Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Boy in Striped Pyjamas vs I am David

The Boy in Striped Pyjamas is a 2006 children’s novel by John Boyne that was made into a film two years later.

I imagine that anyone who wanted to read the book or see the film has done so by now, but I had better point out that what follows contains spoilers.

The book and film tell the story of nine-year-old Bruno, whose father is made commandant of Auschwitz. He befriends Shmuel, an inmate of his own age. The two boys concoct a plan to smuggle Bruno into the camp to help look for Shmuel’s father – Shmuel brings a set of prison clothes and Bruno leaves his own outside the fence.

While Bruno is in the camp, the two boys are rounded up and gassed.

I thought the film was good, but found the book (perhaps unexpectedly for a modern children’s novel) excessively wordy and did not persevere with it.

There was some criticism of the story’s morality. Wikipedia leads us to a review of the film by Rabbi Benjamin Blech which points out there were no nine-year-old boys in Auschwitz (anyone who could not work was murdered on arrival) and expresses the fear that viewers may conclude that the camps can’t have been as bad as all that if a German boy could form a friendship with a boy of the same age.

What struck me about The Boy in Striped Pyjamas is how it contrasts with a favourite book from my own childhood – Anne Holm’s I am David, published in 1963.

The young hero, with cooperation from the authorities, escapes from a labour camp behind the Iron Curtain (in Bulgaria, if I have got my geography right) and makes his way across Europe to find his mother in Denmark.

I suspect that, along with an early reading of Oliver Twist, this book helped form the paranoid libertarian strand of my politics. To the young David, anyone in uniform is one of Them and wants to kill him.

I am David was made into a film in 2003. Despite the presence of the wonderful Joan Plowright, it was deeply disappointing to those of us who had grown up on the book.

The contrast between the two stories seems to me to tell us something about the changes in our thinking over the four decades that separate them.

The Boy in Striped Pyjamas reflects the modern belief that moral education involves the young being taught about the Holocaust and being able to recite the correct lessons from it. It also reflects the high status we give to victimhood.

In short, there can be no more moral character than one who dies in a gas chamber.

I am David was written in a different era. It is not about death, but about escape, moral growth and the finding of happiness.

Schooled in a labour camp (and Holm is also in danger of making it seem not so bad), David is a strange, even scary, creature. He is morally innocent and lethal, along the lines of the hero in an Alexander Mackendrick film.

But you are on his side and want him to find happiness. Today those hopes seem harder for us to entertain.

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