Books sometimes undergo substantial changes during the journey from page to screen, but this is ridiculous, and in more ways than one.
“Jojo Rabbit” turns the decidedly unfunny World War II-era novel “Caging Skies” by Christine Leunens into a zany slapstick farce. The book is a grim historical-fiction allegory about an Austrian teenager’s manipulative, years-long obsession with a Jewish woman his parents are hiding from the Nazis. The fact that the boy is a Hitler Youth member and dedicated follower of Der Führer makes him understandably conflicted about feelings he develops for her, which progress from disgusted lust to yearning compassion to monstrous cruelty.
“Jojo Rabbit” turns that disturbing and very adult source material on its head, transplanting the plot points it retains into a broadly comedic satire. The other huge change is that the movie’s main character is only 10 instead of 15 when he encounters his unexpected houseguest, who is an assertively spunky 17 instead of a helpless and intimidated “mature woman.” That converts the book’s sexual power dynamics into awkward puppy-love sweetness.
One of several additions to the cast is a goofy version of Adolf Hitler, who serves as the protagonist’s wacky imaginary friend. This isn’t some silently invisible Sieg “Harvey,” but a frantic and full-uniformed Heil “Hobbes” that only we and his Jew-hating Calvin equivalent can see.
In other words, the movie is either an audacious re-imagining or a bizarre parody of its source material. In adaptations this shockingly unfaithful in tone to their origins, “Jojo Rabbit” nearly outdoes 1994’s “Exit to Eden.” That travesty turned Anne Rice’s erotic BDSM romance novel into a would-be comedy crime caper, adding a pair of buddy cops played by Rosie O’Donnell and Dan Aykroyd. A classic it wasn’t.
This irreverent re-do has its moments, in an outrageous “Springtime for Hitler” sense, but admirers of the dead-serious book can’t help being disappointed that more respect wasn’t paid. Turning a bleak, Holocaust-era psychodrama into a cartoonish romp seems uncomfortably akin to adding pratfalls and pie fights to a “Schindler’s List” remake.
As for what the vast majority of ticket-buyers who never have heard of the book will think, the movie taken on its own is an amusing-enough oddity that’s more silly than edgy. It also comes with an obvious and somewhat heavy-handed moral lesson in tolerance, as Jojo realizes that real-life Jews may not be the inhuman monsters he has been taught they are.
Style-wise, the movie occasionally seems to be going for a Wes Anderson-lite vibe, such as when a military training weekend brings the Khaki Scouts of “Moonrise Kingdom” to mind. The problem is that too many cheap laughs and inconsistent characterizations keep the movie from achieving Anderson’s brand of believable bittersweetness. A movingly dramatic emotional moment from the book, for example, feels very out of place surrounded by the absurd antics here.
Director and screenwriter Taika Waititi, best known for the clever vampire mockumentary “What We Do in the Shadows” and tongue-in-cheek “Thor: Ragnarok,” plays Hitler with alternating child-like enthusiasm and disapproving petulance. His Hitler also is a life coach for the insecure Jojo, explaining that “the humble bunny can outwit all his enemies” and advising him to “be the rabbit.” The way he and the rest of the cast use modern slang (“heil me, man,” “correct-a-mundo”) is always good for a grin.
Johannes “Jojo Rabbit” Betzler (never referred to by that nickname in the book) is the debut feature role for Roman Griffin Davis. His interactions with imaginary Hitler range from joyously playful (galivanting through the woods in uniform together) to surreal (watching Hitler dine on a unicorn’s head). Unlike his print counterpart, the movie’s Jojo has an absent father, no live-in grandmother, and does not end up losing a hand.
Jojo’s mom Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is the vivacious and cheerful opposite of his overstressed and fearful mother in “Caging Skies.” Although movie Rosie makes an offhand reference to Jojo being a “fanatic,” there’s never a sense that she feels mortally threatened by him. In the book, she and his father are genuinely afraid that their hard-liner son might turn them in to the Nazis for things they say and do in his presence.
Giving credit where it’s due, the movie’s three most enjoyable characters are new ones created by the screenplay: Captain Klenzendorf, Gestapo Captain Herman Deertz, and Jojo’s seemingly indestructible friend Yorki.
Sam Rockwell is likeably wry as the deadpan “Captain K,” who sardonically explains that he “lost a perfectly good eye in a totally preventable enemy attack.” The Hitler Youth leader has no illusions about Germany winning the war, designs a cape-tastic fantasy uniform for himself, and turns out to be the most interestingly human member of the cast.
Stephen Merchant pulls off the feat of being both frightening and funny as Gestapo Captain Deertz, who arrives unexpectedly at Jojo’s home to conduct a suspenseful search of the premises. Deertz straight-facedly dispels the propaganda myth that Hitler has only one testicle by saying, “He has four.”
Archie Yates is adorable as the guileless and unflappable Yorki, one of Jojo’s fellow Hitler Youth. When telling Jojo that the Japanese are Germany’s allies, he reasonably notes, “Just between you and me, they don’t look very Aryan.”
The movie’s most troublesome character is girl-in-the-wall Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), who is both literally and figuratively disarming. Her empowerment upgrade makes her seem only moderately concerned about having to hide for her life. Giving her the upper hand toward Jojo and apparent free rein of his house undercuts much of a sense of menace. She mostly seems as casual about her living situation as the POWs in “Hogan’s Heroes” are about prison life.
As might be expected, the movie’s ending is completely different from what happens in the book, which by that point may as well have been thrown on a bonfire.
For those seeking more horror than hilarity in their Holocaust fare, an allegedly faithful adaptation of Jerzy Kosiński’s “The Painted Bird” is making the festival rounds. From what I’ve heard, the filmmakers resisted the urge to add a sassy anti-Semitic sidekick to the story.