Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anthony Doerr speaks with director Shawn Levy and screenwriter Steven Knight about the big tweaks to the story's ending in the miniseries.
Warning: This article contains spoilers from the 2014 novel All the Light We Cannot See and the Netflix limited series adaptation.
Since the publication of All the Light We Cannot See nearly a decade ago, author Anthony Doerr has fielded responses from fans of his World War II novel, particularly about that ending. "Lots of readers come to me and say, 'I had an expectation. I was disappointed at how brief their time was,'" he tells EW.
To explain, Doerr's Pulitzer Prize-winning story placed two characters on a collision course for each other: the French blind woman Marie-Laure LeBlanc (who sends coded resistance transmissions over the radio from the seaside city of Saint-Malo), and the German orphan Werner Pfennig (a gentle spirit who was forced into the Nazi regime to track down illegal transmissions). The ending chapters finally see these connected souls converge when a Nazi officer invades Marie's home on a mission to find a rare jewel in her father's possession, called the Sea of Flames. However, they only have mere moments together while sharing a can of peaches before the action around them (the arrival of Allied soldiers to free Saint-Malo) forces them apart again. An epilogue then shows the future for some of these characters.
"There's a pattern established through stories that we've incorporated since the moment we came out of the womb: If you have two characters that start at a distance and slowly inch their way towards each other, they might spend more than a few hours together in a room," Doerr says. "I found myself for years trying to justify that [ending] through historical accuracy, to say it wasn't very likely that Werner would have more than a few minutes. Usually, I would use verisimilitude as my defense for what happens in the book."
He now sees the new ending presented by All the Light We Cannot See, the four-part limited series adaptation streaming on Netflix, as offering those particular fans the conclusion they've been craving for years. "There's a feeling of resolution. What's wrong with that?" he remarks. "People want a feeling of resolution."
The trio of Doerr, series director Shawn Levy, and series writer Steven Knight sit down with EW from New York to unpack the big changes made to the story's ending with the adaptation. In addition to the can of peaches, Marie and Werner (played by Aria Mia Loberti and Louis Hofmann) dance together to the sounds of Claude Debussy's "Clair de lune," the classical piece of music that, along with the Professor's radio broadcasts, fostered their long-distance connection. As they get closer together, they even share a kiss. The American troops still arrive to free Saint-Malo from the Nazis, but Werner also promises before departing that he will find Marie again. He then sets off to reunite with his sister Jutta (Luna Wedler), who we see sobbing with joy upon hearing his voice over the radio.
"We imagined what might have happened and what certainly I, on some level, wanted to happen," Levy says. "It's an expression of that connection that feels like destiny come to fruition."
With Loberti, who is blind, unable to speak with press due to the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike, Levy shares his conversations with her about the finale. "She felt it was not just additive to have this moment of romance between Werner and Marie, but in fact essential," the Deadpool 3 and The Adam Project filmmaker recalls. "I once talked to her about whether I would keep it in or edit it out, and she's like, 'No! No! It has to stay in. Not only is it true to what I think the characters are and want, but we as blind people, and especially blind young women, are never the object of romance. There is a historic avoidance of those experiences in how the blind are represented.' It felt so important to Aria to paint with all the colors of life experience because she felt it would perpetuate these tropes of an infantilized person with a disability."
Knight says the slow dance and kiss between Marie and Werner were always in the script, even in early drafts. "It's like two planets are heading towards each other, they briefly orbit each other, and then they spin off back into the universe," he describes. "The music is so important all the way through the story. The music is the thing that unites them. When you hear music, what do you? You dance. And when you dance, what do you do? You come close. I just felt, in that moment of orbit, it was very important to signify the humanity of both [characters]. The beauty of the book that Anthony wrote is two people who were weathering the storm of war meet each other and peace breaks out immediately. That's the point of the book and the point that we want to tell."
The drama series does not include the epilogue portion of Doerr's book, which the author says was meant to remind the reader of, appropriately, how much light we still cannot see by jumping ahead to the present. He means it literally in some ways. "How much electromagnetic communication is swirling through us," he notes specifically. "There are text messages passing through our bodies right now." Similar to how the radio is used in All the Light We Cannot See as both a tool of oppression and a tool of inspiration, Doerr wanted the epilogue to remind the younger generations that "they have a device in their pockets that is capable of all these same things." More metaphorically speaking, he says the epilogue also conveys, "We have this incredible capacity to both remember and to heal."
Knight says he did once consider tackling the epilogue portions of the novel in the show. As he mentions, "It costs you nothing to go there and try it." However, "I tend to let the page decide," he adds. "You try it and you feel that it's not right. It wasn't really true to the moment." The moment he's referring to is the final shot before the credits roll: Marie stands at the shores of Saint-Malo and throws the Sea Flames into the waves. "In her reaction, we see that there is hope for the future," the writer says.
In his own way, Levy does give viewers a glimpse of the future. Accompanying the credits is black-and-white archival footage of the residents of Saint-Malo rebuilding the city after the war, ending on an in-color shot of the locale as it stands in the present day. "I wept to see that historical footage," Doerr admits of watching the credits roll. "It's this melding of imagination and research that somehow fuels my favorite pieces of art."
"There's the capacity to destroy and to rebuild," Levy adds, "and that's what I was attempting to remind people of with that credit sequence."
There will undoubtedly be viewers of the show who have their own contrary feelings to the ending. Levy just emphasizes that he's coming from a fan perspective. "It's not me trying to service some fan idea of this beloved novel. It's me as a fan trying to do right by this magnificent novel," he says.
Knight makes a comparison he's used multiple times already, but it bears repeating: "The novel is like a beautiful mountain. It's an object. It's going to be there long after we've gone. We were invited to make a painting of it. We're not saying this is the mountain. We're not saying this replaces the mountain. We're saying this is an interpretation of it in a different medium. I feel that the beauty of the book and the physical beauty of the piece that Shawn has directed is a justification of sitting down at the easel and doing that painting."
All the Light We Cannot See is streaming on Netflix.
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