6 Key Differences Between the Novel and Film of All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front: Key Differences Between the Novel and the 2022 Film

How does Erich Maria Remarque's original classic novel stack up to the 2022 Netflix film version?

James Carson

12 Mar 2023
Image Credit: Netflix

The newest film version of All Quiet on the Western Front was released in October 2022 with a rapturous reception for its gritty realism and cinematography. It went on to win 8 BAFTAs, including best film and best director, while also receiving 9 Oscar nominations – and all for a budget of $20 million.

Erich Maria Remarque’s anti-war novel was published in 1928, and sold 2.5 million copies in its first 18 months, along with being made into another Oscar winning film version in a 1930 release. The phrase ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’, translated from the German ‘Im Westen nichts Neues’ (Nothing New in the West), has become a popular English idiom meaning little is happening.

The screenplay of the 2022 film version won a BAFTA for its adaptation of the novel, but there are some key additions and omissions to the original work. The memoir approach of the novel does not have much of a traditional plot, rather it is a series of vignettes, with the clearest progression being the one by one deaths of Paul’s friends in the trenches.

The Armistice Subplot

A key difference between the two works is that the ‘signing of the armistice’ subplot is completely missing from the novel. In the film, a beaten German political delegation head to Compiegne to push for a reasonable peace, with the French General Staff being less than willing to compromise.

This both gives a sense of the German army collapsing in 1918, and the pointlessness of the war continuing when the politicians are pushing for peace. The book is told completely from Paul’s perspective, and while he does get out of the trenches, the armistice is not mentioned until the final pages, and it is only spoken of near the end through army rumour.

The Homefront

There are two chapters in the novel where Paul returns to Germany for rest and recuperation. The first is on leave, where he also goes on a training course. In the second he is badly injured after an attack and is taken to hospital.

In the book’s home leave he tries to acquaint himself with his family. They are putting on a brave face with food in Germany running low – a consequence of the Royal Navy’s effective blockade of the country. His mother also hides her cancer diagnosis from Paul. Later on in this mid section of the book, Paul goes to a training camp on some moorland and encounters starving Russian prisoners.

The second homefront scene well illustrates the faltering conditions in Germany’s wartime hospitals. This is illustrated to some degree in the film through the horrendous blood washed sanatorium where both Tjaden and Katcinzky meet their demise. In the book Paul is taken back to Germany, while in the film he remains near the front.

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While both the novel and the film are set in the later years of the war, most of the film’s action occurs in late 1918, when the German army was collapsing. The book is far more spread out, which allows for the return of Paul to the home front, as well as a brief romantic tryst he has with a French girl. In the film version, near the start of the 1918 part, one of his companions deserts with a French family.

The Horror of War: Coffin Shelling vs Tanks and Flamethrowers

The most shocking part of the book is when Paul’s unit find themselves under heavy shelling in a graveyard, and are forced to take cover amongst decomposing remains and coffins. This would be so gruesome on film that audiences might find it gratuitous, yet it is an appallingly powerful moment in the novel.

The midpoint of the Oscar winning film is one of the greatest war scenes of all time.

Image Credit: Netflix

The film is not, however, short of horrific moments. The most memorable is the stunning attack sequence about midway through, which shows the see-saw nature of attack and counterattack that infantry had to endure. It is possibly the greatest war scene in the history of cinema. Within it a man is horribly crushed by a tank, hundreds of men are cut down, and Paul’s friend Albert is brutally burned with a flamethrower. Paul then ends the battle in a shell hole where he kills a French soldier hand to hand – this scene is very similar in the book and film.

The Main Villain

The antagonist in the film version is the out of touch Prussian General Friedrichs, who pointlessly sends the broken company to their deaths on the very day of the Armistice. He works as a device to explain the disconnect between regular soldiers and the officer class, if perhaps a little blatantly.

In the book the antagonist is the furious parade ground Corporal Himmelstoss, who reflects the ludicrousness of the military regimen in basic training. The ex postman assumes an autocratic authority over the recruits, putting them through numerous absurd punishments for alleged disrespect.

The Ending

If I had one complaint about the 2022 film of All Quiet on the Western Front, it was the slightly over stylised ending. It is firstly somewhat unclear why Paul and Kat would risk their lives to attempt to steal a goose again given they know the war is coming to an end very soon. Meanwhile, the boy who shoots Kat comes out of nowhere. This isn’t in the book, although Katcinzky does die of a similarly small wound close to the end.

The final attack is also a little bit far into Hollywood territory. The German army was at the point of complete breakdown by the day of the Armistice, with thousands of men deserting every day. If a company of armed men were to receive such a ludicrous order from a General, then they could well have shot him and simply walked away from the battlefield. To give it credit though, it does lead to a high octane conclusion which reiterates the pointlessness of it all. Essentially, more men die to satisfy the nationalistic vanities of General Friedrichs.

In the book, Paul dies similarly late in the war, although not on the final day. The final paragraphs of the novel provide a nihilistic level of heartbreak:

He fell in October, 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front.

He had fallen forward and lay on the earth as though sleeping. Turning him over one saw that he could not have suffered long; his face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come.

James Carson