‘My Journey with the Devil’
In 1988, Jane Yolen’s young-adult novel, “The Devil’s Arithmetic,” was published to rave reviews and international acclaim. The story of the spoiled, secular Jewish teen-ager, Hannah Stern, who goes from New Rochelle back in time to a concentration camp, struck a vital chord in readers everywhere.
I was one of those readers.
As a Hollywood screenwriter and an Orthodox Jew, I am always looking for material that will allow me to express my love of Judaism through film — the medium that I am so passionate about.
Reading “The Devil’s Arithmetic” was the beginning of a journey that has consumed years of my life. I immediately contacted Jane Yolen’s agent and tried to option the film rights to the book. My heart sank when I was told that the rights were already in the hands of someone else. I asked the agent to contact me if the rights became available again.
Never really giving up, I kept in contact with the agent, and, amazingly, the option to the novel lapsed and I was able to option the book. With the rights in hand, I went to every studio in town and pitched the story. Even with a successful track record as a writer and producer, the studio executives shied away from such “dark” material. I explained that this was a film about hope. But I was told, in no uncertain terms, that no one was interested in Jews who are in concentration camps.
I realized that the only way to convince anyone in Hollywood that this was a viable project, I had to write the script on spec. This means that I had to take several months out of my professional life, give up income, and write the script. When you have three children in yeshivot, this is a big decision.
Flash forward a few months. I have finished my adaptation of “The Devil’s Arithmetic,” and my agents at CAA unanimously declare it my best work. We all believe that, now, the film will be made.
By now, Steven Spielberg’s epic “Schindler’s List” has exploded the boundaries of narrative cinema. All the studio executives reject “The Devil’s Arithmetic,” saying that there is only room for one “Holocaust movie.”
Years pass and I and my agents continue to show my script to potential buyers — but nothing happens.
Flash forward to 1998. I am working with actress Mimi Rogers on a different project. A friendship develops, and I mention “The Devil’s Arithmetic.” Mimi confides that her father is Jewish and she’d like to read the script. Several nights later, Mimi calls me in tears. She has read the script and cannot stop crying. Would I mind if she gave the script to Dustin Hoffman? Mimi thinks Dustin might be interested in producing my script.
Do I mind? As my daughters would say, “That’s a complete Duh.”
As the readers of The Jewish Journal already know, Dustin read the script and immediately jumped aboard as producer. A deal was made with Showtime Network, and the film was shot under incredibly difficult circumstances in Lithuania.
It has been more than 10 years since I first read the book, and now, finally, my vision, my obsession, has finally been achieved.
The wonderful teen-age actress Kirsten Dunst plays the lead role of Hannah Stern, the disaffected Jewish teen who discovers, under horrendous circumstance, the meaning of Pesach, and ultimately what it means to be a Jew.
The importance of this film lies in its message to young people. In our luxurious lives, in this seductive consumer culture, how can our children relate to the absolute evil of the Shoah? In a world where the educational elite in our university system teaches our children that there is no good or evil, just relative morality, “The Devil’s Arithmetic” insists on absolute definitions of good and evil, and tells the story of one young Jewish girl who stands, ultimately, for all young Jews.
A close friend in shul recently asked me if it was worth it, all the years that I have devoted to “The Devil’s Arithmetic.” I looked up at the Holy Ark and smiled. It was worth it because I believe that I have done more than simply make a film: Hopefully, “The Devil’s Arithmetic” will change people’s hearts and minds. It has profoundly changed mine.
Robert J. Avrech is a producer and screenwriter who lives in the Pico-Robertson area. Among his numerous credits are: “Body Double” and “A Stranger Among Us.” “The Devil’s Arithmetic” will première on Showtime on Sunday, March 28, at 8 p.m.