When author Christine Leunens wrote a novel about a young German named Jojo who discovers a Jewish girl, Elsa, hiding in his home during World War II, she did not know that years later it would become an Academy Award-nominated film. But that’s what happened: Her 2008 novel “Caging Skies” has been adapted into the hit film “Jojo Rabbit.”
Directed by Jewish New Zealander Taika Waititi, the film stars Roman Griffin Davis in the title role, Thomasin McKenzie as Elsa, and Scarlett Johansson as Jojo’s mother Rosie. Waititi adapted the screenplay and improbably stars as Jojo’s imaginary friend Adolf Hitler. The film is up for six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Johansson) and Best Adapted Screenplay, at this year’s ceremony on February 9.
Leunens — who, like Waititi, currently lives with her family in New Zealand — reflected on the journey her novel has taken. It was “not published right away,” she told The Times of Israel. “After one decade now, it’s been [translated] into over 20 languages and made into a film.” Had she been informed of all this when the book was first published, she said, “I would have thought I was dreaming.”
It all began two decades ago, when Leunens decided to write a novel about WWII. She was balancing life in multiple places — in France, where her husband, Axel de Maupeou, was working for the Caen Memorial Museum in Normandy; and at the Harvard University Extension School, where she was studying creative writing, including American Jewish literature. Leunens was brought up Catholic, although she has not gone to church for “a couple of years” and her mother has “actually gone to temple, she’s in a rest home and her friends are Jewish,” she said. “I’m teasing her that if she converts, does that make me Jewish?”
A former model, Leunens had successfully transitioned to fiction with her debut novel, “Primordial Soup.”
“My first novel was a critical success in a matter of weeks,” she recalled.
She would follow it up with a story that was partly based on the real-life wartime suffering of members of her Belgian-Italian family. Her grandfather, an artist, had been forced to work in a labor camp making ammunition.
“He had very close artist friends who were Jewish,” she recalled. “It was just terrible for him.” Her husband, de Maupeou, lost family members at the Mauthausen concentration camp.
Leunens also befriended an elderly Frenchwoman in Paris whose parents took in a Jewish refugee during the war. “Her parents hid him in a very small space,” she said. The Frenchwoman and the refugee were married after the war, although it did not last. “He was marked by a lot of things that happened,” Leunens explained. “He had lost so much family.”
Hearing the woman discuss her first husband, Leunens said she imagined the scenes unfolding in front of her eyes. A story idea was taking shape, but Leunens did not want it “to be romantic, not just about love,” she said. “There was something there, but I needed something more.”
She decided to switch the identities of the two protagonists. A Jewish girl would be hiding in the home of a boy, Jojo, who was a member of the Hitler Youth. Jojo “comes across this person who represents everything he’s been brought to hate,” Leunens said. “She is extremely intelligent, well-read, definitely his intellectual superior.” The setting, meanwhile, changed from Paris to Vienna.
“Now I started to see all the scenes, where the story is,” Leunens said. “Now I was getting into interesting territory to explore.”
Leunens did research for the novel in the Caen Memorial Museum library. While she found plenty of information about WWII and the Hitler Youth, “what I had to find was something about everyday life,” she said.
She looked for help from “people who were still alive, could still remember,” she said, adding that those she turned to included Simon Wiesenthal. “Every time I had a question, he was very helpful,” she said. “A lot of people were still alive for that period of time. Out of the research, I wanted to capture all the details.”
“Caging Skies” had what Leunens described as a “very unusual” path to publication. Her agent, she said, thought at the time that readers wouldn’t be interested in another story about WWII. The novel was first published in Spanish, and then in Catalan, Italian, and French, before an English version came out.
There were hints of the success that would eventually materialize. An editor at the book’s Spanish publisher, Planeta, said that it was the “most important book [she had] read in 10 years,” Leunens recalled. In France, it was nominated for the Prix Médicis, which she describes as “for an author whose fame does not yet match their talent… It was huge for me.”
Winner in Comedy or Musical Feature Category: JoJo Rabbit @jojorabitmovie, Taika Waititi @taikawaititi. Christine Leunens, author of Caging Skies, accepting on his behalf. 45th Annual HUMANITAS Prize Awards #HUMANITAS #StoriesThatMatter pic.twitter.com/5DAE0RC5ON
— HUMANITASPrize (@HUMANITASPrize) January 25, 2020
Another enthusiastic reader was Waititi’s mother, Robin Cohen, who urged her son to read the book as well. “She said, ‘Taika, you’ve got to read this book,’” Leunens recalled. “He said, ‘Mom, I don’t have enough time.’ He had his own projects. I have to be very grateful she persisted,” especially after Waititi “realized his mother was absolutely right” and decided to adapt the book into a film.
Waititi has worked on big-budget projects such as “Thor: Ragnarok,” but Leunens was also interested in other works of his including “Boy”; “Two Cars, One Night”; “What We Do in the Shadows”; and “Tama tu.” The latter film is a 2005 WWII story about a Maori battalion fighting the Axis in Italy. She said that while “Tama tu” is described as a comedy, it “never loses sight of the depths of pain.”
“I had a good idea what he wanted to do,” Leunens said. And, she added, “I’m very happy what he did with it, his twist on it.”
She praised Waititi’s decision to make the title character a young boy portrayed by the same actor throughout the film. The book begins when Jojo is a baby and takes the story into adulthood, but she said that this would not work for an hour-and-a-half-long film.
Davis was “very endearing” in his performance as Jojo, she said, praising the 12-year-old’s acting throughout the film and singling out the scene where he is “about to kill Elsa” when he first discovers her.
“There is such hate on his face at that moment,” Leunens said. “How somebody like that — with bright eyes, a dreamer — at the same moment has such dark hatred, another side.” To her, this scene reflects the indoctrination of German youth under Hitler, which she calls “just another aspect of the evil of Nazism.”
That evil is personified by Hitler in the film. Leunens called Waititi’s decision to insert an imaginary-friend character of the Fuhrer as “a bold move” that allows audiences to get into Jojo’s mind.
“At first, he’s just a goofy friend,” Leunens said of Waititi’s Hitler. “As Jojo in the film gets further and further [away] from him, [Hitler] becomes a more and more recognizable figure. He begins to shout, with gestures Hitler really did at that moment.”
Leunens has seen the film four times. She attended its premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. She went to this year’s Golden Globes, where the film won awards for Best Picture and Best Actor (Davis), and to the Humanitas ceremony, where it won an award as well.
She’s looking forward to the Oscars. “This is a big change for me,” she said. “As a writer, I’m mostly at my desk, staring out my window. No one sees me.”
And she hopes the film will educate audiences about the evils that plagued Germany in WWII — evils that she says are resurfacing today.
“We’re seeing the subject completely relevant again — a rise in anti-Semitism, racism, the far right,” Leunens said. “To be honest, I never saw it coming… I did not imagine during my lifetime I would see things going backwards again.”