The Zookeeper’s Wife: From Book to Movie

When I was contacted by Focus Features a couple months ago asking if I would be willing to review the book-to-movie adaption of The Zookeeper’s Wife, I was ECSTATIC. I hadn’t actually read The Zookeeper’s Wife at that point, but a quick glance at the Goodreads reviews assured me that this would be an excellent book to turn movie. While the book itself was fairly impersonal (read my spoiler-free review here!), the movie adaption was beautiful, heartbreaking, and incredibly meaningful. Definitely a must-see!

the zookeeper's wife theater photo edited

(Many thanks to my darling hubby for both driving me the three hours down to DC for the advance screening AND for being my semi-willing book-holder when I found a movie poster.)

What impressed me the most about the movie adaption was how Focus Features managed to remain so incredibly faithful to the book (which spanned a very well documented six-seven years!). Yes, scenes were cut, changes were made, encounters were added, etc. That’s how movie making works. However, all changes were reasonable and within character. Overall, it was an extremely well-produced film and I highly recommend seeing it!

TZW still 1

I’m about to write a more in-depth review of the book-to-movie transformation, so FLEE if you don’t want to hear anything about what’s in the book/movie! I don’t want to spoil this for anyone, so stop reading now if you so desire. SPOILERS coming after the next photo.

TZW still 4

Warned you!

Okay, so…several points in the movie differed from the book, but it wasn’t enough to detract from the story. Despite the necessary changes that were made, the original integrity of the book remains fully intact.

Major Changes Made (Where and Why):

The biggest change in two words–Herr Heck! (Above photo.) Heck was undoubtedly an important character in the book, but he didn’t have nearly the impact the movie implies. However, he did in the film serve as a valuable catalyst for several critical story points. Actually, it’s impressive how Focus Features decided to make use of him. Yes, he was a “creep with an agenda” (in my personal opinion) and had more than a crush on Antonina. He never actually attempted to seduce her (as far as we know), but it was by no means out of character. And because Focus Features utilized him the way they did (bringing him into scenes that didn’t happen or happened differently, having him breed his animals at the zoo, etc.) it allowed more of the necessary book scenes to be dealt with. The movie already was forced to skip around quite a bit due to the length of the book, and it would have been more confusing if the producers hadn’t had the convenient character of Herr Heck to help segue into various scenes.

Another fairly major change is how the movie shows Antonina staying at the zoo with her son throughout the war. In reality, they actually fled several times–a couple times to a country home, another couple times to stay with relatives. Only once they discovered that nowhere was safe did they come back to the zoo to stay with Jan (until they were forced out of the zoo, that is). However, it would have been impractical film-wise to show all these moves. It was definitely simpler to skip straight to where they stayed at the zoo.

TZW still 2

As I’ve already mentioned a couple times, it truly is impressive how many of the major scenes the producers managed to include in the film. The above photo (the one of the orphans) is from one of the scenes where Nazi’s were emptying the ghetto and sending everyone to death camps. This moment was not necessarily critical to the book and many producers would have likely cut it to save time. However, it is a scene that shows the intense love, loyalty, and faith displayed by so many of the Poles during the war. As heartbreaking as it is to watch those small, innocent children being loaded into cattle cars, we owe it to their souls to remember.

Plot Points I Wish Had Been Present:

One of the most critical aspects of the book was how the Zabinski’s were able to hide/smuggle so many Jews. As Diane Ackerman points out, what better way to hide people than among other people? The Zabinski’s kept up a constant stream of visitors at the Zoo so that the Germans camped in their front yard couldn’t possibly keep track of all the comings, goings, and new faces. Brilliant, right? Although this was a fairly critical part of the story line, I can understand how it would have been complicated to integrate it into the already-two-hour-long film.

TZW still 3

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things:

THE MUSIC. Music can make or break a film. The music in The Zookeeper’s Wife is the perfect addition to such a heartbreaking story! I especially love how they worked the traditional “Mah Nishtanah” melody into the “burning of the ghetto” scene. Already a haunting melody, the Mah Nishtanah adds a whole new level of meaning to this emotional chapter of Warsaw’s history. Although the book didn’t mention it, yes the burning would have taken place at the beginning of Passover. If that isn’t heartbreaking, I don’t know what is. The score composers definitely knew what they were were doing here. Prepare for your heart to be shattered.

POLISH ACTORS. I can’t explain what a difference that made to the film. It only added to the integrity of the story. (I naively assumed they would only find Polish actors for the main characters. However, the cast list quickly relieved me of that assumption!) I don’t think this movie could have possibly been better produced.

* * *

Overall, this movie was an incredible adaption! If you enjoy learning more about WWII, I strongly recommend you read the book and then go see the movie when it is in theaters March 31. VERY WORTH IT.

Interested in winning a signed copy of The Zookeeper’s Wife AND a tote bag? There are still another couple days to enter my Focus Features sponsored giveaway! Go here to enter. 🙂


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