MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Consider the Source: Defining a Dramatic Structure for Defiance

Published under Oscar Outsider.

Spoiler Warning: This column contains heavy spoilers for the film Defiance.

Adapting a scholarly tome into a dramatic narrative retelling for the big screen is no easy task; how does one take a detailed, rather dry account of historical facts and translate that into a movie with character arcs, dramatic flow and dialogue, keeping true to the soul of the source material while creating a film that will appeal on a more emotive level? Such was the task Edward Zwick and his co-writer Clayton Frohman faced in adapting the book Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, scholar Nechama Tec‘s account of the resistance of a pack of Polish rebels during World War 2, into the film Defiance, starring Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber.

The film tells the tale of the Bielski brothers: older brothers Tuvia and Zus (Craig and Schreiber, respectively) and younger brothers Asael (Jamie Bell) and Aron (George McKay), whose parents, along with many other people in their rural village, are slain by local police and Nazi soldiers as the German troops invade Poland. The Bielski brothers, who have a long history of both smuggling and hiding out in the woods surrounding their village, retreat to hide out in the wilderness, and inadvertently find themselves with an increasing number of frightened Polish Jews looking to them for shelter and protection.

In pulling together the screenplay, Zwick and Frohman built on the more academic source material supplied by Tec’s book with interviews with the surviving Bielski family members, other survivors (and relatives of those survivors) who’d lived with the Bielskis in the forest during the resistance, videotaped interviews of the brothers retelling their story for family history posterity, and an unpublished autobiography written by Tuvia Bielski, which retells the events from a first-person perspective. Culling through all these materials allowed Zwick and Frohman to flesh out the outline of Tec’s historical account into the dramatic story the viewer sees in the film.

As is often the case in adapting non-fiction material for the screen, the screenwriters faced the challenge of where to blend together certain events into one action; in the film, there are several instances of this decision-making, including Tuvia shooting a rival in the resistance who was trying to usurp him (this actually happened more than once during the years the Bielskis were surviving in their forest stronghold) and a scene where Tuvia allows his people to beat and torture to death a captured German soldier (this also happened more than once, and Tuvia himself was known to be involved in such acts himself). The latter scene, in particular, provides an important layering of Tuvia’s character in the film; this man may have done many good and worthwhile things in leading over a thousand Jews to safety against insurmountable odds, but he was no saint, and including his more morally questionable actions avoids Zwick and Frohman painting him in one shade of white, when in reality Tuvia, as many people caught in the midst of war and unbelievable hardship, was a man whose decisions during that time were often tinted with shades of gray.

Meanwhile, brother Zus, at odds with Tuvia over how things should be run, leaves the Bielski Partisans with several other rebels to join the Russian army in fighting the Germans. This leads up to what is perhaps the most dramatically questionable decision in the film: the perfectly-timed rescue at the end, when Tuvia and the rebels are under harsh fire by German troops after escaping their makeshift forest village just before a raid and being led through water by Tuvia to what they’d hoped was safety. In the film, Zus returns with the partisans who had left with him to join the resistance of the Communist Russian army, which was also fighting the Germans. Zwick discussed this aspect of the storyline at a Q&A for the film after a screening in Seattle for the Jewish community, noting that the length of the film at that point, and the studio’s desire to have a dramatically satisfying resolution, led to the decision to blend several historical battles between the rebels and the Nazi troops into the film’s final climactic scene. In spite of that rescue scene feeling somewhat contrived, it does make for a more coherent resolution from a storytelling standpoint, and from a narrative standpoint, the scene works overall, albeit that it does leave the audience with a sense of “well, that was sure convenient timing.”

One thing Zwick and Frohman capture particularly well in the screenplay is the relationship between the two oldest brothers. I can’t say with certainty how much of that relationship was written by which writer, but what I did like very much about how it was drawn is that the history of the brothers, as tends to be the case in familial relationships, is largely unspoken, and the screenwriters don’t feel the need to overplay the exposition in painting that history for viewer. Instead, they rely on a few key lines heavy with the unspoken history between the two, and the competitive and often angry brotherly tension conveyed by Craig and Schreiber onscreen, to allow the viewer to infer all that’s unsaid between the two. Where so many films tend to beat the audience about the head and shoulders with boulder-heavy exposition that spells out everything in wrenchingly contrived detail, Defiance allows the brothers to speak for themselves in a real and honest way; because of this, the relationship between Tuvia and Zus is one of the film’s greatest strengths.

These are great, meaty roles for actors of this caliber. Schreiber in particular, who has shone on stage but struggled to find a role big enough for his talent onscreen, finally has a part he can really sink his teeth into, and he’s very deserving of consideration for a Supporting Actor nod for his turn as the fiery Zus. As for Craig, all Bond-ing aside, this is one of the better movie roles he’s had an opportunity to play; Tuvia is a complex character, a somewhat bad guy who, through being thrust into a challenging circumstance, finds the leader that had long been lurking inside him and thrives in that role. The Bielski brothers could have chosen to simply take care of themselves, survive in the woods alone as they knew how to do, and leave the rest to their fate; they didn’t make that choice, though, and as a result, some 1,200 Jews lived through the Nazi invasion of Poland and survived to produce countless descendants, all of whom are here today because Tuvia Bielski chose to help them survive, rather than only caring for himself.

We’ve seen countless Holocaust stories that show the victimization of the Jews by the Nazis (including a slew of them just this year), and those stories are important to continue telling, perhaps even more so as the remaining Holocaust survivors grow older and die. But Defiance tells a tale of a group of Jews who fought back against the Nazis, who survived against all odds through conditions that would thwart the best of us, were we to suddenly find ourselves uprooted from our cozy lives, and for that it stands out amidst other films about the Holocaust as a film not just about survival, but about an uprising of the spirit, led by these brothers who refused to site back and be victims. If they were going to die, they were going to die fighting, and they imbued their band of ragtag, displaced villagers with the desire to not just survive, but to survive by fighting against their enemy. Defiance is quite a remarkable adaptation of the source material, and does a solid job of dramatizing the story of the Bielki Partisans for a modern, mainstream audience.

by Kim Voynar

Be Sociable, Share!

Comments are closed.

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon