‘All the Light We Cannot See’: 5 Biggest Changes From Book to Series
This post contains spoilers for All the Light We Cannot See.
Adapting Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize–winning All the Light We Cannot See was never going to be an easy task. The epic, best-selling novel’s lyrical style and decades-spanning story would be nearly impossible to capture in a two-hour movie. So instead, director Shawn Levy and writer Steven Knight pitched the adaptation to Netflix as a four-part limited series. “The story is so sweeping, and it’s an interesting combination of intimate storytelling and epic backdrop,” Levy told Vanity Fair. “I had a feeling that two hours was never going to service such a beautiful, dense novel.”
But even with more room to tell the story, cuts and changes had to be made. The series, which hit Netflix on November 2, still centers on Marie-Laure LeBlanc (played by newcomer Aria Mia Loberti), a blind girl hiding out in the occupied French town of Saint-Malo, and Werner Pfennig (Dark actor Louis Hofmann), a young German soldier tasked with tracing illegal broadcasts for the Nazis. In alternating storylines, the series traces their paths to Saint-Malo, where their stories collide as Werner falls in love with the young woman’s voice he hears over the radio on an illegal broadcast.
Many of the main characters of the book are featured in the series, including Marie-Laure’s loving father, Daniel LeBlanc (played by Mark Ruffalo) and great-uncle Etienne LeBlanc (Hugh Laurie), along with the Nazi gem hunter Reinhold von Rumpel (Lars Eidinger), who is determined to find the precious—and perhaps magical—Sea of Flames diamond. But some of the supporting characters’ stories have been changed or tweaked, while new characters were also added to the series. Here are five of the most notable changes in the cinematic series, including significant changes to the story’s ending.
The series, especially the second and third episodes, bounces back and forth in time to reveal Marie-Laure’s upbringing with her father in Paris and their escape to Saint-Malo, where Etienne took them in. While Werner’s history as an orphan who was recruited by the Nazis for his skills with the radio is also traced, his backstory is significantly condensed. There are glimpses of him at the Nazi institute where he’s trained, but a significant storyline with a fellow recruit named Fredrick is cut for the series. In Doerr’s novel, Werner forms a bond with Fredrick, a sensitive and intelligent boy who invites Werner to visit his wealthy family over a weekend. Later, Fredrick is bullied and eventually seriously harmed by the other recruits.
Fredrick isn’t the only supporting character whose role is more limited in the series. In the novel, Frank “the Giant” Volkheimer was another student at the institute with Werner, who went on to be his commanding officer in the anti-radio task force. He ends up trapped underground with Werner during the siege of Saint-Malo. The enigmatic character, while at first seems like a simple muscled brute, was revealed to be more complicated, often saving Werner’s life, even if it required him to go against Nazi orders.
Jutta, Werner’s younger sister who grew up with him in the orphanage, is introduced early on in the show, when she worries about Werner heading off to the Nazi institute. He writes letters to her, just as he does in the book. But in the novel, Jutta’s story continues on at the end, revealing a violent episode that was cut from the series. Jutta also returns at the end of the book to cross paths with Marie-Laure, which does not happen in the series.
Several new characters were created for the series, in particular a handful of Nazis thatwere meant to “manifest the evil of the Nazi party.” These include Captain Mueller (Jakob Diehl) and Schmidt (Felix Kammerer), both of whom threaten Werner and his desire to protect Marie-Laure. Mueller brings Schmidt in to work with Werner as he tracks the radio broadcasts, and Werner attempts to hide the discovery of Marie-Laure’s broadcast from him. But he soon has to kill both men in order to protect Marie-Laure. The series also creates a new character who is Reinhold von Rumpel’s mistress.
Madame Manec appears in both the novel and the series, played by Marion Bailey in the latter. But in the book she is simply Etienne’s housekeeper, while in the series she has a deeper connection to him as his sister. In both, she secretly works with other townsfolk as part of the French resistance, passing messages to the Allied forces. In the book, she attempts to convince her brother to get involved in the fight, while in the series he’s already a participant. Her death is portrayed in both versions of the story, though she dies of pneumonia in the book (which pushes Etienne to get involved in the resistance in her place) and of a heart attack in the series. And Madam Manec’s death isn’t the only one that was significantly changed for the series. Ettienne, who survives in the novel and is eventually reunited with Marie-Laure, meets his demise in the series, and just before he dies asks Werner to watch over Marie-Laure.
With his failing health, Reinhold von Rumpel will stop at nothing to find the Sea of Flames, which he thinks may heal him. In both the book and the series, he eventually makes his way to Marie-Laure’s hideout. But in the novel, Werner kills him to protect Marie-Laure. In the series, Werner fights him, but it’s Marie who delivers the fatal shot to von Rumpel in the fourth episode. In both the series and the novel, Marie-Laure and Werner choose to part ways after the Allied forces free Saint-Malo, with Werner surrendering to the Allies. The series wraps up with Marie-Laure tossing the Sea of Flames into the ocean, seemingly breaking its curse.
But Doerr’s novel extends far beyond those moments in Saint-Malo, following Werner as he grows ill and eventually is killed in a minefield. Though quite different from the book, Levyhe wanted to end the series “with a promise of hope”—which led him to cut out some of the darkest epilogue storylines.