Warning: There are spoilers in this article.
The screen adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the Light We Cannot See (2014) by American author Anthony Doerr, has finally reached Netflix.
It follows the parallel lives of the characters, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a blind French girl who makes illegal radio broadcasts to the Allies and directs them towards Nazi units; and Werner Pfennig, a German orphan with a talent for fixing radios who gets drafted into the Nazi Party. The two characters are connected by their love of listening to a professor on the radio, who talks about science and reminds his students, “The most important light is the light we cannot see.”
The series, which is broken into four episodes, looked promising upon its release. It is directed by Canadian Shawn Adam Levy, known for the The Night at the Museum film franchise. A through line between All the Light and Museum is that many scenes within All the Light were set at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle (The National Museum of Natural History). Unlike The Night at the Museum, the series takes place during World War II, amidst the destruction of war-torn Paris.
Both Aria Mia Loberti and Nell Sutton play Marie-Laure LeBlanc in different stages of her life. They are both blind like the character. Levy revealed in an interview that casting them was the “defining choice of the project.” The producers searched worldwide for blind actors to be cast as Marie-Laure. It is refreshing to see this type of representation in a Netflix series, and it did the novel justice.
Marie-Laure’s father, Daniel LeBlanc, oversees hiding certain artefacts and precious stones from the Nazi invasion in the first episode. One of which is ‘The Sea of Flames,’ a diamond that is said to allow its owner to live forever. But they pay a terrible price, it is believed that because Daniel handled the stone often, he was cursed with a daughter who is blind. In a symbolic sense, the constant references to “seeing light,” reinforce the experience of Marie-Laure being blind.
Daniel builds his daughter a wooden model of their home city, Saint-Malo, and later he builds another model of Paris for Marie-Laure so she can learn her way around the streets. The bombing raids from the Allies destroy many of the houses and Marie-Laure’s strong memory cannot help her anymore. Even Werner hears the words, “Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.” This is ironic with reference to Marie-Laure, since she cannot see in the first place.
As someone who enjoyed the novel, I appreciate that the series kept to the original storyline. This structural choice is debated heavily in the world of cinema, particularly as not all novels can be effortlessly transferred over to the screen. While I acknowledge that choosing a series adaptation may not have singlehandedly caused the later downfall of its reception, I still believe that producing a stand-alone film may have been a better option. All the Light We Cannot See (2023) had the opportunity to present its storyline in an even more truthful manner by incorporating German and French speaking actors to play the characters. It is unfortunate that an all-American cast were selected instead. For myself as an audience member, I felt this made the film less realistic and removed it completely from the World War II period it is supposedly set in.
Films such as, Land of Mine (2015) and All Quiet on the Western Front (2022) pull this off excellently; they showcase how war can have disastrous outcomes for all, despite which side of the conflict a person belongs to. The actor Louis Hofmann, who plays Werner Pfennig is cast as one of the German boys, Sebastian Schumann, in Land of Mine. It was interesting to watch him acting in another project; his acting in the latter was phenomenal and I think that All The Lightlost out on a similar or even better performance from Hofmann due to its overcomplicated screenplay writing.
I must admit that there is a tremendous responsibility when retelling Germany’s story however, All The Light was able to do that in a novel format, meaning that it was possible to also achieve it on the screen. This type of authenticity is crucial when producing films within the historical genre. When comparing All The Light (2023) to films like The Book Thief(2013), Where Hands Touch (2018), and Jojo Rabbit (2019), there were mixed audience reactions. In my opinion, Jojo Rabbit gets away with its depiction of Nazi Germany on account of director Taika Waititi’s dark comedic writing style, and his vision of creating a mockery out of the Nazis. In contrast, All The Light attempts to accurately depict the horror of the Nazi Party’s wrath over Europe with American actors and therefore, it fails to fully capture the occupation of France.
When reading the novel alongside the series, it became clear that it was a difficult task to switch between the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner. The novel alternates their stories with every chapter, so the reader is provided with small snapshots. It reminded me of a collection of letters, as if Marie-Laure and Werner were writing to one another, rather than listening to the same professor broadcast on the radio. In my opinion, this is the reason the novel did not translate well into a screen adaptation. The series wanted to cover the experiences of both characters in-depth, but they should have picked either Marie-Laure or Werner to be the focus, rather than battling over finding ways to equally share their screentime.
The series itself felt rushed and although it would initially be thought that packing an entire novel into four individual episodes would allow for more detail, Marie-Laure and Werner’s relationship progresses too fast. They meet in the final episode and almost instantly share a kiss. Marie-Laure is overly trustworthy of Werner and is certain that he is there to save her, even though she has never spoken to him in her life. While this may work in a novel format, watching the scenes unfold in the series was disorientating and I think this aspect should have been reassessed by the screenwriters before its release.
Many important details are skipped over, including Werner’s death. He disappears from the screen in the last episode, and it is assumed that he either went back to Germany or died after surrendering to the Americans at the end of the war.
In the concluding scene, Marie-Laure throws The Sea of Flames into the ocean and watches it sink to the bottom. This could be interpreted as her freeing herself, and France itself, from the curse, as The Sea of Flames is also known to curse those who start wars in search of power. Therefore, Marie-Laure getting rid of the diamond symbolises France regaining its freedom from the Nazis in 1945. Daniel LeBlanc’s death is told through the memories of the Nazi Sargent Major, Reinhold von Rumpel, who tortured Daniel for information on the whereabouts of The Sea of Flames. In the novel, Daniel LeBlanc is interrogated and then taken to a German prison camp, where he later dies. His death is more sudden in the novel, whereas in the series, Marie-Laure believes she is talking to her father over the radio, convinced that he is still alive.
I think that this was overdone, which is why Daniel’s death is more predictable and less emotional in the series. If the series had given Daniel an offscreen death to match the novel, the audience would have still been able to draw up their own conclusions to the fate he met. Werner is told early on, “Whoever wins, that’s who decides the history.” I think both versions of All the Light make this very clear, and this remains relevant to conflicts occurring in the current day, where history is recorded by the winner.
All The Light We Cannot See (2023) has a 28% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes. The audience score is 82% and IMDb ranks it at 7.6/10. It is currently available to be viewed on Netflix. If you have read the novel and are searching for a near-retelling, then this screen adaptation is for you. On the contrary, if accurate casting makes or breaks the screen experience for you, then it is probably best to give this series a miss.
Overall, I give it 2/5 pelicans.