Book Reviews

Review: The Zookeeper’s Wife Book and Film by Diane Ackerman and directed by Niki Caro

The Zookeeper's Wife Book Review
Jessica Chastain stars as Antonina Zabinski in director Niki Caro’s THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Anne Marie Fox / Focus Features

Around the beginning of March I received an unexpected email from someone asking me if I wanted to attend a pre-release screening of The Zookeeper’s Wife, releasing on March 31. Why me? Well the film is based on a book! I thought, what divine circumstances as I was visiting NY anyway for that time period. This inspired me to read the book, so below I’ll tell you about my thoughts on the book, and the film. Spoiler: the film is so much better than the book.

But what is it about? The real-life story of one working wife and mother who became a hero to hundreds during World War II. In 1939 Poland, Antonina Żabińska (portrayed by two-time Academy Award nominee Jessica Chastain) and her husband, Dr. Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh of “The Broken Circle Breakdown”), have the Warsaw Zoo flourishing under his stewardship and her care. When their country is invaded by the Germans, Jan and Antonina are stunned – and forced to report to the Reich’s newly appointed chief zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl of “Captain America: Civil War”). To fight back on their own terms, Antonina and Jan covertly begin working with the Resistance – and put into action plans to save lives out of what has become the Warsaw Ghetto, with Antonina putting herself and even her children at great risk. (Courtesy of my press kit)

The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman

‘I feel like I’m drowning in a gray sea, like they’re flooding the whole city, washing away our past and people, dashing everything from the face of the earth’ (68)

The Zookeeper's Wife Book Review
Jessica Chastain stars as Antonina Zabinski in director Niki Caro’s THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Anne Marie Fox / Focus Features

What I liked best of the The Zookeeper’s Wife was Antonina’s character, how vivid the world is in the book, and the real facts behind the story. Ackerman is able to bring a dazzling life to the pages in her descriptions. It is truly remarkable and these portions of the text are my favorite. Additionally, Antonina is such a compelling character who is insightful and compassionate. The book offers a wealth of facts and extensive documentation. I never knew about this project to bring back one extinct animal, the Aurochs, of Germany, which I found so intriguing. In fact many things from the book are direct quotes from her diaries and letters.

‘The personality of animals will develop according to how you raise, train, educate them–you can’t generalize about them. Just like people who own dogs and cats will tell you, no two are exactly alike. Who knew that a rabbit could learn to a kiss a human, open doors, or give us reminders about dinnertime?’ (165)

The Zookeeper's Wife Film Review
Jessica Chastain stars as Antonina Zabinski in director Niki Caro’s THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Anne Marie Fox / Focus Features

However, this is also a downside because the amount of facts can get tiring after a while. Additionally there is a lot of depth of information on those who passed through. While this is fascinating in its own right, it detracts from Antonina’s story and so I found it dry in comparison. Furthermore, while it is called The Zookeeper’s Wife, the book just does not have as much Antonina as I would have liked! I wanted to know more details of how they did it and Antonina’s perspective on it. Instead it was more about Jan and his contributions to the efforts. However, when Antonina was given the space to shine, shine she did and those passages were a joy to read.

‘If a creature is in danger, your save it, human or animal’ (113)

The book begs us to ask ourselves to acknowledge the myriad of ways that people were able to stand up for what was right. To honor their bravery, determination, and sacrifices. I was eagerly anticipating how the movie would build on this fantastic story and bring it the life I was missing.

The Event

The Zookeeper's Wife Film ScreeningAs I said earlier, this whole thing felt like a dream, or an elaborate prank. Being there was surreal. Everyone else had so much more experience and I was very humbled by all the people they had interviewed. We were ushered into this building, which I had no idea housed a theater, and then into a cozy theater. Then they just opened the curtains and began. Afterwards we all walked together and I tagged along. I was able to meet some amazing fellow bloggers from so many different areas. We were given a beautiful and delicious lunch before we had a Q&A with the director, Niki Caro and Jessica Chastain. This portion was both fantastic and illuminating. They are both well spoken individuals and brought such a depth to their answers. For example, the most wonderful thing I heard was from Chastain was about her working with the animals. She said, “it is a spiritual being…it is not ours to possess”. So many gorgeous and moving things were said. It was such a joy and pleasure to hear these two women’s profound thoughts.

Finally, the Film (see the trailer here)

The zookeeper's wife book review
Johan Heldenbergh and Jessica Chastain star as Jan and Antonina Zabinski in director Niki Caro’s THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Anne Marie Fox / Focus Features

Well it was much better than the book. The atmosphere was so detailed and vividly created. Whether it was the costumes, or the colors of the film, everything contributed to the overall ambiance. Additionally, Chastain acted phenomenally, and made Antonina’s character come out even better than I expected from the book. See a brief clip entitle “Meeting Antonina” here. Seeing the story on the screen, made the whole experience of this true story so much more moving. The anticipation, fear, and tears that I lacked from the book were made real by the screen.

The Zookeeper's Wife Film Review
Jessica Chastain and director Niki Caro work out a scene on the set of THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Anne Marie Fox / Focus Features

The creative liberties Caro took did not detract from the story, but enhanced it. There were a few incidents where it strayed, although overall it was spot on, but these made it even better. For example, they took the irony of a zoo housing people, but also people that the Nazi’s deemed unhuman (and therefore animal like), and expanded upon it in such a rich and poignant way. When you are watching it, pay close attention to the rabbit relationship as a metaphor.

At times it was heartbreaking, others radiant, the Zookeeper’s Wife is not to be missed. If you enjoyed the book, see the movie to witness the transformation before your eyes. If you did not enjoy the book, the movie will take the phenomenal and not well known story and bring it to life – entertaining while still uplifting. The clinical details and documentation are seamlessly absorbed by the atmosphere making a truly beautiful and inspirational film.

It releases March 31st and I highly encourage you to go see it. You can check it out on social media here: Official Site I Facebook I Twitter I Instagram

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