A version of this story about “The Painted Bird” first appeared in the International Film issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine in November 2019.
Writer-director Václav Marhoul spent 11 years working on “The Painted Bird,” his nearly three-hour adaptation of Jerzy Kosiński’s harrowing novel about a young Jewish boy who is subjected to unimaginable horrors as he wanders through Eastern Europe during World War II.
He sat down with TheWrap to discuss his work on the film, which is the Czech Republic’s entry in the Oscars’ Best International Feature race. (IFC Films is releasing the film on VOD starting July 17.)
How difficult was it to adapt this novel?
The book adapted to the movie is a different language. We are not using the written word, we are using picture and sound. That is why I worked on the screenplay for years and wrote 17 versions until I felt it was OK. And it was quite difficult, of course, for any screenwriter to pick up from the book the most important scenes and the most emotional scenes.
Jean-Claude Carrière once said that if you would like to adapt a book to a movie, the best way is that you will read the book, and then open the window and throw the book to the street, and then write only what you remember. I think that he was right. But of course I didn’t do that.
Why spend so much time adapting this particular book?
This story is timeless. It’s universal. It’s not about the Second World War. Right now, as we are doing this interview, in this very second, somebody is going to be killed by Turkish soldiers in Syria. In this moment, children are going to die. We’re still doing it, and it’s painful.
In the story, the “painted bird” symbolizes that if you are different, you will get in trouble. And maybe this is the reason why so many people love the book, because they do understand. It’s about principles. It’s about mankind. I just wanted to make “The Painted Bird” in the same way Jerzy Kosiński wrote the book: many questions and no answers.
It’s a hard film to shake, but also a hard one to watch at times.
People are saying, “Your film is so violent and so brutal.” And I say, “Do you really think so?” Because I didn’t show you anything. It’s only in your mind, not on the screen. And so many movies are so much more violent and brutal, but the people watching them are drinking wine or beer and they are OK with it, because it’s not true. It’s a fiction, it’s a fairy tale. The problem with “The Painted Bird” is that it’s truthful, it’s too real. The real is true, and the truth is always painful.
I think I made this very decently. It’s a poetry, a true poetry. That’s my duty. Not just to amuse people. I don’t want to live in the world of the Avengers. I do this for the real world.
I say the movie is about hope, and good, and love. And people say, “Vaclav, you must be crazy.” I’m not crazy. But if we say that the good, the love and the hope is symbolized by light, that’s positive — but the light is visible only in the dark. That’s a fact. Never you can see light in light. When I was writing the screenplay, I was thinking of opposing things. What does it mean, light and dark, good and evil, peace and war, love and hate? These things are really so important in our lives. And when you are watching “The Painted Bird,” you are so missing these things and so hoping to get them.
And the last scene is bringing you to hope. Maybe.
Read more from the International Film issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.