happened to Bruno until months later, when the dad finds his clothes outside of the fence.

Book vs Movie

Making fictional books or movies about the Holocaust can be tricky. Since it was such a horrific thing, it is a topic that is basically guaranteed to get a reaction from the reader/watcher. Due to this, it is important that the story is respectful and isn’t coming across as exploiting something so beyond terrible, just in an effort to force an emotion from your audience.

I think the book did a good job at telling this story in a respectful way. As said, I found Bruno a very compelling character and I loved his friendship with Schmuel. The conversations we hear were so sweet but of course, the story has a very dark shadow over it due to the subject matter.

I didn’t feel the friendship quite as strong in the movie, but I know it is tough to find great child actors. I didn’t like the change in the end, having it be a suspenseful moment as the family is looking for Bruno, they see the clothes, and then the dad realizes what has happened. We also had a bit of foreshadowing in the book with talk of the smell from what is burning and as said, when the wife finds out what is happening, it pushes her over the edge. But I also didn’t like the changes made with the wife. It seemed too simple minded in a way to think that the wife of a high ranking Nazi would act in the way she did here. I preferred the more detached mother in the book who was busy with her affair with Kotler.

And I felt this way even before seeing The Zone of Interest, but now that I have seen that, while it is chilling and terrible, I think Hedwig is a more fitting portrayal of the wife of a Nazi leader running a death camp. It’s interesting, because in the book they are at Aushwitz and Boyne based the mother and father loosely on the real life couple as seen in TZOI. By the way, the story here is like a combination of the movies The Zone of Interest and Jojo Rabbit, but this movie isn’t nearly as good as those two.

The music in the end scene of TBITSP was also too over the top for my taste. In the book, it didn’t feel over the top, but very simple and as the end is coming, you know where things are leading and it was very effective and heartbreaking and terrible while not feeling like it was squeezing the drama.

While I didn’t hate the movie, I definitely was disappointed and will have to say between book and movie, the book wins.

Book complaints

A number of reviewers also said it was unbelievable that Bruno wouldn’t realize the truth of the camps. When he first arrives, he thinks it is a farm and believes this for quite some time. In the moment, it seemed beleivable to me that Bruno wouldn’t know any better. In this version, the camp is also quite a ways away so it’s not like he is hearing the yelling/screaming/gunshots.

Yet another thing I read is that this book isn’t historically accurate. This too wasn’t something that bothered me because while this is historical fiction, it isn’t a history book and he isn’t retelling real stories. Yes, he uses the name of a real camp, but even so, this is clearly a work of fiction and its intent isn’t to give us a 100% accurate story. Its intent is to create a story that shows the horrors of what happened but does so through the lense of innocence with a young boy who doesn’t realize how truly terrible the things are.

Then there is the complaint that the author is overly simplistic and makes these trite observations like when Bruno is in the camp uniform, saying how they were so much alike. Meaning, the Jewish people were looked at as inhuman, but really, they are all alike. And yeah, when you read that section on its own, it is pretty basic. But when I read the book as a whole, those lines work. This also reads as a YA novel, so the potentially overly simplistic and cliche lines also work better here. If this was a novel aimed to adults, I probably would have had more of an issue.

raning best picture noms, zone of interest