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israeli literature & cinema Arrow vol 7 no 1 contents
About borderlands volume 7 number 1, 2008


Israeli Literature and Cinema in a Web of Intercultural Relations: The
Reconciliation of Conflicts on Screen

Rachel Weissbrod
Bar Ilan University

One way of establishing intercultural contacts is to produce a cinematic adaptation of a literary work originating in another country. The present article examines three adaptations in which Israeli culture is involved: Lost Lover, directed by Roberto Faenza (1999), which is based on Avraham B. Yehoshua’s The Lover (1977); The Island on Bird Street, directed by Søren Kragh-Jacobsen (1997), which is based on a novel by Uri Orlev (1981); and Saint Clara, directed by Ari Folman and Ori Sivan (1996), which is based on The Ideas of Saint Clara (1986 [1981]) by the Czechs Jelena Masínová and Pavel Kohout. Films usually re-shape their literary sources, seeking to adapt them to new circumstances and to a new audience. A significant modification of the source is likely to take place when the transfer from literature to cinema is also an intercultural one. In the era of trans-national media, account should also be taken of the possibility that the filmmakers might endeavor to make the film universally acceptable rather than adapting it to a specific target culture. Against this background, the article examines how the films under consideration depoliticize (in the terminology of Barthes) historical, ideological and political issues referred to in the novels, replacing controversial stands with widely accepted values such as peace and love, probably in order to increase their appeal to diverse audiences. This applies especially to the treatment of Zionist ideology and history which the films prefer to marginalize or evade rather than criticize or endorse.



1. One way of crossing national borders and establishing intercultural contacts is to produce a cinematic adaptation of a literary work originating in another country. Israeli culture has participated in such a web of international relations as both the ‘giving’ and ‘receiving’ end. This article examines two cases in which Hebrew literary works by Israeli authors were selected for adaptation by foreign filmmakers: Avraham B. Yehoshua’s novel The Lover (1977) and the ensuing film L’Amante perduto (Lost Lover) directed by Roberto Faenza (1999); and Uri Orlev’s novel for children, The Island on Bird Street (1981) which was transformed into a film with the same title by the director Søren Kragh-Jacobsen (1997). In addition, the article examines the transformation of a Czech novel – Jelena Masínová and Pavel Kohout’s Nápady svaté Kláry (The Ideas of Saint Clara, 1981; Hebrew version 1986) – into an Israeli film: Saint Clara, directed by Ari Folman and Ori Sivan (1996).

2. There are numerous reasons for turning novels into films, which explain why filmmakers willingly subject themselves to legal constraints and take the risk of encountering hostile criticism: economic lures, personal and political motives, and the wish to borrow cultural capital from a more prestigious text or genre (Hutcheon, 2006). At least some of these explanations apply to the novels under consideration. All of them were successful beyond their country of origin. Yehoshua is one of Israel’s most acclaimed authors. His novels, including The Lover, have been translated into many languages and have won important literary prizes in Israel and abroad. Orlev, a leading figure in the realm of Hebrew children’s literature, was awarded international prizes for his The Island on Bird Street, including the prestigious Andersen Prize for Children’s Literature (in 1996). Kohout is an internationally renowned poet, novelist and playwright. His work has been translated into German, English and other languages, including Hebrew. In addition, the novels under discussion deal with topics which can interest audiences worldwide (such as the Middle East conflict in Yehoshua’s work). In the case of Orlev’s novel, which presents the Holocaust to children, pedagogical impulses might also be involved.

3. Whatever the motives for the adaptation, films – even artistic, low-budget ones like the three discussed in this article - usually re-shape their literary sources to make them fit a new cultural-historical context and attract new audiences: ‘Evidently, adaptation is primarily a phenomenon of recontextualization of the text, or, even better, of reformulation of its communicative situation’ (Casetti, 2004: 83, italics in the original). If the inter-semiotic transfer (from literature to the cinema) is also an intercultural one, a significant modification of the source can be expected. In the present era of trans-national media (Appadurai, 1996), when the very idea of national cinema is challenged by globalization (Vitali & Willemen, 2006), one should also take into consideration the possibility that rather than adapting the film to a specific target culture, the filmmakers will endeavor to make it universally acceptable.

4. Against this background, the present article sets to analyze the changes that the novels have undergone in the process of re-contextualizing and globalizing them, focusing on the treatment of historical, ideological and political issues. While research of cinematic adaptation in general is abundant (see for example McFarlane, 1996; Lothe, 2000; Naremore, 2000; Stam & Raengo, 2004 and 2005; Hutcheon, 2006), and the relations between Israeli literature and cinema, too, have been the object of research (Gertz, 1993; Loshitzky, 1993; Munk, 1997; Weissbrod, 2000; Hakak, 2001 and more), cinematic adaptations which entail intercultural relations between Israel and other countries have remained unnoticed. Dealing with this issue may shed light not only on the relations established between Israeli culture and other cultures through cinematic adaptations, but also on the mechanism of cinematic adaptation in general and under globalization in particular.

5. To achieve its aims, the article is organized as follows: each section deals with one pair (novel and film), focusing on structural, thematic and linguistic traits which best reveal their underlying view of history, ideological and political stands. The conclusion presents the shared mechanism of transfer which can possibly be traced in other trans-national cinematic adaptations.

Lost Lover

6. Yehoshua’s novel, an innovative work in Hebrew literature at the time of its creation, is built as a series of monologues. The speakers are a married couple, Adam and Asia, their daughter Dafi, her Arab friend Na’im who works in Adam’s garage, the wife’s lover and his grandmother. The events take place against the backdrop of the 1973 war, referred to in Hebrew as the Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) War.

7. Though highly enigmatic, and told from differing and often contradictory points of view, the story seems to cohere (it is a modern rather than a post-modern work). Moreover, it lends itself to an allegoric reading. Such a reading is triggered primarily by the symbolic names. Adam and Asia’s son, who was killed in a car accident, is called Yig’al (the one who will bring salvation). The child’s death indicates the loss of hope for salvation not only in the personal sphere (the family) but also in the national one and, perhaps, in the universal one (as hinted by the name ‘Adam’ which means ‘a human being’ in Hebrew). The dates mentioned in the novel are also very suggestive. For instance, the lover’s grandmother awakening from a comma was born in 1881 (Yehoshua, 1977: 175). In Zionist history, the pogroms of 1881-1882 in Russia led to the establishment of the ‘Bilu’ movement whose members were the first to immigrate to the Land of Israel. Zionism is also evoked by the identification of the lover’s car as a 1947 model (ibid, 115); in that year the United Nations voted for the partition of the country and the establishment of a Jewish state. It is interesting to note that Yehoshua has chosen to mention 1881 rather than 1882 (the year of the ‘Bilu’ immigration) and 1947 rather than 1948 (the establishment of the State of Israel). It seems that he is interested in that moment in time when history could (still) take another direction. Some of his more recent novels such as Mr. Mani (1990), in which he meditates on potential histories which have never been realized, give validity to this assumption. In addition, the behavior of some characters is perplexing and does not make sense unless read allegorically. A husband – Adam – finding a lover for his wife is one example.

8. An allegoric reading concentrating on the national aspects of the novel has been offered by Barzel (1977) and is further supported by Gertz’s interpretation (1979). The reading they offer makes it possible to classify Yehoshua’s novel as a ‘national allegory’, the kind of allegory which engages in critical reflection on the nation as a social and political framework and brings to light the controversies and contradictions that tear it apart:

Allegories … often emerge from controversies, conflicts of interpretation, confrontations related to struggles for hegemony … So allegory is bound to reemerge today as an ingredient of the ‘spirit of the time,’ a privileged signifying practice that brings to light all the ambiguities related to national identity and interests … (Xavier, 1999: 360).

Using allegory is a convenient means of expressing controversial stands under the cover of a fictional narrative. According to Barzel, Adam is not just a simulation of a middle-aged Israeli but a representative of Israeli society in decline. The decline, symbolized by the breaking down of the 1947 car (whose blue color brings to mind the Israeli flag) may be attributed to Israel’s own failures, such as materialism and thriving on Arab labor. Adam tries in vain to fight his deterioration and one of the steps he takes is opening his home to the lover, a newcomer who eventually prefers Orthodox Judaism to Zionism and fittingly paints the car black - the dress color of Orthodox Jews (Yehoshua, 1977: 383). Yig’al’s untimely death seems to shatter all hopes for the future. However, some signs of revival in the novel, such as the awakening of the grandmother who is as old as Zionism, allow for a more optimistic reading.

9. In adapting the novel to cinema, Faenza and his team had to make some major decisions. The organization of the novel as a series of monologues was probably conceived as a unique literary device and Faenza does not try to reconstruct it. He compensates for it, however, by using voice over - that is, he lets viewers access the mind of some characters, especially Dafi, by making them utter their inner thoughts. Another decision concerns the language used. The originally Hebrew novel was translated into an English-speaking film. This is in accord with Jäckel’s observation (2001: 73-74), that ‘shooting in English is regarded by European film producers as a way of breaking into the English-language market, the largest in the world in terms of purchasing power’. Beyond the commercial consideration, the use of a global language indicates the film’s intention to transcend the national identities of both the author (Israeli) and the director (Italian). Such an intention is also manifested in a shift of emphasis from the national to the personal sphere which accompanies the transformation of the novel into a film.

10. The original plot has been updated so that it takes place in the 1990s. This is made clear by a sticker on Adam’s car saying, in Hebrew: ‘Ha-zman over ve-ata khaser, khaver’ (meaning ‘Time goes by and you are being missed, friend’). This is an Israeli variation on President Bill Clinton’s words ‘Goodbye, friend’ which ended his speech of farewell to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Locating the plot in Israel of the 1990s could have triggered an updated view of the Israeli situation after Rabin’s assassination and the collapse of the Oslo Accords. However, the filmmakers preferred to marginalize the historical specificity (see Deer, 2005 for a similar manipulation in a more famous transnational collaboration, The English Patient) and gave priority to the psychological drama. The film thus focuses on the need of the protagonists to cope with the painful loss of their child and the following collapse of their marriage.

11. The change of emphasis is obvious from the start. Yehoshua’s novel begins with a monologue referring to the search for missing soldiers after the Yom Kippur War, an opening which immediately places the plot in the national Israeli context. The film starts with the car accident, using slow motion to increase the emotional impact. In the novel, the accident is introduced only later (Yehoshua, 1977: 80) and integrated into the allegoric dimension. Yehoshua leads the readers to deduce that the child’s death is a result of the father’s irresponsibility (ibid.: 77-80). By putting the blame on the father, he hints that the loss of youth and hope faced by Zionism is due to its own mistakes. The reaction of the family to Yig’al’s death has been changed as well. In the novel, Dafi knows from the start about the brother she has never met. In the film she finds her late brother’s possessions and reacts hysterically, extracting a very strong emotional response from her mother. The focus thus shifts to the tensions and pain experienced by a family coping with its private grief.

12. In keeping with this shift in focus, Asia’s love affair with a young man is presented in the film as resulting from her need to find a substitute for her dead child. The psychological motivation for her behavior is made clear in a dream she has in which she confuses her child with her lover, unknowingly echoing the Freudian idea of the son turning into lover and taking his father’s place. Moreover, before she sends the lover away, she visits her son’s grave. This implies that when the process of mourning has been completed, the lover is no longer needed. Conversely, in the novel it is Adam who needs a lover to replace him, because he is no longer able to function as a husband. In fact, he is not able to function at all; other people have to work for him as well as to love for him (Gertz, 1979). This may be interpreted as a sign of deterioration in the national sphere, especially since the people who replace him at work are Arabs, manifesting that the ideal of Jewish work is no longer valid.

13. Both the novel and the film refer to the Jewish-Arab conflict. However, while the novel treats it as (still) unsolved, the cinematic plot leads to reconciliation. At the end of the novel, Adam expels the Arab youth, Na’im, from his home after discovering that he has slept with his daughter. Surprisingly, Na’im is not in despair. He is full of hope which the Jewish side does not share (Yehoshua, 1977: 435). Adam himself is in trouble: the lover’s old car, which he has been driving, has broken down again, and he waits for his Arab worker, Hamid, to come and rescue him (ibid.: 434). The message implied is that the Jew cannot save himself unless he cooperates with the Arab. In the film, Na’im returns to help Adam push the car while in the background one can listen to the words of Bob Marley’s song: ‘One love, one heart, let’s get together and feel all right’. This is a sign of peace and harmony in the national sphere, which accompanies the reconciliation between Adam and Asia in the private sphere. Yehoshua’s concern about the future of Zionism has been dismissed in favor of a more universal theme with a wider appeal: goodwill can help to solve both personal and national conflicts.

14. Marginalizing the original theme in favor of this new one seems to fit Barthes’ idea of myth as a mechanism of depoliticizing historical reality and making it appear innocent. According to Barthes, myth ‘does not deny things … simply, it purifies them, it makes them innocent’ (1972: 143). Myth makers state facts rather than indulge in historical analysis. That’s why they are fond of tautologies (in this case, the reconciliation between the Jew and the Arab does not need explanation, it happens because … it happens) and slogans (‘one love, one heart’). ‘Purging’ historical reality from political interests and power struggles makes it possible to present it as if it were dominated by universal values (in this case, peace and love; a fitting example from Barthes’ Mythologies is the article ‘The Great Family of Man’, in which he criticizes the myth of humanity as a family whose members share the same basic living conditions and there are no oppressors and oppressed). In the realm of myth, one does not need to take responsibility and no political commitment is required, because the situation takes care of itself.

15. It is interesting to compare Faenza’s film with the Israeli film based on Yehoshua’s novel (directed by Michal Bat-Adam, 1985). The Israeli film preserves the original historical background: the plot plays out during and after the Yom Kippur War. However, it deviates from the novel in giving only Adam’s point of view and presenting him in a more favorable light. Michal Bat-Adam’s protagonist has a heroic past: he participated in the War of Independence in 1948 (unlike the lover, who is afraid to enlist and eventually deserts the battle field in both novel and film). Moreover, he shows more strength of character than Yehoshua’s protagonist. In the novel Adam seduces a young girl, a friend of his daughter (Yehoshua, 1977: 321-326). In an allegoric reading, this is one of his attempts (as a representative of Israeli society) to stop his ageing and deterioration. In Michal Bat-Adam’s film it is the girl who seduces Adam, making him appear guiltless in the eyes of viewers (Faenza has omitted the entire issue). In accordance with the literary source, the cinematic Adam is infuriated when he discovers that Na’im has slept with his daughter. He throws him out of his home and sends him back to his village. However, only in the film does Adam show generosity by offering Na’im money and cries after sending him away.

16. If we interpret Adam of the Israeli film as a representative of Israeli society (a role he assumes more obviously in the novel though the actor who plays his part – the popular singer Yehoram Ga’on – is the emblem of ‘Israeliness’), he is less an object of criticism than the literary Adam. In this respect, the Israeli film stands midway between Yehoshua’s novel and Faenza’s film. Addressed to Israelis primarily, it preserves the national aspect of the novel more clearly, but is not as daring in its criticism of Israeli society. In this it resembles other Israeli films made in those years: Gertz (1993) observes that until the 1980s, Israeli films were less ‘daring’ than their literary sources both artistically (manifesting what Stam, 2005: 43 calls ‘aesthetic mainstreaming’) and politically. She explains this finding by their (then) marginal position in Israeli culture and strong dependence on the audience and the political establishment for their funding. From Barthes’ point of view, the Israeli film is politically committed (to Zionism) only in an international context; in the Israeli context it repeats mainstream ideas that the public can easily agree with.

The Island on Bird Street

17. Orlev’s novel differs from Yehoshua’s in almost every respect: its historical background, main themes and intended audience. The novel tells the story of a Jewish boy named Alex waiting for his father in a ruined ghetto at the time of the Holocaust. The story is narrated by a child – Alex - and is intended for children. Stories about the Holocaust are not an unusual reading material for children in Israel. The subject is introduced to them at a very young age due to its major role in the collective memory of the Jewish people and in establishing Israeli identity. However, modern literature for children is supposed to protect them from horror and violence. Orlev maneuvers between these two conflicting interests in sophisticated ways (Shichmanter, 2004). Though the story is about deportation and killings, he uses various strategies to make it appear less unbearable. The main ones are making Alex hear rather than see what is taking place beyond the walls and out in the street, and letting him see only the results of what has happened (such as an evacuated bunker left in a hurry) (Orlev, 1981: 83-84). In addition, like many stories for children this one, too, has a happy ending: Alex is reunited with his father. By comparison, Orlev’s autobiographical novel for adults, The Lead Soldiers (1956), ends on a bitter note: the father who has survived the war does not follow his children to Palestine; he remains in Poland with his new family and breaks off his ties with them.

18. Kragh-Jacobsen’s film approximates the literary source in both shooting from the point of view of Alex and preserving the delicate equilibrium sought by Orlev. Here, too, the cruelest details are implied rather than shown. The atmosphere is gloomy due to the bluish, partly darkened pictures and the melancholy music, and the shooting from an oblique angle gives the impression of instability and distress (this effect of oblique angles led the architect Daniel Libeskind to use them in planning the Jewish Museum of Berlin). Despite this, the film is as optimistic as the novel, ending with the father and son leaving the ghetto together.

19. Viewing the film from the perspective of Holocaust cinema, it is noteworthy that the filmmakers were faithful to the minimalism and slow rhythm of the original plot. They avoided the dramatic effects and sensationalism which often characterize films dealing with this issue (see for example the criticism of Spielberg’s Schindler’s List by Bartov, 1997). However, as in the case of Lost Lover, they manipulated the source so as to ‘depoliticize’ it and increase its appeal to a diversified audience. The film is an international production with a Danish director and an American producer and the language spoken is English. Only the German soldiers shout in German, a fact which separates them from the rest of humanity. The change of language is accompanied by changes in the narrative and in the ideology underlying it.

20. Orlev’s main concern is with the struggle for survival under the Nazis. The story, which is rooted in Jewish history, is also in praise of the human spirit in general. Its universality is implied by the analogy between Alex and another famous survivor, Robinson Crusoe, which is hinted by the title of the novel and is made clear by Alex himself (Orlev, 1981: 104). But while the analogy only hovers in the background of the novel, Kragh-Jacobsen refers to it repeatedly and elaborates on it. Since it is mentioned both at the beginning and at the end, it becomes a frame for the whole film and highlights its universal dimension.

21. In the novel, belief in the human spirit mingles with a more specific ideological stand – Zionism – which is introduced in more than one way. Two of the more likeable figures in the story are Zionists: the boy’s mother, who has been taken by the Nazis, but is present in her son’s memories, and Henrik, a member of the underground movement. Henrik stays in Alex’ shelter after he is shot in an encounter with the Nazis. Both are portrayed as trustworthy people, a characterization which adds validity to their Zionist beliefs. Moreover, the present situation – in Alex’ view – proves how right his mother had been in insisting that the Jews must have a homeland of their own outside Europe (Orlev, 1981: 19-20). In accepting this argument, he connects himself with Zionist thinking (as manifested, for example, in the Proclamation of Independence of The State of Israel of 1948) which regards the Holocaust as the ultimate justification of Zionism (Shapira, 1992: 321-322).

22. The attitude of Zionism to the Holocaust and its victims has two sides, and both can be observed in the novel. At least until the 1960s, Israeli Zionist society, cultivating the ideals of masculinity and heroism, criticized what it interpreted as weakness on the part of the victims of the Holocaust. Its respect and sympathy were given to those who joined the non-Jewish partisans or participated in the Warsaw and other ghetto uprisings (ibid.: 335-337). In the novel this kind of bravery is manifested in Alex’s shooting a German soldier, hiding a member of the underground movement and saving a Jewish girl from a robber. In later years, especially since the trial of Adolf Eichmann which took place in Jerusalem in 1961-1962 and led many Israelis to listen for the first time to survivors’ stories, a new awareness emerged; Israeli society became more conscious of other kinds of bravery, such as the everyday struggle for survival and the retention of one’s humanity under the worst conditions (Yablonka, 2003). The Island on Bird Street, written by a Holocaust survivor and reflecting the time of its publication, gives priority to that kind of bravery. Alex’ attempt to go on with his life is the main issue in the novel; Orlev describes in detail how he conceals his hiding place, finds food and water and so on. But Alex’ life does not revolve around survival only; he also takes care of his pet, a white mouse named ‘snow’, makes new friends, falls in love, plays with toys, reads books and even preserves his sense of humor.

23. The film follows the novel in showing the two sides of bravery, but in doing so it eliminates all mention of Zionism. First of all, it refrains from mentioning Alex’s mother. A possible explanation is the filmmakers’ unwillingness to add sorrow to an already sad story for children by mentioning a missing mother. Regardless of the reason, the mother’s Zionism is dismissed along with her character. As for Henrik, he does not discuss Zionism with Alex in the film. In addition, unlike the novel (Orlev, 1981: 39), the film does not mention the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which Zionist thinking regards as the most important symbol of Jewish heroism during the Holocaust.

24. The film replaces Zionism by the globally less controversial Jewish tradition. Alex’ uncle, Baruch, gives him a mezuzah: a small parchment scroll inscribed with a Biblical text which is placed in a small case and traditionally fixed to the doorpost of Jewish homes. Baruch hopes it will protect Alex against evil. Soon after that he is killed by the Nazis. The mezuzah is thus understood as an inheritance passed down from one generation of Jews to another. The fact that Baruch is presented as Alex’s uncle (in the novel he is a friend of the family) serves the idea of continuity of the family.

25. The Zionist belief that the Jews need a homeland of their own outside Europe is obliterated in the film and replaced by pictures of Jewish-Christian solidarity. In the novel, the Pole who helps Jews cross over to the Christian side of the city is a gatekeeper – a person in control of passes. In the film he has become a priest - a symbol of Christianity - and Alex visits him in the church and learns to recite a Christian prayer. In this way Jewish-Christian solidarity is established behind the back of the Nazis. Similarly, in the novel Alex falls in love with a Polish girl who turns out to be Jewish. They manifest their mutual trust by risking their life and revealing to each other their most hidden secret – that they are Jews hiding from the Nazis (Orlev, 1981: 132-133). In the film, the girl is not identified as Jewish. By implication, love crosses religious and national borders. As in the case of Lost Lover, the appeasing message replaces the original one. Orlev’s commitment to Zionism, which could have decreased the appeal of the film, gives way to more widely accepted values which none but the Nazis violate. Orlev’s work is thus re-located in the realm of Barthesian myth, where political awareness is undesirable.

Saint Clara

26. The Lover and The Island on Bird Street were published, and well received, in their culture of origin. Jelena Masínová and Pavel Kohout’s work differs from these two novels in its exceptional history, which deserves mention. In 1969 Masínová, a student at the Czech film school at that time, wrote a screenplay about a girl who could foresee the future. The script attracted the attention of her teachers, who were all employees of the state film studio, and they began plans to film it. But then Masínová, who had no political history herself, married the author Pavel Kohout, whose novels and plays were totally banned after the abortive Prague Spring in 1968. Following her marriage she became politically unacceptable, and the film studio officials canceled production plans. Only in 1980, when the Kohouts were already in exile, was the script finally made into a German television film. In the meantime it was transformed by Kohout into a novel whose title (in English) is The Ideas of Saint Clara. Unlike the original screenplay, which did not deal with Czech history or politics, Kohout’s novel is a satire on Communist Czechoslovakia. Its mockery of the Communist regime and protest against the Soviet invasion of 1968 explain why the author could not publish it in his homeland (Stone, 1996).

27. The novel tells of supernatural phenomena, first and foremost the capacity of a young girl named Clara to foresee the future. The occurrence of such phenomena agitates Clara’s world, especially the representatives of the Communist establishment such as the local school’s headmaster, because it undermines the Marxist idea that human life is controlled by social forces (Masínová and Kohout, 1986: 84-85). Kohout’s satire, however, is directed not just at Marxism as an abstract idea but also at its realization in Communist Czechoslovakia. His criticism concerns the forced relations of his country with ‘Mother Russia’ and its seclusion from the Western world, the corruption in local politics which is so mixed up with decadence in the personal sphere that it is impossible to tell one from the other, and the mutually exploitative relations between the secular establishment and the church. All these are depicted with sharp irony by a third-person narrator who ridicules everybody but seems to look with favor on Clara and her family. They are the only people who are not dazzled by material benefits and political careers.

28. The family in general and Clara with her extraordinary gifts in particular seem to evoke an authentic, pre-Communist Czechoslovakia for which the author yearns. However, as Clara’s grandmother explains, her unique powers can only last until she is kissed by a boy (Masínová and Kohout, 1986: 136). The lucky one is her schoolmate, Tikel. Following the event, Clara transforms into an ordinary girl. Eventually she gets married - not to Tikel whose family has emigrated, but to a Soviet soldier who has participated in the 1968 invasion of her country. Marriage is usually understood as a happy ending to a novel, but in this case the happy end seems to be ironic, signifying the decline of Czechoslovakia under Russian rule.

29. Kohout’s novel was translated into various languages, including Hebrew. The translation served as a basis for the film created by Ori Sivan and Ari Folman (who confirmed that the text they had read was the translation). Unlike Lost Lover and The Island on Bird Street, this film is in Hebrew, signifying an attempt to appeal first of all to a local audience. Some scenes, however, are in Russian, reflecting the situation in Israel after the mass immigration from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s.

30. The change of language is accompanied by re-locating the plot into contemporary Israel and changing it to fit the new context – a process of indigenization in the terminology of Hutcheon (2006), which commonly takes place in transplanting a literary work into another culture and often makes possible its very perpetuation and ‘after life’ (see also Zhen, 2004). Clara, a schoolgirl, is an immigrant from Russia who possesses extraordinary powers. Her powers seem to reflect the fear felt by Israelis confronting the new immigrants. (A picture showing her mother with a baby in her arms, surrounded with light like a Madonna, echoes the often-heard complaint that many immigrants are not really Jews.) However, she loses them when she falls in love with an Israeli boy (Tikel), an event which can be interpreted as symbolizing her integration into Israeli society.

31. The tense encounter between Israelis and the immigrants from Russia is interwoven with other themes. One such theme is the growing rupture between the younger generation and the Israeli Zionist establishment. The local high school, depicted as a tyrannical institution, is named after Golda Meir (Israeli Prime Minister in the years 1969-1974) whose pictures are hanging everywhere and are even stamped on the school children’s uniform. The children rebel against the tyranny and their revolt culminates in their burning of Golda Meir’s statue. This theme is part of a more universal one regarding the generation gap. The adults in the film are guilty of greed (Tikel’s father tries to use Clara’s powers to become rich) and sexual harassment (both Tikel’s father and the school headmaster, Tissona, are seen touching or almost touching young girls’ breasts). The youngsters’ revolt can thus be understood against this background as well.

32. Another universal theme concerns the end of the world which is coming fast due to pollution and radiation. The story takes place in 1999, just before the end of the millennium. Hints of doomsday are everywhere. The children find relief from school in a dirty swamp, and Tikel explicitly refers to ‘contamination surveyors’ frequenting the place. Throughout the film, a television show anticipates terrible ecological disasters. A seismographic institute nearby is on the watch for earthquakes. At the end of the film, Clara and Tikel kiss in the midst of one, though it is hard to tell if it takes place in the outside world or reflects their feelings.

33. The film can be understood as a critical commentary on the Zionist establishment represented by the school and on the older generation in general, and as a warning against the ecological destruction of the world. Its rebellious nature is reflected in its post-modern cinematic style. The film is a demonstration of disrespect for conventions habitually used to create the illusion of a real world. The story takes place in a small Israeli town located far from the center, and some details bring to mind small towns in the Negev desert (the wide open spaces, the cube-like buildings and especially the mysterious seismographic institute, which suggests the nuclear reactor near Dimonah). But neither the artificial colors of the picture (often red and orange) nor the bizarre clothes, hairstyles and behavior of the characters seem to reflect an authentic Israeli (or any) town.

34. Despite the revolutionary style of the film (at least in the context of Israeli cinema), its creators refrained from dealing directly with questions of politics and oppression evoked by both the literary source and by their own choice to draw attention to the figure of Golda Meir. In Israeli history, Golda Meir is remembered as one of the major figures of the generation which founded the state. However, her ideas and policies also represent Israel’s failures regarding both its social problems and relations with the Arab world and the Palestinians. As Prime Minister she has been blamed for the debacle of the Yom Kippur War. When she was in office Israel was keeping masses of people under occupation, but she denied the existence of a Palestinian problem or even the existence of a historical entity such as the Palestinians (Sachar, 1987: 14). Facing Israel’s social tensions, she complained that the Black Panthers – Israelis of Middle Eastern origin protesting against their discrimination – ‘are not nice’ (ibid.: 24). The film does not refer to any of the issues evoked by the very mention of her name. Though the school children talk about starting a revolution, the only step they actually take is burning her statue. Surprisingly, the headmaster himself dreams of a revolution. But the revolution he has in mind is the French one of the 18th century and it gets mixed with his fabricated glorious past in France (he pretends to have spent a night with Edith Piaf).

35. Moreover, unlike Kohout’s ironic ending, the film ends on a note of love and harmony – another means of evading ideological and political debates (for a different interpretation, according to which the resort to love is itself a revolutionary act, see Munk, 1997). Libby the ‘tomboy’ (one of the schoolchildren) eventually accepts her femininity, takes off her hat, lets down her hair and embraces Rosy, who has thus far been depicted as an angry and violent boy. Tikel’s alienated parents kiss each other as do Tikel and Clara (as mentioned above, this is a sign of Clara’s integration into Israeli society). The headmaster (a representative of the Israeli establishment) and Clara’s uncle (a new immigrant) walk their pets together. The pets, a dog and a goat, are a comic version of the Biblical couple symbolizing peace: a wolf and a lamb. The generation gap, too, is not so great, after all: Tikel and Clara suspect that the headmaster, Tissona, has left town in fear of the anticipated earthquake. But they are wrong: he has stayed. Come what may, he is here with them to face the danger. The removal of antagonism between different sections of Israeli society is an evasion of history and a turning away from the political as understood by Barthes: ‘One must naturally understand political in its deeper meaning, as describing the whole of human relations in their real, social structure’ (1972: 143). Re-inventing Israeli social reality as peaceful and harmonious makes this film, too, a fitting illustration of his idea of myth.


36. The films discussed in this article differ considerably from each other. Their plots are rooted in different times and places and the characters face problems unique to the historical circumstances. Their cinematic styles vary and range from the slow rhythm and melancholic mood of The Island on Bird Street to the post-modern extravagance of Saint Clara.

37. Each of them, in its way, succeeded in gaining international acclaim at important artistic events. Clara Bryant, the actress who played Dafi in Lost Lover, was nominated for the ‘Young Artist Award’ (a yearly event taking place in California). The Island on Bird Street won awards at various festivals including the prestigious Berlin International Film Festival. Saint Clara won awards of the Israeli Film Academy and was a success at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival and the Cinequest San Jose Film Festival.

38. As the filmmakers’ treatment of the literary sources implies, they made efforts to reach an international (though probably ‘artistic’) audience. This is manifest in their shared mechanism of transfer. Seeking to globalize an originally local ‘cultural product’, they have highlighted widely acknowledged values such as peace and love and given priority to conciliatory over controversial messages. In the terminology of Barthes, they have moved from the realm of history to the realm of myth where ideological and political disputes do not exist. The bridging between cultures, nations and individuals demonstrated by the very production of these films repeats itself in their themes: Jews and Christians (with Nazi soldiers obviously excluded), Israelis and Arabs, Israeli veterans and newcomers learn to live in peace and harmony. This idealized depiction replaces the originals’ critical analyses of the societies and histories portrayed. The claim applies especially to Zionist ideology and history which the films – even the Israeli one that has evoked Zionism though it is not present in its literary source – prefer to marginalize or evade rather than criticize or endorse. Even in Israel itself, Zionism is challenged by some prominent artists, authors, historians and sociologists. The disagreement regarding Zionism and the very strong reactions it evokes may explain why the producers of the films under discussion preferred not to deal with this issue.

39. A toning down of controversial stands is one of the features that Stam recognizes in Hollywood adaptations. In his introduction to Literature and Film (2005: 43) he writes:

Contemporary Hollywood films tend to be phobic toward any ideology regarded as ‘extreme,’ whether coming from left or right ... Hollywood adaptations often ‘correct’ their sources by purging the source of the ‘controversial’ … or the revolutionary … or the difficult … or the ‘uncinematic’.

This article suggests that the toning down of controversial stands is not necessarily unique to Hollywood adaptations; it might be a regular pattern in ‘independent’ (non-Hollywoodian) films as well, which are intended for smaller and more ‘artistic’ audiences but nevertheless strive to be globally acceptable. In the process of globalization (which might be termed ‘indigenization to the world’), the literary sources are de-historicized, depoliticized and made innocent the way myths are.


Rachel Weissbrod is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Translation and Interpreting Studies at Bar Ilan University, Israel. Her areas of research include theory of translation, literary translation into Hebrew, translation for the media and inter-semiotic translation (adaptation). She has published in Multilingua, Target, The Translator, Meta, Across Languages and Cultures, Jostrans and more. Her book Not by Word Alone, Fundamental Issues in Translation (in Hebrew) was published by The Open University of Israel in 2007.


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© borderlands ejournal 2008



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