The history of cinema is littered with the corpses of brilliant first novels turned into dud movies, and one approaches the film version of ''Everything Is Illuminated" with more nervousness than usual. Jonathan Safran Foer's celebrated 2002 book was nothing if not writerly, dancing among multiple time periods and narrators, playing with accents and malapropisms, careening from slapstick to the Holocaust and back again. Parts of the novel were intensely moving, while others were so aggressively clever you wanted to strap Foer down with a pot of decaf and the collected works of Ernest Hemingway.
How do you make a movie out of such an overexuberant wingding? Taking the ''it takes a thief to catch a thief" approach, this smart literary debut has been brought to the screen by a smart first-time filmmaker, actor and acclaimed stage director Liev Schreiber. Schreiber has a strong visual sense and a way with actors; he has fashioned a whimsical, occasionally touching road movie that may enchant audiences who haven't read the book. He has an interesting career ahead of him. But fans of Jonathan Safran Foer may rightly consider this an act of taxidermy. ''Everything Is Illuminated" hasn't been adapted so much as gutted, stuffed, and mounted.
In Schreiber's defense, something had to go. Here that means the historical segments set in the shtetl of Trachimbrod that took up almost half the book. All those fiercely scribbled magical-realist passages of 18th-century, 19th-century, 20th-century Jewish life -- gone, goodbye. ''Everything" tells the other half of the story, of a tightly wound young American named Jonathan Safran Foer (played by that noted Jew Elijah Wood) who journeys to Ukraine to find the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Hiring a young Ukrainian named Alex (Eugene Hutz) whose greatest gift is his wild-and-crazy mangling of the English language, Jonathan embarks on an initially comic tour through the post-Soviet scrap heap, with Alex's cranky grandfather (Boris Leskin) and a mongrel named Sammy Davis Junior, Junior along for company.
This part hews faithfully to the novel and is visualized with enjoyable flair, ricky-tick Eastern European pop songs on the soundtrack cueing us to laugh indulgently. Wood plays Jonathan as a sort of constant mourner, a nerd in a suit so obsessed with the past he barely exists in the present. That leaves a vacuum at the center of the movie which Hutz and Leskin are more than happy to fill, and the gulf between what these two say to each other in Ukrainian and what they tell Jonathan in English is often cataclysmically funny. I wish Schreiber didn't cut to the dog quite so often, but that's what dogs in movies are for, I guess -- even Foer kept cutting to the dog in a literary sense, and why not? It's cheap and it works.
These three (plus the dog) burrow further into the Ukrainian landscape, getting lost, going off-road, and eventually nearing the edge of the map, beyond which is Trachimbrod. At this point, ''Everything Is Illuminated" becomes heavy with the ghosts of the past. They're invisible under fields that have been plowed over and replanted, but they're there, and even Eugene, goofy rapper-wannabe that he is, can't miss them. The grandfather doesn't have ghosts; like all survivors of war, in a sense he is one.
The movie finally comes to ground at a house surrounded by sunflowers, in which lives a very old woman (Laryssa Lauret) about whom I can tell you no more. It's at this point that Schreiber pulls his punches. The movie's emotional climax is told to us by one of the characters, but the director can hardly bring himself to show it. While this is understandable -- how do you visualize the unthinkable? -- in a sense, it's an abdication of cinema. More problematically, he then replaces Foer's key plot twist with an altogether different one that alters the very meaning of the book.
Without giving too much away, Foer's twist said that all of us are complicit; all of us share a measure of guilt. Schreiber's twist says the exact opposite: that all of us are victims. This is a lesser and less interesting thing to say but a much easier one, and it lets everyone -- characters, audience, Jonathan Safran Foer -- off the hook. In the end, for all its surface pleasures and profundities, ''Everything Is Illuminated" is never remotely hard enough.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.