Jonathan Safran Foer's debut novel, Everything Is Illuminated, tells the story of Jonathan, a young Jewish man who heads for Ukraine in search of the woman who he believes saved his grandfather from the Nazis.
He's joined on his quest by a pair of Ukranian tour guides, the US-obsessed, hip-hop loving Alex, whose knowledge of English is pigeon at best, and his grandfather, a curmudgeonly soul who claims to be blind and who relies on his 'seeing-eye dog', Sammy Davis Jr Jr, to help him behind the wheel of his clapped-out car. As the trio's unusual journey progresses, the book also details the history of Jonathan's family in the shtetls of Eastern Europe.
Now the book has been turned into a film, courtesy of actor-turned-director Liev Schreiber. In his adaptation, the historical storyline is nowhere to be seen; instead he chooses to focus on the present-day tale of Jonathan's quest to trace his family history. Here, Jonathan is played by Elijah Wood – almost unrecognisable underneath a dark suit and big glasses – joined by a cast of Eastern Europeans including newcomer Eugene Hutz as Alex.
The first half of the story is hilarious, with Wood playing the fish-out-of-water role to perfection – as the neurotic Jewish American, his fear of dogs and vegetarianism leave his tour guides baffled. But as their journey progresses, the trio form an unlikely bond and the story takes a serious turn, one which ultimately turns tragic.
Given the source material, this could have been a disaster in the wrong hands, but Schreiber does a good job with the source material (the script is actually based on A Very Rigid Search, the short story that inspired the book, rather than the book itself), delivering a witty script and great performances from all the leads (Hutz, in particular, is a delight).
The second half of the film is less effective than the first – the switch from comedy to drama is so abrupt that it ends up feeling uneasy – although the ending is as powerful and compelling as it is in Foer's book. That said, it's refreshing to see a film which takes a fresh approach to this subject matter – and even if ultimately it doesn't live up to the promise of the first hour it's still well worth the price of the cinema ticket.
Everything Is Illuminated is now on release in the UK.