All the Light We Cannot See – A story of the extraordinary power of human connection

“This is an incredibly timely story. Thematically it’s about finding light in times of darkness,” says screenwriter Steven Knight on the decision to adapt All the Light We Cannot See for television. “There’s just a very hopeful feeling about it, that hope will triumph over evil in the end.”

Based on Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, All the Light We Cannot See is a groundbreaking limited series that follows the story of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl and her father, Daniel LeBlanc, who flee German-occupied Paris with a legendary diamond to keep it from falling into the hands of the Nazis.

“I’d heard about the book and people whose opinions I respected had told me how good it was,” says Knight, who also wrote the screenplays for Peaky Blinders, Taboo and Eastern Promises. “I get very little time to read anything that I’m not actually commissioned to adapt, so when the call came through — would I be interested? — I read the book and that was it. The decision was made. It was an absolute privilege to adapt it.”

“God help us. Humanity — that’s the salient theme,” says Knight of the story.

“We keep making the same mistakes. We keep doing the same stupid things over and over again. This story is an examination of the madness of the Second World War, which was a consequence of a man trying to inflict his insanity on the rest of the world and people falling for it. We never learn and it keeps happening again. There was a line that got to me as I watched an episode last night where Marie says, “Our generation mustn’t do this,” and it made me think about my kids’ generation. I hope they don’t fall for it again because this is where it goes and this is how it ends. If anything can come from this story — it’s the symbolism of what the radio frequency is: rational, reasonable, true scientific sense. Listen to that and it’ll be okay. Don’t and you’ll get disaster. I can’t think of anything that is more relevant to today than that message.

Screenwriter Steven Knight
Director Shawn Levy

“I remember reading the book over the Christmas-New Year holiday break and I just devoured it.” says award-winning director and Executive Producer Shawn Levy. “I was struck by not only the propulsive narrative tension of these intersecting fates, but the story about the persistence of hope against a backdrop of darkness and war, and a world in which evil exists, yet innocence somehow survives. Those are beautiful themes to me. The rights weren’t available at the time, but I always kept my eye on that book because of those themes. I told my producing partner Dan Levine and everyone else at my company 21 Laps that if there was ever an opportunity to get the rights to All the Light We Cannot See, let’s pounce — and one day it finally happened. And for me, it presented a once-in-a-lifetime and a first-in-a-lifetime creative experience and artistic gratification.”

Relentlessly pursued by a cruel Gestapo officer who seeks to possess the stone for his own selfish means, Marie-Laure and her father soon find refuge in St. Malo, where they take up residence with a reclusive uncle who transmits clandestine radio broadcasts as part of the Resistance. Yet here in this once-idyllic seaside city, Marie-Laure’s path also collides with the unlikeliest of kindred spirits: Werner, a brilliant teenager enlisted by Hitler’s regime to track down illegal broadcasts, who instead shares a secret connection to Marie-Laure as well as her faith in humanity and the possibility of hope. Deftly interweaving the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner over the course of a decade, it tells a story of the extraordinary power of human connection — a beacon of light that can lead us through even the darkest of times.

The four-part limited series from Netflix introduces newcomers Aria Mia Loberti and Nell Sutton as the older and younger Marie-Laure respectively, and stars Mark Ruffalo as Daniel LeBlanc, Hugh Laurie as Uncle Etienne, Louis Hofmann as Werner, Lars Eidinger as Von Rumpel, and Marion Bailey as Madame Manec

From Page To Screen

“Many qualified producers and writers before me had tried to turn this book into a movie, but it didn’t work out because there was too much story,” says Shawn Levy. “There’s such a rich tapestry of characters and events in the book, and telling that story in two hours was all but impossible. By the time we got the rights, limited series had evolved to become a pedigreed cinematic form that allowed for longer-form storytelling on television. We didn’t want to compress it into two hours, but we also wanted to avoid stretching it out into eight or nine. So with that in mind, we got an incredible writer in Steven Knight, whose work as the creator and writer of Peaky Blinders Dan Levine and I knew very well, and he said he thought it was a four-episode story and that’s where we landed. So I approached this series as if it were a four-hour film. I hired the same crew and artistic collaborators from my movies, and we were all dedicated to transposing the beauty of the book and screenplays onto the screen. If I’m going to do my job and tell this story the way I think this story deserves, it has to be cinematic no matter the format.”

Adapting the Novel

“When you adapt a story you have to remember that the writing is not going to be on the screen. And so you have to look at other things, like characters. And the characters here are so amazing, it feels like you’ve stumbled across a true story because of the way reality and fiction cross over. The characters are drawn together by something other than just random faith. And I felt that very strongly in the book — that there was an awareness of something other than normal reality going on, especially with the Sea of Flames. A supernatural element always appeals to me. Straight away, I knew I wanted to do it.”

One of the biggest challenges in adapting the book was managing time shifts. “The beauty of it is
the way that it ends a chapter in 1934, and then it’s 1944, and then it’s 1934 again. And I wanted to keep that fluidity of time in there, but the challenge is that when you’re doing that on screen, your enemy is confusion. You don’t want people to not know what the hell is going on. And so the challenge was to make sure that everybody knows where we’re at and to make sure that the story’s being told as faithfully as possible.”

Author Anthony Doerr was a fan of Knight’s series’ Peaky Blinders and Taboo. “Steven’s excellent at these kinds of cross cuts, which I use in the novel quite a bit, moving back and forth between characters and in time,” says Doerr. “To see him execute these really complex, but not disorienting cross cuts, was thrilling…In a novel you can be a little more expansive and describe a building or a tree for a paragraph and the reader will forgive it. But Steven is so good about being efficient and putting pressure on the characters in each scene…He’s also quite good at leavening the darkness with moments of humor. That’s a great Stephen Knight touch.”

Anthony Doerr

“I think one of the themes that I keep coming back to in all my work is the redemptive power of connection,” says Shawn Levy. “And in this story, human connection can be salvation… So many period pieces are magnificently crafted, but they feel somewhat austere or emotionally remote. I wanted to make a beautiful-looking period drama that was also unabashedly human and emotional. My hope is that audiences will engage with these characters and their humanity.”

A Word From The Actors

All the Light We Cannot See. Aria Mia Loberti as Marie-Laure in All the Light We Cannot See. Cr. Doane Gregory/Netflix © 2023

Aria Mia Loberti plays a courageous blind teenager who flees German-occupied Paris during World War II and takes on a key role as part of the Resistance in the seaside town of St. Malo.

“I hope people will come to truly understand that this is a representation of a way someone lives their life that is not by choice, but by circumstance. And by placing someone in a role authentically ensures that when you’re telling these stories, you’re doing so through a lens of truth…I think what we’re all trying to get at is truth about ourselves, truth about humanity, truth about why we are the way we are, and what better way to do that than by including everyone in the art we make and the stories we tell?”

“This story isn’t about being blind — it’s about humanity coming together in a time of hardship. 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. So, I hope people will start asking questions when they want to include a character with a disability or any character from a marginalized community. 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? Why do you want to send that message? I think it’s so important for young people to be able to say, “I can be the hero of my own story. I can tell my own story. I don’t have to have other people presenting a facsimile of me. I can be authentic and true, and I’m worthy of that. I’m worthy of having my own voice.”

All the Light We Cannot See. Louis Hofmann as 16 Year Old Werner in episode 101 of All the Light We Cannot See. Cr. Katalin Vermes/Netflix © 2023

Werner Pfennig plays a sensitive and brilliant German teenager who gets swept up in the brutality of war when he’s enlisted by Hitler’s regime to track down illegal radio broadcasts.

“To me, All the Light We Cannot See is about goodness, love, hope, and innocence — all of which are things you can’t see, but you can transmit and pass on to someone else. And I appreciated a story that always comes back to the good in people. But one of the reasons why I wanted to do this so badly was my character’s premise. Werner is very sensitive, but also very broken. He’s got this beautiful gift of
being a genius, and I always find it interesting when something so positive brings about something so negative. He’s a genius with radios, but it becomes a burden when the Nazis make use of his skill, and he sort of suffers under the regime. The beautiful thing is — he keeps on trying to hold onto what’s good and that eventually leads him to Marie. The story is just wonderfully told and I was extremely interested in it straight away.”

Mark Ruffalo plays a curator at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. Caring and clever, he’s determined to give his blind daughter Marie-Laure as much independence as he can while also protecting her — and the secret gem they carry — from the Nazis.

“I think we always hear the bad side of World War II, or war in general, but it’s important to also see the beautiful human stories of people transcending adversity and the ugliness of it. Even in the midst of this horror, there’s also beauty that’s always present. We just can’t submit ourselves completely to despair, even though we have to acknowledge it’s there and deal with it. There’s still the light that we cannot see.”

All the Light We Cannot See. (L to R) Mark Ruffalo as Daniel LeBlanc, Nell Sutton as Young Marie-Laure in All the Light We Cannot See. Cr. Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix © 2023

Final Thoughts

“My hopes are, as with all of my work, to first and foremost entertain,” says Shawn Levy.

“Beyond that, though, I would hope that this series moves viewers emotionally and that they connect with the storytelling; if not via circumstance or lived experience, than via shared humanity. The themes of this story are universal and timeless — the redemptive transformative power of love, the persistence of hope, the tenacity of optimism and ideals. These sound like big concepts, but they’re real ideas, resonant themes that I think we can all relate to. It’s my hope that the characters and story we’ve brought to the screen will connect with people who share the humanity and emotionality of this beautiful story.”