English teachers weigh in on Academy Award-nominated film adaptation of ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’

March 3, 2023 — by Parav Manney and Eric Shi
Paul Bäumer, Katczinsky and another soldier survey a trench with rifles at the ready in Netflix’s All Quiet on the Western Front.
Even though the movie significantly strayed from the source material, sophomore English teachers Mrs. Laws and Mr. Cortez thoroughly enjoyed the filmmaking.

Erich Maria Remarque’s critically acclaimed anti-war novel “All Quiet on the Western Front” has long played a key role in the school’s English 10 curriculum. During the second semester of their sophomore year, students read the work not only to sharpen their comprehension and language arts skills, but also to gain a glimpse of the harsh realities of warfare. 

So when Netflix’s German adaptation of the novel was released last October,  English teachers took notice. (The book has been adapted into famous movies previously going all the way back to the 1930s.) 

English 10 teacher Megan Laws praised the film’s compelling view of war, saying how its brutal depiction of war’s inhumanity and violence created a strong anti-war sentiment. However, Laws also noticed that while the original story was told from one narrator’s point of view, the 2022 movie focused on the general perspective of a larger group of people. In that regard, much of the book’s most compelling was lost in the film adaptation.

“The book is told through Paul, but in the movie, it’s more of a holistic perspective,” Laws said. “That first person is lost and that’s how we teach the book. That’s kind of the whole point: to put the human face on war. Without that human perspective of thoughts and feelings you miss some of that.” 

Because of this major change in perspective, Laws does not intend to show it in its entirety to her students. However, she might show clips of it since the film has merit in showing the effects of war and the robbery of humanity. 

Sophomore English teacher Marcus Cortez also praised the film’s technical execution, saying how it portrayed the gore of war without being gratuitous. He noted the movie’s unique soundtrack, pointing out small details in many of the tracks that highlighted the novel’s point on warfare’s detrimental consequences. One detail that Cortez noticed in the music was the harsh, sudden drum beats that initially sounded out of place. For a moment, viewers can’t tell if they are gunshots or simply a drumbeat, and Cortez thought that it made the soundtrack both startling and unexpected. 

Along with the film’s effective portrayal of the violence in war, Cortez also found the film’s brutal depiction of the mud and blood of war to be extra compelling, saying that the interpretation and filmmaking had a high enough quality that he was able to enjoy watching the movie without having to worry much about its accuracy adhering to the plot of the book.

However, despite enjoying “All Quiet on the Western Front” as a stand-alone film, Cortez still said he believes the many deviations from the original text could be problematic for English students who watch the movie instead of engaging deeply with the book.

“For example, the opening of the movie with a beautiful, natural setting and a little montage of a fox with her pups was a lot less powerful than the opening of the novel, in which the men are celebrating the fact that they’re getting double rations because half of their company was slaughtered in the previous battle,” Cortez said.

He added that because the film chose to take a different route from the book for the opening scene, the beginning of the film did not convey the overall theme as well as the original text did.

A similar pattern follows for some other key scenes where the film chose to deviate from the source material. 

“I think that a really important part of the book was when Paul kills a French soldier up close and personal. In this scene, the author remarks on the ways in which war changes our humanity through necessity,” Cortez said. “In the novel, we’re in Paul’s point of view, and get much more of a sense of his guilt and the promises he makes to try to atone for killing this man. I feel like that sentiment was totally gone in the movie.”

Given the nature of films, he knows that if students watch the 2022 version of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” they will visualize the plot in the book differently. He emphasized the importance of students constructing their own interpretation of the events in the book, because the reading experience are  far more personal than if the students’ interpretations were influenced by a third party media source. 

“I don’t want them to be spoon fed a vision in their head. Rather, I want them to create it in their head with their own imagination based on the writing,” Cortez said.

On the contrary, Laws remarked that it was great that a movie adaptation was made because she believes that there is value in seeing a visual to go along with the original text.

While Laws’s and Cortez’s respective opinions on Netflix’s movie adaptation revealed different philosophies with regards to teaching and interpreting literature, they both equalized the value cinema and writing as art forms.

“I think because the interpretation and the filmmaking had a high enough quality, I was able to enjoy the story and not worry so much about the parallels with the book,” Cortez said.

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