John Boyne has made an absolute fortune I imagine for this book, especially as it's been translated and sold to over 40 countries worldwide (and still counting). And rightly so, I hasten to add. It is a rare writer who can write about the Holocaust with innocence and sincerity and in such a way that appeals to children and adults alike.
TBITSP was written for children about children. Bruno is an 8 year old boy who gets annoyed when his parents tell him that they and his elder sister are moving away to live in a new house in the country. He is annoyed because it means he won't be able to play with his friends anymore. So when they arrive at the remote new house and find it brimming with soldiers but nobody young enough for Bruno to play with, he is further annoyed but not surprised. What you learn after a while is that Bruno's dad is a soldier, and not just any soldier - he is one of the most senior soldiers in Hitler's war. The genius of the book lies in Boyne's way of combining youthful innocence and naivety with what the reader clearly knows. For one, Bruno keeps saying he doesn't like the new place they live in and is annoyed he can't even pronounce it right - referring to it only as Out-With. Then the Fury comes for dinner with his wife and he doesn't much like him either.
The main plot really takes off when Bruno is naughty and goes outside after being told not to. He has seen young people in the distance from his new bedroom window and is determined to find someone his own age to play with. So off he goes to the big fence a short walk away down the back garden and encounters Shmuel, a young boy in striped pyjamas who looks to be about his age and in need of somebody to play with too! What luck! Bruno returns most days at the same time to chat with his new friend about everything from football to birthdays (they have the same birthday) and even starts to bring him food as his new friend appears to be quite skinny.
Largely, the book lacks action and drama but it still works. The drama is happening around the two boys and that is what makes it so fascinating. Their lack of understanding makes their relationship much more simplistic and honest. After all, Bruno and Shmuel are the same boy - just born into different circumstances. One has been born into wealth and respect and the other into persecution and imprisonment. But at the tender age of 8, neither have had the chance to fully grasp the enormity of what is happening around them and their way of seeing the world is what drives this phenomenal book forward, culminating into one of the most mind-blowing endings ever written.
The film, by comparison, is a bit more dramatic. Other characters get more of a role than they do in the book as there is no limit to perspectives. Watching the mother, played by Vera Farmiga, go slowly crazy is horrific and compelling all at once and more horrifying still is the gradual progression of Bruno's elder sister from sweet young teenager into Nazi activist. She relishes their lessons which explore how much money the Jews are costing Germany and how much easier life would be if they were just disposed of, she reads Mein Kampf and puts posters of support up in her room. Bruno is often scolded as he prefers adventure books and doesn't take to the new lesson plan as well as his sister.
The dad himself, played by Harry Potter's own Remus Lupin - David Thewlis, has depth... which is hard to convey when playing a Nazi. He is played out to be the strict family man doing his duty. The arguments between him and his wife are actually very moving given that he wants to set a good example to his soldiers but she is finally starting to realise that living by a concentration camp may not be the best place to raise two young impressionable children. That the two of them can make such a bizarre argument moving and relatable is a true testament to their acting skills.
Overall, the film sticks to the book surprisingly well. The only real change is the dramatic ending which is much slower in the book but as the end result is the same I have no issue with the way it was put together.
Both film and book are brilliant but if you had to choose just one - it would be the book every time. The film sticks to the book very well but on its own it just isn't as compelling. By exploring the characters around him, it loses the innocence and naivety of Bruno's perspective and that perspective is what makes the book so unique.
5/5 FOBLES - book
3.5/5 FOBLES - film