All the Light We Cannot See brings Anthony Doerr’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel to the small screen

Courtesy photo by Katalin Vermes/Netlix
SEE THE LIGHT: Blind actress Aria Mia Loberti stars as blind French teenager Marie-Laure, in the Netflix adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the Light We Cannot See.

Anthony Doerr’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning war novel All the Light We Cannot See has been developed by Steven Knight and directed by Shawn Levy into a four-part Netflix miniseries about Marie-Laure LeBlanc (Aria Mia Loberti), a blind French girl, and Werner Pfennig (Louis Hofmann), a German boy with an expertise in radios forced to aid the Nazis, whose paths eventually cross. (four approx. 55-min. episodes) 

Glen: People aiding Jews during the Holocaust is a well-mined trope, recently seen in the terrific 2023 TV miniseries A Small Light but also in films such as The Book Thief (2013), Life Is Beautiful (1997), and Schindler’s List (1993). The concept is inherently emotional and ripe with the reminder that just as humans seem to have a limitless appetite for evil, they also have a limitless capacity for good. This story opens during the Battle of Saint-Malo, as Marie-Laure illegally broadcasts excerpts from the novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea over a radio with encoded messages for the French Resistance. Meanwhile, German radio operator Werner is listening in but doesn’t turn her in. It’s essentially about these two young people who are supposed to be enemies but who are both united on the side of good. It’s rated TV-MA, but it would make a great holiday watch with the family if you think your kids are mature enough.

Anna: I read this book when it first came out, and I knew then it would make a great film or series. It’s an intricate, sticky story to tell. The author did a genius job of weaving the many plot threads together, and I’m happy to report the Knight/Levy partnership has managed to interpret it beautifully. Marie-Laure’s hands weave through a miniature model of Saint-Malo that her father, Daniel (Mark Ruffalo), built to help his blind daughter learn the streets of the new town they fled to after leaving their home in Paris. Saint-Malo is where Madame Manec (Marion Bailey) and Daniel’s war-haunted uncle Etienne LeBlanc (Hugh Laurie) live. We watch as Marie-Laure and Etienne bond over their love of radios and broadcasting, but soon Daniel is arrested, and Marie-Laure must stay hidden. I know why this series is rated TV-MA, but I agree that this is wonderful viewing for children mature enough for the subject matter and some violence. In fact, if you’ve got avid readers in your household, this book is one I encourage them to read and discuss together. In a world where empathy can feel in short supply, this book and the miniseries that followed share essential messages of both the beautiful and dark sides of humanity.

Glen: It’s a layered story that skips back and forth in time, which I thought kept it fairly dynamic, but it might come off a bit too cloyingly sentimental for the cynical viewer. Critics have pretty much panned it, and it’s imperfect to be sure. I felt Ruffalo in particular could have toned down the sappiness of his performance. But overall, it’s a sweet story about bravery. It’s also worth noting that the two actors who play Marie-Laure—as a child by Nell Sutton and teen by Loberti—are legally blind. It’s an authentic touch.

Anna: The relationship between Marie-Laure and Daniel is a big plot point in the novel, so perhaps that lens kept it from feeling overly sentimental to me. Or maybe I’m just a sucker for the sweeter stuff, and this series certainly lands there. It isn’t without its sadness though. Even fiction set in this era can’t stay away from the realities of Nazi-occupied areas and the effects on families. Maybe watching the book come to life on-screen was the magic for me. I found it heartwarming rather than cloying. Either way, I think it could be a great series for families to share over the holidays.

New Times Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey and freelancer Anna Starkey write Sun Screen. Comment at [email protected].

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