Adaptation Comparison: Berlin Syndrome

In this post, I will review Berlin Syndrome (the novel) written by Melanie Joosten, and then review the film of the same name, partly in comparison with the novel. I will analyze what was changed in the adaptation, and what effects those changes had on the overall story! Enjoy! (but there are spoilers, so you have been warned!)

The Book

Berlin Syndrome is a 2011 novel written by first-time novelist Melanie Joosten and is basically about a young Australian photographer who is in Berlin when she meets a man named Andi. Clare and Andi develop a crush for each other, and they spend some time together getting to know one another until Clare realizes one day that she is unable to leave his apartment after sleeping over. We find out that this was no accident, and that Andi is now holding Clare hostage as his prisoner without wanting to let her go. The rest of the novel revolves around her captivity but through the perspective of both her and Andi; this leads to an interesting psychological character study of mainly Andi, who feels as though he is not doing anything wrong with holding Clare hostage.

The narration is consistently third-person limited but alternates every few pages between Clare and Andi, which allows the reader to get close inside the head of both characters. Oddly enough, they both seem as though they’re victims in a way even though Andi is the one holding Clare hostage. The film begins as sort of an erotic romance, which develops between the two for the first 80 pages or so, until Clare realizes that she’s trapped inside the apartment. The narration switching between the characters is uncomfortable at times since we’re put into the mind of this monster who kidnapped our protagonist, but when we follow him through the narration, he doesn’t seem like a bad guy at all. In fact, we sort of pity him as the novel goes on and see how he’s the product of childhood trauma. Throughout the novel, we get more and more hints that he might not be the monster we thought he was, but that he has captured Clare because he loves her more than anything. Of course, I am in no way excusing, rationalizing or pardoning this action, but learning that his mother left when he was young explains why he has trouble with the idea of letting Clare go.

All of his life, he has had the fear that if he turns his back on something, it will disappear, which explains why he doesn’t want anything to change about Clare and legitimately has the thought that she will not be at his apartment when she gets back, even though he has locked her there himself. Andi’s psyche is absolutely twisted and it’s sad to read about it because it’s not his fault that he was like this, but rather his mom’s fault for abandoning him when he was young. Because of this, this novel is a strange character study instead of the thriller that many authors would make out of a hostage situation; I must applaud the originality for that factor alone. However, it’s a very uncomfortable read at times because of how close we are in this psychopath’s thoughts. Joosten doesn’t give the reader many details about the physical traits of either person, but we are told that Andi has curly hair multiple times, and I wasn’t sure why until I thought about it. Like his brain, Andi’s hair is twisted and not straight, and since it’s one of the only traits we learn about him, it must be meaningful. I think this element of him externalizes some of his internal damage; that his psyche is messed up, and we gets hints at this because of just how his hair looks.

I didn’t love everything about the novel, though, as there were a couple of plot holes that came up such as why Clare couldn’t have just broken a window to yell out of or escape from; she sort of just accepts that she is stuck in the place and doesn’t do much about it except for trying to fight Andi. At the end of the novel, when Andi’s mother comes to visit, Andi is away and Clare goes to the door. Clare, however, can’t open the door to leave but she also doesn’t tell his mother that she is trapped, and just lets her leave. I suppose that this must be the “Berlin Syndrome” setting in, similar to Stockholm Syndrome; we get hints that she is starting to love Andi after he captures her, and that the little nice things he does even though she’s a prisoner start to mean more and more to her. It is mentioned that Clare has scars on her legs from cutting herself in the past but it is never mentioned why; it is mentioned, however, that her dad died when she was young. Perhaps, she was always depressed because of this, and Andi stepping in (and kidnapping her) but taking care of her by getting her things and feeding her might make her feel like he has the paternal characteristics that she has been without for her entire life, and that may be why she develops love for Andi even after the kidnapping.

In addition, I did not love the first 90 pages or so; I found them to be very boring and quite pretentious at times as well. I was not sure why Joosten kept playing around with words, saying things like: “The leaves leave in winter. The leaves are left. Left is not right. She is left here; it is not right.” “Why was it hands but not foots? Feet but not hend?” “…her coffee was uninviting and lukewarm. Why was this man, Luke Warm?” These lines bothered the hell out of me because they were absolutely useless and insulted the intelligence of the reader. I don’t want to waste my time reading crap like that and the fact that it was in there at all perplexes me like none other. These odd statements and rhetorical questions seem to stop after the first part in the novel, which was a great comfort, and I’m glad that they didn’t carry on. The ending was very anticlimactic for me, though, after building up the fact that Clare is trying to escape thoughout, and then all of a sudden at the end, the door that has held her inside for the entire novel is simply unlocked. Leaving the door unlocked is not like Andi at all, so I was totally confused as to why that happened, and then the novel just ends.

Other than those qualms, though, I thought there was a lot to be enjoyed and this was a very fascinating read by getting into the minds of the victim and the captor. I really wasn’t into the novel at all until the half-way mark, so I wouldn’t really recommend the novel to anybody who doesn’t have a decent amount of patience, and I’m sure that the movie will do a good job at making the story more exciting. I’m going to give the novel a 6/10 and a yellow recommendation! I definitely didn’t regret reading it, but there was a lot more I wanted to get out of the book by the end, and there were a lot of unanswered questions which resulted in plot holes rather than ambiguity. On to the movie….

The Movie

As mentioned previously, many storytellers would take the premise of a hostage situation and not really dive into the psyche of the captor, and just leave him as the monster that we would naturally assume him to be. That is exactly what the film did, stripped Andi of all sympathy and rational explanation and just allowed him to be a crazy man who is holding Clare hostage. This was effective in some areas, but took the best aspect of the novel out of the story in the film; we never got the 50/50 emphasis on each character. The story, without a doubt, held Clare as the protagonist and Andi as the antagonist, and only those with an analytical eye will see the sort of psychological character study of Andi since he feels as though he is not doing anything wrong. The movie has no narration, so we don’t get inside either character as deeply (or at all) as in the novel, but that doesn’t mean that the film was not successful. The film was infinitely more thrilling because it placed its emphasis on the hostage situation itself rather than the characters who are a part of it.

The effect that this aspect had on the story was that it turned Andi into a villain and Clare into a damsel in distress. Furthermore, Clare was locked inside after her first night with Andi instead of after hanging out for a few days as is the case in the novel. I mentioned in my review of the book that the two characters casually “dated” before Clare was taken hostage but she is captured immediately in the film, and actually doesn’t seem to have been the first. She was the first and only hostage of Andi’s in the novel but is at least the second in the film with reiterates his role as a monster instead of a twisted and damaged boy with mother problems. In addition, the role of the mother is completely missing from the movie; if she left when he was young, it was mentioned in passing and is not a memorable part of the story at all. He does still have a father that he doesn’t really get along with, but his father dies in the film which angers and depresses Andi and causes him to take care of the corpse by cutting the toenails and dressing him up nicely. All of that was completely absent from the book and further emphasizes Andi’s role as an absolutely insane person. In the novel, the first 80 pages were fairly erotic as their relationship (pre-capture) was explored. The film jumps straight into the hostage situation after a few minutes and doesn’t leave any room for them to like each other, which (again) emphasizes Andi as the villain. Even the sex scene towards the beginning was not sexy at all, it was very uncomfortable and stripped of all sensuality. The effect that all of this has it to show us how unfit for a relationship they are, but that it doesn’t really matter to Andi since he seems to make a habit out of kidnapping cute girls and holding them hostage.

Everything that I didn’t like about the book was left out of the movie, or changed entirely and replaced with something else. Actually, there was an unbelievable amount of things that were different than the book, all of which had great effects on the story of the film. For one, Clare tries to break out many times in many more ways, like trying to shatter the windows which we learn are reinforced and cannot crack. She also tries to wave to neighbors, which gets one man’s attention in the third act, but Andi kills that man when he tries to help Clare. Again, this shows how fierce Andi is instead of damaged. The way that Clare finally escapes is because of an entire plot thread that is absent from the novel. Andi’s students (which are never mentioned in the source material) have a huge role in the film. Andi and one of his students eyeball each other a lot, so that girl comes to his apartment to flirt and sees Clare trapped there. Clare takes a picture of herself as a hostage and sneaks it into Andi’s graded material, which allows Clare to pass the picture to that student of his, which alerts the girl of Clare’s hostage-status. This plot thread replaces the whole “mother aspect” and also adds to the thriller-tone that this version of the story adopted.

As a thriller, this film shines brightly, but when compared to the psychological traits of the novel, this film has none of it. For all intents and purposes, the two versions of this hostage story are different stories altogether. It’s almost as if Joosten told somebody a one-sentence premise of her story, and that sentence was turned into a film with the same title as the book. Andi is both more and less twisted than his literary counterpart; more twisted in that he’s a no-holds-barred kidnapping monster, less twisted in that there doesn’t seem to be any psychological reasoning to this mindset that he has.. he’s just a monster. Also, and I didn’t mention this in the novel review because it wasn’t important, but Clare does not get pregnant in this version, and she does not have the chip in her arm that prevents pregnancy. I suppose that this makes her more “innocent” than the chip would allow us to believe, which makes sense because she does not smoke like a chimney as she does in the novel. She seems much more put together and does not cut herself either. So, Andi is more of a monster and Clare is more of an angel than how they were portrayed originally.

Because of her escape due to the help of a student (and the building being fumigated), the ending is much more powerful and entertaining. It becomes a thrilling game of cat-and-mouse instead of a simple and anticlimactic escape; Clare eventually traps Andi in his own place without a key, which causes him to be locked inside and most likely die from starvation after the story ends. The last act, in general, was much more satisfying than the novel and really drove home the fact that this was more of a thriller than a psychological character study between the victim and captor. Unlike the novel, I was never bored, my intelligence never insulted, and the story kept me on my toes by taking me in directions that I had not expected (and I read the book!). I’m going to give the film an 8/10 and a green recommendation!

Final Thoughts

As an adaptation, the movie fails in some areas and succeeds in others, but it does work as everything it tries to be which is a great thriller with one hell of a twisted antagonist. The novel was a character study at heart, and the film was a thriller without a doubt. The film never explains why Andi is twisted and takes out a large portion of the novel (aside from just all of the first 80 pages) which tells us about his past. The movie exchanges the mother character for a student who Andi has a crush on, and hates himself for it. The basic premises are the same, but the rest of the stories are entirely different, mostly in how the stories treat and represent their respective characters. While the characters in the adaptation are much less “fascinating,” they fit their genre well, and it was how the rest of the story was handled that made the film so enjoyable and intense. The stories are so different that one might as well experience them both, but if you only have the time or interest for one of them, I’d lean more towards seeing the film. But, that’s just me! What are your thoughts? As always, thanks for reading and I’ll see you soon!

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