Adapting Anne: Writing a Screenplay

Let me just start by apologizing for the length of both this post and the last post. This post is comprised of several sections of the short paper I wrote detailing my choices in writing my screenplay.

In the course of this very interesting, exciting, and challenging project, I watched three films, wrote reviews of each of them, wrote a feature length 100 page screenplay (which roughly translates to an hour and 40 min. film), and then wrote a short paper detailing my choices in the screenplay. It was an incredibly interesting experience that developed my writing skills and my film-making skills. I also gained an understanding of the incredibly challenging nuances of any historical situation. Because we are often presented the same facts over and over again in many history classes, especially in relation to the Holocaust, we can be deluded into thinking we understand a historical period, again, especially the Holocaust, more than we do. Looking into Anne’s story was a challenge. As a film maker, you have to have a degree of empathy and hold the confidence that you understand someone’s story well enough to adapt it. As a (budding and inexperienced) Holocaust historian, you have to admit that you will never fully understand or know what it was like to have experienced any period of history, but especially the Holocaust.

In writing my screenplay adaptation, I examined how previous film adaptations have either influenced the culture’s perception of Anne incorrectly or were built on misunderstandings of Anne. I also observed ways in which they succeeded in telling Anne’s story and respecting her memory. I of course cannot claim to have perfectly written my screenplay with the nuance required to faithfully portray Anne’s story. My own adaptation may not serve Anne’s story any better than previous ones. I simply attempted to stay faithful to Anne’s original writing, to capture the characters and situation without overly sensationalizing them, and to portray aspects of Anne’s story left unseen in the other films.

Most of what we know of Anne’s life from her diary occurs before her experience of the Holocaust. While the diary may be a window into part of the Jewish experience during World War II, it provides little insight into the Holocaust itself. The term “Holocaust” refers mainly to the mass genocide of Jews in concentration camps, marches, and shootings during World War II. Anne’s diary does not describe her arrest by the Gestapo, let alone her death months later in a concentration camp. Focusing on Anne as a Holocaust figure allows the audience to believe that much of the Holocaust occurred in secret annexes across Europe and turns a blind eye to the horrors of concentration camps, ghettos, and other Nazi devised methods of killing. Anne’s diary is simply not a Holocaust narrative.

My insistence on this point may create confusion as to why I did not include scenes from Anne’s arrest or life and, ultimately, her death in a concentration camp. Early on in the screenwriting process, I decided that I only wanted to include events that occured or could have occured in the time frame during which the diary was written, June 1942 – August 1944. As a writer, I do not believe that I have the authority to imagine what Anne’s experience of the concentration camp was like given the lack of detailed information about her time there. We do know that Anne was excited by the idea that her diary of the annex could be published after the war and that she wanted to share her diary with the world, but no one knows if Anne would have wanted to share her concentration camp experiences with the world, had she still been writing a diary at the camps or that she would have wanted her thoughts on such a horrific experience published for the world to see. In addition to this, I did not want to rely on scenes in the concentration camp to create an emotional experience for the audience. I wanted the audience to mourn the death of Anne and the other six occupants of the annex simply because the loss of any life is tragic and inexcusable, not because of some Pavlovian response to the term “Holocaust”. There is a lot of debate between Holocaust scholars over whether films should even be made about the Holocaust, specifically detailing concentration camps. There is no way a film could ever capture what it was really like to be in that situation. Rather, films tend to delude the audience that they understand what such an experience is like. In my screenplay, I tried to tread the very fine line between creating empathy and ensuring that the audience knows that the Holocaust can never be fully understood. Empathy is a vital emotion for a film audience to have. The challenge with any sort of cinematic portrayal of the Holocaust is having empathy for what these people went through without claiming that we can know the utter pain the victims felt or that we can understand or explain why such an inexcusable thing would happen, as there is no one answer.

I decided to make the diary the main character of my film, bookending the film not with events from Anne’s life, but with Otto’s interaction with the diary.

I had a hard time deciding how to begin the film. I wanted to write a scene that would captivate the viewer, while remaining faithful to the opening pages of the diary. My sister suggested that I start with Otto’s purchase of the diary. This idea captivated me.

I had already decided to end the film with Otto reading the diary, as this image of Otto as simply a father, rather than a historical figure, captivated me. In this scene, we watch as the diary opens Otto’s eyes to the daughter he loved, but the daughter he may have never fully known. Throughout the screenplay, not only in the opening and closing scenes, I attempted to keep the audience’s focus on the contents of the diary. I wanted the film to only cover events that Anne would have seen or could have seen. That meant that all scenes occur at the Frank’s apartment, at the Jewish Lyceum, in the Secret Annex, or in the offices of the Opekta Company. Previous adaptations, especially the 2001 movie, show scenes at the houses of Anne’s friends during the war or update the audience on war happenings through footage of the front line or historical events that Anne would only have heard about through the radio. Even the 1959 film, which attempts to limit itself to events in the annex, declining to show much of Anne’s life before hiding, uses establishing shots outside of the house. I want the viewer to get a sense of Anne’s life cooped up without access to nature. The only establishing shots I wrote into my screenplay occur through the attic window, which is all Anne would have seen of the outside world. Even conversations between other characters occur with Anne in earshot, save for a few montage sequences where the inhabitants of the Annex are spread throughout the several rooms.

The main way I chose to deviate from following the content of the diary as closely as possible was by not including Anne’s actual words through voiceover narration as the 2009 miniseries did. Instead, I had Anne do much of the self reflection that occurs on paper in the diary by talking to other characters, mostly Margot or Peter. Although these conversations did not always occur, it would not be unlike Anne to have discussed important things with Margot or Peter, her two closest friends in the annex (although her feelings for both of them waxed and waned). I deliberately stayed away from voiceover narration because it often causes a film to tell, not show, what has happened, creating a more tedious viewing experience. The 2009 miniseries made this mistake. However, even as I refrained from writing too many scenes where Anne pours her heart out to her diary and her diary only, I attempted to include Anne’s exact words and anecdotes from her diary entries in several scenes in the screenplay.

While I cannot claim to have improved upon the films that I watched, or to have done any service or disservice to Anne’s memory, I hope that my adaptation could provide a window into so-called rooms of the Secret Annex previously uncovered or ignored, so to speak.