Screenwriter Petra Volpe talks about adapting Heidi for the big screen

”I once read that Heidi opens the hearts of people right where goodness is located. I think the story contains a longing we all have: a child that is so pure, a child that can just be itself.”

Petra Biondina Volpe

Petra Biondina Volpe was born to an Italian father and a Swiss mother and grew up in Switzerland. She went to Art School in Zürich and 1997 she went to study Screenplay and Dramaturgy at the Filmuniversity in Potsdam Babelsberg. In film school she wrote and directed several prize winning short films. Since 2001 she works as a director and screenwriter. She lives in Berlin and New York.

Screenwriter Petra Volpe talks about adapting Heidi for the big screen

What did you discover in the novels?

I found a story and a Heidi character that I had not seen before. Johanna Spyri writes incredibly vividly, has a hard realism and describes the story three-dimensionally and ambivalently. With her it is not this good world versus bad world that has been shown so often in the films. And I thought: Wow, now that would be a great challenge to make a Heidi film that could do justice to this three-dimensionality, this complexity, this delicacy and precision of the characters and the world. I imagined a film that would pick up on this delicate and intimate aspect that the novel contains yet would not neglect this epic greatness when it came to emotions. Furthermore, I also felt a very personal connection to this material, to the character, when I worked my way into it. I have read a lot about Johanna Spyri and the more I read, the more this woman fascinated me too – and I felt a connection, as a person and as a woman. Heidi is also a very powerful girls’ story. So I said: “Ok, I’ll write it. I want to, and I can.”

What, in your words, is the quintessence of this world-famous story?

I once read that Heidi opens the hearts of people right where goodness is located. I think the story contains a longing we all have: a child that is so pure, a child that can just be itself. That was a very important aspect for me when writing the screenplay. The contrasts are also incredibly powerful. On the one hand we have this small, tender girl in her little shirt and on the other hand the old, grumpy Almöhi. Then we have a house in Germany that is like a corset into which the girl, who has come from the mountains and was so free, is forced. These massive contrasts in the story are something universal, which is why people still like reading the story to this day.

And I would like to stress once again that for all these big contrasts there is no black and white, no good versus evil, not even with Johanna Spyri. There is always a “but” or another side.

That is one great strength of the story.

Is there an aspect you have changed in the screenplay?

Heidi does not undergo a development in Spyri’s book, which is also down to the time it was written. Heidi is a very crystalline character; the novel is not a development novel. And criticism of the novel was also aimed at Heidi being condemned to be a child for ever, asexual, forever serving her grandfather… I just think that the times did not permit Johanna Spyri to liberate Heidi. But we live in different times today, in which it is possible for me to give Heidi a prospect, a vision of her future – thereby “liberating” her. But without any major development, because that would not work for the story as a whole.

How did you approach the adaptation?

There are certain elements in the story that cannot be left out. For example, Klara learning to walk, Peter pushing the wheelchair down the mountain, Heidi hiding the rolls in the cupboard in Frankfurt. For this reason I also took different approaches to the adaptation. You have to be very humble with the material, which is very strict. You cannot just invent things to add to it because you want to make it more modern, exciting or interesting. If you do that, it just won’t work any more. It falls apart. You have to surrender to this strictness, look, listen and stay very close. If you skip around vainly and invent extra things, they will not fit.


Anuk Steffen as Heidi and Bruno Ganz as Almöhi.

Why do we need another HEIDI adaptation in your opinion?

The story is of great relevance. Particularly the idea that creating art, expressing oneself, communicating is more important than any belief systems. In my view it is important to encourage children to communicate with the world, to seek a language. That makes children strong and free.

I also think that we live in a strangely hostile world today. Although there is an obsession with bodies, there is also a hostility to the wild, to being outside in the great outdoors. That is one of the best things for children.

Last year I was with my husband’s children, who are growing up in Brooklyn and are real city kids, and spent a day on an Alp in Switzerland as part of a tour of Europe. They still talk about it today because it was the ultimate deep experience for them. I think HEIDI takes you away to this world and also makes adults feel like going out more with their children where they can bustle about, feel free and discover things. Heidi hangs around in the meadow all day long with her friend Peter.

There is nobody there who has to entertain them. They have their goats and are outside.

There is no structure. Today, parents constantly have to occupy their children. Kids no longer have any idea of how to overcome boredom. They are given something to do immediately.

What was important for you when developing the characters?

I thought all the characters were ambivalent.

They are not divided up into exclusively good and exclusively evil. The grandfather, for instance, has a dark side that you also get to feel. Or Klara’s father, who is a very ambivalent character, and the grandmother, who is not beyond reproach, who comes and goes again although the child is alone. In general it was important to me to retain these characteristics, which were created by Spyri. It was not possible to immerse myself in the psychology of the characters – there is not enough time to do this in a film. But I still tried to incorporate different tones. It was extremely important for me that the story is very close to Heidi, that it is told completely from the girl’s perspective.