Those who loved poring through Agota Kristof’s 1986 novel, “Le Grand Cahier,” have been waiting for a film adaptation for almost two decades.
Written by the Hungarian while she was in exile, this was the first book (published in English as “The Notebook”) in a best-selling trilogy, and by the early 1990’s the Japanese translation, titled “Akudou Nikki,” became a cult sensation. Actress Rie Miyazawa once told me she loved reading it between takes on movie sets and the scene at Tokyo’s ’90s clubs such as Gold and Juliana’s was full of kids who carried the novel around like a talisman. Cult manga artist Kyoko Okazaki hailed it as a work that changed her life. In 2006, Shigesato Itoi created “Mother 3,” a video game featuring characters inspired by the novel’s protagonists Lucas and Claus.
Some 20-odd years later, Hungarian film director Janos Szasz has come out with the film version and — as far as adaptations go — this is as marvelous as it gets. Szasz has reincarnated Kristof’s world in a way that’s so faithful to the original novel, it seems the author dreamed the images and willed them into existence.
“Le Grand Cahier” (released in Japan as “Akudou Nikki” and internationally as “The Notebook”) is the story of twin Hungarian brothers (played by Laszlo and Andras Gyemant) on the brink of puberty and in the midst of World War II. Their mother (Gyongyver Bognar) takes them to their grandmother’s house in a remote village and tells them she will come back for them soon. Their father (Ulrich Matthes) gives them a notebook as a parting gift, instructing them to record every single incident that happens to them, and that they must survive — no matter what.
“In a way, those words sealed the twins’ fate. Imagine the huge pressure of such a command,” says Szasz, during an interview with The Japan Times. “It’s almost as if he was leaving them on the steps to hell and telling them to deal with it.”
That’s an apt description. The twins’ grandmother (Piroska Molnar) turns out to be a terrifying figure, treating the boys like slave laborers and giving them little or no food. She pinches whatever letters the mother sends to her sons, and tells the twins’ that their parents abandoned them. When the boys aren’t looking, she stuffs herself with potatoes, adding to her enormous girth. She is the twins’ first encounter with adult evil, triggering a response that they must adjust to their new environment as quickly as possible — survival becomes a top priority. Everything else, including morality, is a distant second. Love hardly makes the list, though the twins admit to each other that they miss their mother but they know the longing will weaken their resolve.
Soon, everything becomes an “experiment” or a “lesson.” Their lives mirror the war as they engage in acts of cheating, lying, sexual violence and murder with chilling calm and brute force.
“The seeds of evil were sown by the parents,” says Szasz. “The twins start out as angels, and then turn into monsters. What happens here is that they are simply understanding and digesting their parents’ message.”
Agota Kristof’s own upbringing mirrors that of the twins: She was raised in a strict household headed by her schoolteacher father; was later forcibly separated from her brothers, whom she loved; and she also wrote “Le Grand” in French, a language she had taught herself during her years of exile.
The novel has a distinct, simple style, because her French skills were not quite up to par — she chose to write like a 10-year-old, in the voice of a boy who understands only that he must live in a world filled with brutality.
“Agota was very straightforward and never polite. She couldn’t lie, she didn’t know how,” says the 56-year-old director, who visited Kristof frequently in her home once he got the rights to make the movie.
“She was an ascetic monk without a God, and many people found her very difficult and nearly impossible to work with. This is part of the reason why many directors sought to the rights to make ‘Le Grand,’ only to have the project fade away.” Kristof died in 2011, while Szasz’s film was in post production.
Szasz says that in many ways, “Le Grand” was more of a family affair than a cinema project, which he felt was important for Kristof.
“My wife plays the twins’ mother, and the baby in the movie was our baby. My other kids were always on the set, helping out or hanging around. The staff were people we’d known for years. Agota loved that, because she had lost her own family when she was young and was always struggling to find her place in the world. She was on a perpetual journey, and the making of the film was a journey for me as well.”
And the film has remained with Szasz. The twins were played by boys plucked out of a poor, rural neighborhood and Szasz literally rescued them from an abusive mother and horrible living conditions.
“Working with us on the movie set, the twins had enough to eat, and warmth and love for the first time in their lives,” Szasz says. “And when it was time to wrap the film up, they just didn’t want to leave and pretended to be sick. I call them ‘my sweet gangsters.’ “
The Gyemant twins have since moved to Budapest where Szasz enrolled them in a chef’s school.
“I’m really proud that I didn’t throw them back into poverty, just use them for work and then throw them away. I feel like giving love is the least an adult can do for children, whether or not they are one’s own. More than anything else, children need to know they are not alone. It’s what keeps them going.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.