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SYFY WIRE Interviews

Christine Leunens on writing the book that inspired Jojo Rabbit

By Carly Lane
Jojo Rabbit

Taika Waititi's self-described "anti-hate satire" Jojo Rabbit is already receiving buzz for its irreverent humor and bold storytelling choices — but fans of the New Zealand filmmaker might be surprised to learn that this black comedy is actually adapted from a book.

Author Christine Leunens first wrote the novel Caging Skies, about a young boy named Johannes who becomes a member of the Hitler Youth only to discover his own parents are hiding a Jewish girl in their house, back in 2004, 15 years ago — although Waititi's retelling definitely puts his famously comedic spin on the original narrative.

SYFY WIRE FANGRRLS had the opportunity to speak with Leunens ahead of Jojo Rabbit's theatrical release, where the author discussed her inspirations for writing Caging Skies, her collaboration with Waititi, and the major differences between the film and the novel.

When did the inspiration come to you to tell a story within this particular timeframe of history?

My parents were European, and my grandfather had been taken to a work camp. I had a lot of stories already being told to me [about] what had happened with the Nazis. I took a historical interest quite young. But then I had already written a book and my husband at the time was working at the museum and War Memorial in Normandy. I was there a lot, and I had a bit of the story already in my mind of something I had wanted to do — and just being there allowed me to have all the research I needed at hand. I was really in that atmosphere. I wanted to use [the book] to just try to explore a lot of things that were important for me to try to understand.

What was the decision behind framing the story from a child's perspective, exploring the story as he grows and lives through events that happen that force him to kind of reshape his perspective on a lot of things?

I wanted to really just understand ... how could a whole generation of children who were just children at the time — boys riding their bikes, flying kites, and doing all kinds of things they normally do — how could they suddenly be taught a completely different curriculum? Because that's how it happened. The Nazis basically came in, kicked the old teachers out, and brought new teachers in, and they were already preparing them to do a lot of exercise and sports to make them fit for the military. They were indoctrinating them.

What I wanted to explore was the question of how was this happening in the educational system? How was this also happening at home? Even if you were the parent that didn't agree, you weren't allowed to not send your child to the Hitler Youth. So I chose to explore this from a child's point of view. How did Hitler actually use certain mechanics to do this to children? Then actually to have [Johannes] confront Elsa in their home, a real-life human being; how would all these lies he's been fed, how did they begin to erode? How did he cope with that psychologically? Because what he's feeling didn't correspond anymore with what he had been taught to believe at school.

This is a book that was published in 2004 initially, but it still feels so remarkably relevant, especially today. What do you think it is about the themes of this novel that have proven to be very unexpectedly timeless?

Yes, timeless, and I would also say more and more unfortunately relevant. I would say it's become more and more relevant to today in a way that I never thought I was going to see while I was alive — because I had written it just so that people would never forget, that they'd always be aware and mindful and keep this knowledge of history, of what had happened. Just keep passing it on.

I think what happens is [that] when you have fear, fear translates into hatred. Then once people have an insurgency, it quickly creates an "us and them" attitude. Then it's very easy to point fingers at other people and use this kind of rhetoric, infestation and comparing people to rodents, insects, showing them as very undesirable people — not people who feel the same, who care about their families too, no, but as people who are different and less human, to dehumanize them.

I would love to talk to you about what the adaptation process was like. How were you approached specifically about turning the book into a film, and what were your hopes when that began?

When Taika [Waititi] first contacted me, one of the first things I did before I met with him was to see his films — to see if I felt that this was the right director. When I watched his films, there was one that took place at the time of the Maori Battalion and World War II [Tama Tu]. It had humor, but it was very touching and sad at the same time. Then I saw the other one he had an Oscar for — Two Cars, One Night — and I thought to myself, "He really gets children. He really has a knack for that."

When we met, he spoke to me about how he wanted to film, what parts of the book he wanted to take, because obviously the book is longer than the film. We saw eye to eye in that, and then he sent me the script. I was very happy for Taika to put his touches in it because what I had found so special about his films is something that I also wanted in this adaptation. I felt that would make this story special, to have those same touches [of his] with this story. There was a very strong element of trust, and I would say if I didn't have that element of trust, I probably wouldn't have given it to any director.

But I had loved what he did, and it just went smoothly because he's also such a nice, caring, down-to-earth person. Just wonderful, because he's been somebody who was loyal to the story. I feel that he put everything he could've put, he spared nothing in the emotions he put into this. That's all that you want as an author, someone to do it. But I always said he did something that I felt was unique and original — and he took a risk to do it.

What are some of the closer similarities between the novel and what we end up seeing depicted on screen? Were there any changes to the story that surprised you in a good way, when you read the script?

Well, the film takes the characters, which are Johannes and Elsa and his mother. You have all the main characters, and the plot [of the film] follows the plot of the book. I don't want to give away the whole story. What [Taika] does is take even the most serious scene and then suddenly there will be a tonal shift where it's very funny, but then it can become very serious again. It's like the book and it has the same plot, the same characters, the same themes, but he put his own touches and he put it into another medium so that it works and it's engaging for an audience.

And then, of course, it's very visual, it's beautifully filmed. That was very true to the era and what people are wearing. When I see camps, the Hitler Youth camps, it's exactly like the pictures that I used to have when I was researching. There were so many things I saw on the screen that would bring me back to when I was in the museum. Every time I saw touches like that, true to history, it was very moving for me.

Are you working on any other books right now?

Yes. So I'm working on another historical novel. This one's a Franco-New Zealand novel, and it takes place at the time of the Rainbow Warrior bombing in New Zealand. The process of writing it was very similar to Caging Skies, because of history. I didn't do it on purpose, but there are themes that are relevant today of the environment, environmental issues, so it has become relevant on its own.

Do you have any books that you're really into right now? If a friend asked you for a recommendation, what would you mention as something that you're really invested in right now?

Georgia Hunter wrote a book called We Were the Lucky Ones. I can say this is a page-turner. It was a really, really powerful book, and that's one I would really recommend.