Film adaptation benefited from changes to the book
Whether it’s a novel by Michael Ende, an adaptation of the Augsburger Puppenkiste, or a movie: The stories of Jim Knopf and his friend Lukas are German cultural assets. The 2018 film, therefore, stayed close to the book but modernized some problematic parts.
When the children’s book author Michael Ende published his “Jim Button and Lukas the Engine Driver” in 1960, it immediately became a classic, and it is still one of the most popular children’s books in Germany today. The version of the Augsburger Puppenkiste is at least as famous. So there were great expectations for director Dennis Gansel, who dared to make the first real film in 2018.
And with great success: “Jim Button and Lukas the Engine Driver” was also a big hit in the cinema, delighting young and old. Despite its length of only 110 minutes, Gansel managed to adapt the first book without significant cuts. But he did make a few minor changes after all – and for good reason: Viewed with today’s eyes, there are some passages in Michael Ende’s work that are not entirely unproblematic. Here is the trailer for the film:
“Jim Knopf” film: dispensing with the N-word
For a children’s book from 1960, it’s amazing how progressive the work was back then. Jim Knopf is a black boy, his “dark skin” is described again and again. A black protagonist was an absolute exception in German children’s books at the time. Anyone who reads “Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver” today recognizes the political dimension behind it: The book is a great deal with National Socialism and also with everyday racism. All characters with positive connotations, such as the iconic engine driver Lukas, come from the working class, who have created a utopia in which all people are equal.
But Michael Ende and his book are also products of their time and so, with today’s eyes, we can also see some stereotypical and racist elements. Jim Knopf himself is once referred to with the N-word, elsewhere he is pale under his black skin as if it were only made up, which is reminiscent of racist practices such as blackfacing. And when Lukas is filthy with the soot from the locomotive, Ende writes that his skin is now as black as Jim Knopf’s.
There are no such passages in the film. The N-word is left out, and the skin color of Jim Button, played by Solomon Gordon in the cinema version, is not discussed at all. It must be mentioned that this is entirely in the spirit of the original author: Michael Ende built many anti-racist ideas into his books so that such gaps should be interpreted more as modernization.
Representation of mandala adapted to the zeitgeist
While such changes should be easy, the filmmakers found it more difficult to render the mandala. In the book, Mandala is referred to as a metropolis, a big city compared to the small, manageable Summerland. From today’s perspective, the passages in Mandala from the novel are particularly problematic in how Ende describes the Chinese. He uses hackneyed Asian clichés, gives the characters names like ping pong, or depicts their offspring as adults in childhood (and thus refers to the stereotypes of performance pressure). The disgusting meal with exotic animals is also a must.
Once again, the filmmakers managed to make a contemporary adaptation through small changes: Mandala was largely equipped with studio sets and computer effects. The production designer Matthias Müsse oriented himself towards Chinese architecture but also incorporated other elements that cannot be clearly cultured. A scene from the book in which Jim and Lukas show themselves disgusted at the “disgusting meal” is brought to the fore in the film. Instead of eating snakeskin, Jim and Lukas ask for a cheese sandwich and get the answer: “Yuck, isn’t cheese actually moldy milk?” The names of the Asian characters are meanwhile retained, but all other clichés are strongly withheld and replaced with new types of elements.
The intention from Ende is retained again: You see the “Europeans” Jim and Lukas in a strange, exotic country marveling at the extravagance of the place, but embedding this in a form of expression that is appropriate for our times. It is u. a. Thanks to the fact that “Jim Button and Lukas the Engine Driver” also became a hit in the cinema – and were able to attract a new generation of young viewers.