As a boy in Poland, Jakob watched his parents killed and his sister
abducted by Nazis. He hid behind some wallpaper, then later fled into the
forest and buried himself, where he had the good fortune to be found by a
kindly Greek archeologist, who snuck him back to Greece at great risk to
"If not for you, he would be dead," the professor is told back in
"If not for him, I would be dead," he responds. As it turns out, if the
professor had not taken time away from his expedition to save the boy, he
would have been murdered or sent to a concentration camp, as his
colleagues soon were. "We saved each other."
Thus begins the story of Jakob, who lived to adulthood in Canada but
could never seem to overcome his childhood trauma. The very presence of
his lively first wife torments him, not by malice, for she is a good
woman, but simply by being filled with the joy and vitality Jakob can
never experience. She, on the other hand, gradually becomes more and more
irritated by his obsession with the Holocaust, and eventually abandons him
to the solitude he requires to commune with his ghosts.
At this point the book and the film run in perfect synch. Make a note
of that. I'll return to that point in a while. The book and the film are
about to diverge, and that separation creates an important point. As the
book tells it, Jakob finds a second wife, moves back to Greece, starts to
overcome his emotional repression, and approaches a happiness which is cut
short ironically. The story is then taken up elsewhere, following a new
protagonist, Ben, a child of Holocaust survivors and Jakob's protege in
Canada, now a professor who is obsessed with his former mentor. At the
end of the novel, Ben travels to Greece to retrieve Jacob's diaries, and
there becomes deeply immersed in his mentor's history.
You can well imagine that this would be difficult to capture on film.
The disappearance of the protagonist halfway into the film would be
problematic enough, but the adaptation problems are more complicated than
that, divided into two categories:
First, there are ongoing themes and metaphors which are difficult to
convey in pictures. Jakob is obsessed with his own past. Ben is obsessed
with Jakob's past. The kindly archeologist, given his profession, is
obsessed with the past in general, and his work is used to explore the
intrinsic nature of the changes produced by time, which is in turn used to
echo and to give greater depth and universality to the book's personal
Second, the source of this film is the first novel written by a poet.
It relies heavily on the power of language to deliver its message. It is
the kind of prose-poetry which is meant to be read aloud by actors like
Richard Harris, who can milk every drop of emotional resonance from it.
It was nearly impossible to leap over all of those hurdles to produce a
fluid film. The screenplay did succeed to some extent. While the
metaphorical layers of of the story had to be abandoned in the interest of
pacing, the film does incorporate some of that heartbreakingly beautiful
prose into narrative. But a film cannot be a 90-minute oral recitation. It
must tell some kind of story. Up to the point I bookmarked above, the film
followed the book's plot perfectly and completely, and to the extent that
it covers that portion of the story, Fugitive Pieces is a profoundly
moving film backed by a score of unearthly melancholy.
Perhaps it should have stopped right there. I found the film's
conclusion to be adrift somewhere, requiring an anchor, just stopping at a
point which seems completely arbitrary, leaving the fates of all the
characters hanging, and dripping with pretentiousness. Maybe the book was
just an impossible one to adapt, but this film came very close to pulling
it off, then didn't quite know how to close the sale.