TORONTO — Adapting a beloved, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel into a Netflix series sounds like a daunting task, but Canadian director-producer Shawn Levy says bringing “All the Light We Cannot See” to the screen didn’t feel that way for a simple reason — he is a “rabid fan” of the book.
“All along, I've approached this material with reverence. Not so much reverence that I'm unwilling to change things to make it breathe in this new format on screen," he said in a September interview after two episodes of the limited series premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Anthony Doerr’s novel — set during the Second World War — tells the parallel stories of blind French girl Marie-Laure, who joins the resistance to Nazi occupation, and radio tech-savvy German teenager Werner, recruited by the Nazis to track down illegal broadcasts. The book has been a hit with readers and critics since it was first published in 2014, selling more than 15 million copies worldwide and winning multiple literary prizes, including the coveted Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Montreal-born Levy, whose resume includes producing the 2016 sci-fi drama film “Arrival” and the hit Netflix series “Stranger Things,” said Doerr is a novelist “who understands the shift in medium, (and) didn't try to over control the process with too much preciousness.”
All four episodes of “All the Light We Cannot See” were written by Steven Knight, creator of the BBC show “Peaky Blinders,” and Levy said it was clear from the start of their collaboration that Knight understood the novel in the same way.
“You have a book that means so much to millions of people,” Levy said. “I wanted the soul of the book to be captured. I wanted to do right by these characters who are, in my heart, iconic.”
Newcomer Aria Mia Loberti, who plays the teenage Marie-Laure, stood out among “hundreds and hundreds” of auditions sent in response to a global casting call for blind and low-vision actresses.
Loberti, a U.S. scholar and PhD candidate with a master’s degree in ancient rhetoric, had never acted or even auditioned for a role before, Levy said.
“Aria is singular,” he said.
Even though she initially didn’t know anything about working on a set, Levy said Loberti told him she wanted to “be great” and that he could be blunt in his feedback.
“It's pretty amazing to work with an actor who is telling you up front they're not fragile, they want candour and they're aspiring to the same thing you are, which is excellence.”
Levy said Loberti, in turn, taught him and others how to give Marie-Laure's character “authenticity beyond the page” by pointing out when the script didn’t accurately portray the life of a blind person. For example, Levy said Loberti told him that Marie wouldn’t navigate her own home with a cane, since it’s a space she knows intimately.
Loberti was named one of TIFF’s rising stars but she didn’t do interviews alongside Levy to promote the series at the festival, due to an ongoing Hollywood actors strike.
In press notes provided by Netflix, Loberti said blindness is "the last thing on Marie-Laure’s mind and it’s probably the least relevant part of her identity, but it is the way she explores and feels the world around her."
She said people behind projects that want to include a character with a disability — or any character from a marginalized community — should be asking questions such as: "Why do you want to tell the story? And if you’re not doing so authentically, what makes you drawn to that story in the first place?"
Rounding out the main cast are Louis Hofmann — who starred in the twisty sci-fi German-language Netflix series “Dark” — as Werner, Mark Ruffalo as Marie’s father Daniel and Hugh Laurie as Marie’s great-uncle Etienne. Levy also cast a blind child actress from Wales, Nell Sutton, to play the younger version of Marie-Laure.
Directing young actors alongside seasoned veterans is nothing new for Levy, whose film credits also include the family comedy “Cheaper by the Dozen” and the “Night at the Museum” movie franchise. He said being a father of four is part of the reason he’s worked well with young performers over the years.
“In my experience, everybody who chooses this creative life, whether they're young or old or new or veteran, they choose this life because they love the community of creatives,” Levy said.
“All the Light We Cannot See” premiers globally Thursday on Netflix.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 31, 2023.
Sonja Puzic, The Canadian Press