Netflix’s new adaptation of ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ doesn’t do justice to Remarque’s timeless classic

By Kathryn McDonald

Editor’s note: This is the first of two articles analyzing this adaption of “All Quiet on the Western Front.”  This article examines the movie as an adaption of the book, while the second examines its merit as a war film.  

“This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.” 

With these words Erich Maria Remarque begins one of the most devastatingly poignant pieces of literature on war; it is with these words that one must begin to frame the content and purpose of any movie that seeks to tell the fictional story of Paul Baümer and his companions. 

On the precipice of adulthood, these boys lose their lives for a war they cannot believe in. 

As an avid reader and long-time fan of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” the first question I had when I discovered that a new movie was being released was, “How well does it measure up to the book?”

The truth is that it does not. Disappointingly, there is an overemphasis on the grisly warfare that the young boys see at the expense of giving viewers a chance to glimpse more fully developed characters or exploring the internal warfare that litters the pages of the book. 

While not completely erased from the plot, I do not think that the audience gets the opportunity to see enough of the cast outside of battle. Paul’s short visits home, his injuries and his stay at the hospital are never shown in the movie. Additionally, the final scenes are rewritten to highlight the embellishments of the film rather than remaining true to the content of the original story. 

The book, being told in first person, may have lent itself to a film that is narrated by the main character, but this is not a stylistic technique that director Edward Berger chose to implement. I think that this once again misses an opportunity for audiences to hear from Paul himself. 

For anyone who watches this movie without context, it may be jarring. It must be stated that while this story is far from a celebration of war, it is also not a story about chivalry, love or friendship. It is best described as a lifelike account of the disenchanted youth who were fed a lie that cost them everything. 

While some scenes embellish the original story, several still manage to capture the essence of Paul’s life on the Western Front. 

Every moment in the trenches that is not filled with fear and terror is spent dreaming of life beyond their hellish existence. It gives faces and names to the innumerable dead. It demonstrates that the miracle of life can easily be eclipsed by the shock of seeing so much carnage. 

One unique addition to the story is the scenes where commanders and political leaders are seen making decisions regarding the war. The command to advance, the command to fall back, and the final armistice are each highlighted alongside the story of the youths in the trenches. The opulence of political office is contrasted with the horrors of trench life. Though it adds depth, I think it complicates the message. 

The message of Remarque’s book is that these young boys who left home to make their fathers proud, live lives that would make their mothers weep. Idyllic boyhood dreams are shattered by long years of fighting. 

Remarque doesn’t write his novel as a political commentary or a historical fiction, he writes the stories of his generation. You cannot write political or historical commentaries into this story without losing the humanity of each character that Remarque so beautifully creates. 

Because the book is not written as an accusation, I think that instead of villainizing the authorities that sent these young men to their deaths, it would have been more true to the author’s intent to focus on humanizing Paul and his companions. 

ach battle emphasizes the irony of a title that speaks of “quiet”.

At one point in the movie, it is asked “What is a soldier without war?” I find this to be a very important line because just as peace is the antithesis of war, the innocence of childhood is the antithesis of life as a soldier. These boys sacrifice their youth to the great monster of war. 

They learn to resent the rhetoric fed to them by their teachers in school. There is no honor in war. There is no joy in killing. This story is a declaration of grievances against the ignorant ideals of a generation that sends their young to die for a cause not worth fighting. 

In the telling of this story, there is great hope for a generation that is willing to listen. My hope is that, perhaps, you will revisit or discover this novel to see how it serves as a reminder for us today. While the story has been rearranged and edited for the screen, it still captures some of what Remarque set out to do when he told the story of the generation destroyed by war. However, if you want to understand the true essence of this story as a timeless classic, you must begin by reading and wrestling with Remarque’s own words. 

“All Quiet on the Western Front” is available to stream on Netflix.

Kathryn McDonald is a senior Psychology major and writer for the Arts and Entertainment section of Cedars. You can probably catch her writing a letter to a friend in the library or drinking coffee from her favorite mug. When she is not at her desk studying, she is probably on her phone catching up with friends or reading her favorite volumes of American poetry.

Images courtesy of Netflix.

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