Last night, I began doing something I’d avoided throughout the process of researching and writing Can I See Your I.D.? True Stories of False Identities, which Dial Books for Young Readers will publish this April. I began watching the movie versions of the stories I included.
Can I See Your I.D.? is a young adult collection of 10 profiles of people who pretended to be someone they weren’t, and as you might expect, many of those masquerades have caught the fancy of filmmakers over the years. But because my book is nonfiction, I deliberately did not watch the dramatizations (with the exception of Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, which I watched way back before I started working on this book) so that my understanding of these people, their motivations, their stories would not be distorted. But all the while, I’ve looked forward to getting caught up on those cinematic tellings when the time was right.
Three months away from publication, I do believe the time is right.
The first profile in the book — and one of the first two that I wrote for the project — is of 16-year-old New Yorker Keron Thomas, who in 1993 (nearly) got away with impersonating a subway motorman and driving the A train for three hours. Surprisingly, Hollywood hasn’t done anything with Thomas’ story. So I began my Can I See Your I.D.? film festival with a movie about the other of my original subjects, Solomon Perel, a Jewish teenager who spent most of World War II at a school for Hitler Youth.
Here’s how I begin that story in Can I See Your I.D.?:
Your name is Solomon Perel. You’re a short, skinny, sixteen-year-old Jew, and you’ve just been captured by the Nazis. It’s all you can do not to piss yourself.
They’ve nabbed you an a bunch of other refugees, just a few days into Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union. Now they’ve line you all up in a field as they decide what to do with each of you.
Agnieszka Holland’s film version of Perel’s story, Europa, Europa, takes a lot of dramatic liberties — more than I had expected, and more than I was able to overlook in order to simply appreciate the movie on its own merits. I didn’t mind the flights of fancy — such as a fantasy sequence in which Hitler waltzes with Stalin while candy rains down from overhead. But when it came to the portrayal of Perel himself, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t help keeping track and keeping score of the ways large and small that Holland broke away from the facts Perel laid down in his memoir by the same name.
That’s not to say that viewing Holland’s film can’t be just as rewarding as reading Perel’s book. And I hope that my juxtaposition of Perel’s story with Keron Thomas’ and the eight others can be just as satisfying as those other two works. But if you’re anywhere near as prone as I am to get hung up on the facts, you might want to watch the movie first.