Adapting Anne: My Thoughts on 3 (Very Different) Film Adaptations of The Diary of Anne Frank

For my project, I watched The Diary of Anne Frank (a feature length film released in theatres in 1959), Anne Frank: The Whole Story (a made for TV movie released in 2001), and The Diary of Anne Frank (a five part BBC miniseries made in 2009). Each adaptation had its strengths and weaknesses in areas that the others did not. Below are my thoughts on each of the adaptations.

The Diary of Anne Frank (dir. Stevens, 1959)

George Stevens’ The Diary of Anne Frank, with a screenplay by the authors of the play of the same name, is a magnificent film in its own right. It showcases beautiful cinematography, inspired production design, and a magnificent cast of talented actors. However, it is as an adaptation that the film falls short of the mark. As a standalone film, Diary paints a perfect picture of two families (and one old man) living in hiding together, highlighting the suspense of their situation, the tensions of their relationships, and the explorations of the children’s youth. But relating this film back to its source materials, both Anne’s diary and the historical context of the Holocaust, indicates where it goes severely off track.

To begin with is the titular character, Millie Perkins’ Anne Frank. Both the screenplay and the acting of Ms. Perkins does Anne quite a discredit. Perkins’ Anne responds to all situations and reads all narration from her diary in a simply sweet voice, only allowing her emotional range to grow in the suspenseful moments by widening her saucer like eyes in a way that elicits sympathy, but not empathy. Anne’s introspective authorial voice and her dynamic personality, both clearly reflected on the pages of her diary, are transformed into a girl whose main moments of emotional reflection come about only as a result of those around her. When the other members of the family are frightened of an intruder, Anne faints. When they are joyous about Hanukkah, Anne sings. The numerous scenes of fights with her mother, questioning growing up, or wondering about the state of the world outside that make up the majority of the source text are reduced to only two or three scenes out of the entire three hour film in favor of developing her romantic relations with Peter Van Daan, a smaller portion of the diary.. This choice leaves us with a protagonist whose motivations we hardly know at the end of spending three hours with her. The subsequent consequence is that audiences are tempted to pin what they imagine their own responses would be onto Ann, a temptation that universalizes Anne’s experience. This is a danger present not only in the film, but in the diary as well. For decades, readers have focused on the relatable romance or youthful hope of Anne over the historical context of her situation. The film simply makes this kind of response an easier one to have.

The film’s ending reveals that its adapters had difficulty translating the stage play into a film. Joseph Schildkraut, who until this moment has portrayed Otto Frank with an understated kindness and naive hopefulness, monologues to Miep, Kraler, and the camera about Anne’s fate. While this could have functioned well as a soliloquy on stage, filling the audience in on the historical events that transpired, only serves to paint post-war Otto as detached and emotionless, which casts those same emotions onto the audience. In a moment when we should be grieving for what Otto and his family have lost, we are met with robotic indifference and, perhaps worst of all, trite hope for the future. Reading from Anne’s diary, found in the abandoned annex, Otto says, “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are good at heart.” This quote, taken violently out of context in almost every representation of the diary, allows the viewer to leave the theatre with the naive notion that there are more Annes than Nazis in the world and that Anne herself was some sort of brave martyr, a symbol of human hope and a beacon of a peaceful future. This sort of conclusion forgets that the Holocaust cannot and should not be wrapped up in some neat little bow and placed firmly in the past, despite whatever Stevens and his screenwriters might want to convince us (and themselves) of.

The film begins and ends with Otto’s return to the empty annex, but sandwiched between these problematic scenes are several cinematically and historically beautiful moments. The supporting cast steals the show, especially Academy Award nominee (for this film) Ed Wynn as Mr. Dussel and Academy Award winner Shelly Winters as Mrs. Van Daan, even in spite of her somewhat distracting New York accent. Joseph Schildkraut and Gusti Huber display the thoughtfulness of Anne’s parents in a nuanced way. Stevens, cinematographer William C. Mellor, and set decorators Stuart Reiss and Walter Scott each contribute to the visualization of the annex. Long shots disrupted by numerous beams and boards and the lowkey lighting of many of the nighttime scenes create a sense of entrapment that is tangible, even for the audience. Just when we think we cannot stand it any longer, Stevens provides moments of relief in shots of the Amsterdam streets or views of a cloudless sky through the attic window. In a screenplay that left me wanting more development from each character, writers Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett have several inspired moments that capture the irony and tension of the situation. Perhaps most memorable are the scenes of joy. Firstly, the families’ Hanukkah celebration, where they sing of “many. . . reasons for good cheer. . . whatever tomorrow may bring,” a poignant irony for those in the audience who know how the story ends. Another occurs when the families, plus Miep and Mr. Kraler, hear the report of D-Day on the radio early in the morning. They sing and celebrate, but grow quieter with every line as the clock tolls the start of the workday and they must again return to silence in order to avoid being caught. The motif of sirens or telephone rings also keeps the audience on edge in a most effective way. It is for these reasons that I must conclude that in spite of everything, this film really is good at heart. But however good of a film it must be, it cannot be an adequate representation of Anne’s story or of the Holocaust as a whole.


Anne Frank: The Whole Story (dir. Dornhelm, 2001)

Robert Dornhelm’s Anne Frank: The Whole Story lives up to its title by giving us a fairly complete picture of Anne Frank’s life from a young age until after her death. This made for television movie was not based on Anne’s diary, but rather on a biography that put the diary in the context of Anne’s pre-war life and her time in the concentration camps, and as a result, was not approved by the Anne Frank Foundation. Concerns over the accuracy/legitimacy/respectfulness of this adaptation aside, the film does a wonderful job at painting a picture of Anne’s life and personality, mostly due to the strength of its two leading actors, Hannah Taylor Gordon as Anne Frank and Ben Kingsley as Otto Frank. Gordon captures the duality of Anne wonderfully – a normal, talkative, self-centered thirteen year old who is also introspective, observant, and philosophical. At moments, especially in the latter third of the film, Gordon’s portrayal is stunningly heartbreaking. Likewise, Kingsley portrays an Otto Frank right off the pages of the diary – the quiet leader of those hiding in the annex and Anne’s secondary confidant and favorite family member. Kingsley’s performance in the last scene in the film is one to be remembered. These two tour de forces more than make up for where the film is lacking in its casting, such as Lili Taylor as a well-meaning but overacted (and American?) Miep Gies.

Kingsley and Gordon succeed both because of and in spite of a screenplay that takes liberties with the story presented in Anne’s diary. The film frames the contents of the diary with significant portions detailing Anne’s life before and after the annex. These scenes provide depth and a more complete sense of Anne’s character development, as well as highlighting the abruptness of the transition into hiding. While the concentration camp scenes remind the audience of the awful reality of Anne’s fate, they fabricate some details of course. As we see a dying Anne cradling her sister and fighting for food to help her, any image of the selfish and childish Anne of the annex is washed away. While we can certainly imagine Anne’s final days in the concentration camp, these scenes tiptoe dangerously close to turning Anne into a martyr, the revered saint-like character she has become in American culture. What’s important is remembering Anne’s humanity and her flaws. While the films first two acts accomplish this marvelously, the last one threatens to “redeem” all of that, as if the film feels it has to justify the awfulness of Anne’s death (and so many others). The film also assigns the blame for the Frank’s discovery to the wife of a workman in the downstairs factory. While this provides a satisfying answer and redirects audiences away from the temptation to turn this into a mystery waiting to be solved, it simply is not historical and does a disservice to the complexities of the situation. But where the film disappoints with historical details, it triumphs in characterization. The film’s screenplay mostly makes up for where it lacks in cinematic skill, an impressive feat.

Although perhaps typical for a made for television movie, Dornhelm overuses far too many fades and other shots that draw attention away from the story and more towards “what is this director doing right now?” The film’s sets for the concentration camps, the Frank’s apartment, and the annex are detailed and well done, which makes it all the more surprising when several scenes, most notably a beach scene, obviously take place on a set with a blue backdrop as the sky. The third act, at the concentration camps, is the most well-done cinematically, but the first two acts feature little in the way of nuanced lighting, editing, or cinematography. A film adaptation should put the story of Anne first, as Dornhelm’s does, but it should not forget the potential of its medium, as Dornhelm does, to create beauty and intricacy and reflect upon its subject through form.


The Diary of Anne Frank (dir. Jones, 2009)

The BBC’s adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank is a typical BBC adaptation: well done script and sets and an ensemble cast of actors you think you’ve probably seen in something. Although holistically, this adaptation does the best job at combining Anne’s original work with a cinematic lens, something falls short. The Diary of Anne Frank features a screenplay that heavily quotes from the diary itself. However, the use of voiceover to convey Anne’s inner diary/monologue makes us feel less like we are getting a glimpse into the real Anne’s head and more like we are listening to an audiobook narrated by a young British teen. While it is easy and probably logical to employ voiceover to provide a sense of Anne’s thoughts and emotions, it allowed this BBC series to succumb to telling, not showing what happened to Anne, breaking the rule of “show, don’t tell” that often determines the success of a film. When Anne argues with her mother, we find out as the offscreen diary voice of Anne tells us, while onscreen Anne sits and looks out a window or wanders around the annex. However, many arguments with Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan occur on screen, so why could the same not be done for Anne’s interactions with her own family?

Where the series is let down by its excessive narration, it is also let down by its actors, all of whom do a credible job acting as characters forced into hiding, but who leave us without certainty that it is the Franks that we have seen onscreen. Ellie Kendrick performs well as Anne, but at nineteen cannot portray at thirteen year old convincingly, not to mention that her British accent becomes distracting after awhile. Iain Glen, while accurately portraying a typical father figure, fails to capture the nuances of Otto Frank’s character, his quiet optimism, his love for his family, and his leadership in the annex, that both Ben Kingsley and Joseph Schildkraut did so well in earlier adaptations. Tamsin Grieg’s Edith is unusually frightful and mute. On their first day in the annex, Edith burns soup because of a panic attack, rather than because she was too busy talking, as the Edith of the diary was. Lesley Sharp as Petronella Van Daan turns out one of the better performances of the cast, but it borders a little too much on comedic. The real stand out actors of this series for me were Felicity Jones as Margot Frank and Nicholas Farrell as Mr. Dussel, both characters who are fleshed out more in this adaptation than in previous ones.

The series provides an indication of the tedium of living in an annex perhaps too much as the viewer gets bored with the slow pace of this two and a half hour miniseries. But what the series lacks in action and characterization, it makes up for in several stunning moments. One heartbreaking scene features an angry Anne writing a letter to her father after he asks her to stop seeing Peter Van Daan romantically. Otto reads the letter and begins to weep, confronting Anne about her sweeping rejection of her parents. This scene is often left out of adaptations, so a hundred points to the BBC for keeping it in this one. The audience gets a sense both of Anne’s desperation to be treated as the adult she feels she is, as well as Otto’s many emotions parenting a child who acts like a typical child, even in the midst of such evil. One other detailed moment comes as the inhabitants of the annex are packing up after being discovered. Anne, crying and shaking too much to buckle her own shoes, is helped by Mr. Dussel who reaches down to guide her hands to buckle them. This simple action highlights that, despite their feuding, they are now forever united and linked, that the three families living in the annex have become one. Finally, the series’ concluding scene is one of the most effective of any adaption of Anne’s diary. As each inhabitant of the annex comes down the steps, escorted by German police, the camera freezes and a simple subtitle displays their name and their date and location of death. The effect of this repeated pattern takes so much time, even for only seven people, that one begins to realize, even a little bit, the immensity of the Holocaust. Although, appropriately, the series has focused only on seven out of the six million killed, the lens widens to remind us that there were six million more, each of whom had names and lives and families and stories, all of whom are worthy of the reverence we lay upon Anne Frank.




  1. mcshannon says:

    Hi Emma!
    Your research project seems really interesting! While I have not seen any of the film adaptations, your analyses were insightful and really well-written. I will definitely check out the films in the future.
    In the screenplay that you are writing, what aspects, if any, of the three films are you trying to incorporate in order to make it as historically accurate as possible without over-romanticizing it?
    Good luck with the rest of your research and screenplay. I can’t wait to see the final product!

  2. Hi Mary!
    Your question actually gets to one of the main issues of writing my own screenplay – how would I make the screenplay my own, while incorporating ideas I liked from the other films, all the while keeping Anne’s diary as the main focus?
    Although each adaptation had problems, they each did things very well and so I definitely wanted to include characteristics of them.
    From the 1959 film: This adaptation had many scenes in the attic, looking out the window. I included many similar scenes because it gives a break from the cramped annex and provides the viewer and Anne with a glimpse outside. Anne found nature to be one of the most comforting things in her time in the annex. As the attic was one of the only rooms with a window that didn’t have to constantly have a black out curtain on it, it became a vehicle in my screenplay to show the passage of time, Anne’s love of nature, and a break from the annex downstairs.
    There was also a shot from the 1959 film where the camera travels from the annex through the floor to the office and then the ware house. I liked this shot because it reminds us that the annex is hidden. I used a similar shot in my screenplay.
    From the 2001 film: I loved the acting in this adaptation, so it was helpful to imagine my screenplay being acted by these actors. This adaptation also does a great job with the loving relationship between Anne and Otto, so I tried to include that. This adaptation starts way before the diary and ends way after, so I consciously tried to avoid that and mostly include only what is in the diary.
    From the 2009 miniseries: I probably was inspired most by this adaptation, even though it was my least fav to watch. This adaptation gave more understanding to Margot and other supporting characters. Although I wanted mostly to portray Anne’s perspective, she did grow in compassion for the other people in the annex, so I also incorporated a growth of understanding and developed her friendship with Margot, similar to this series. There were several really lovely scenes in this adaptation that weren’t in either of the others. One that I included in my screenplay as well is when Anne writes a letter to Otto basically criticizing his parenting and declaring her independence. This is the first time we really see Otto hurt by Anne’s comments and get a sense of the challenges of parenting a child in this unusual and hard situation. I included this poignant conversation about the letter in my screenplay. Although I chose not to show on film when the Annex people are arrested, even though every adaptation I watched did, I did closely imitate this adaptation when I describe the final fates of the characters. This adaptation freezes on each character as they come down the stairs from the annex and then lists their death location and time, one by one. This was so effective because it gives each person their moment and shows how extensive death was (and keep in mind, these are seven out of 6 million Holocaust victims).
    That’s long, but it was definitely so helpful to have these adaptations to rely on and go off of.