THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS: A Story Lost In Adaptation

When deciding whether a story should be written as a book or a screenplay, a writer must decide which media would be the best platform to tell their story. The Light Between Oceans, based on a novel by M. L. Stedman, is a present example of how storytelling does not always translate well in multiple platforms. A success on paper; it sadly faltered as a film.

While the story the author had intended to tell came through clearly on the big screen, accurately depicting the book’s themes and symbolism, it was lost at times through long, drawn-out scenes that threatened to lose the attention of viewers. The story itself is heartbreaking, and it is very clear why a studio would have thought it would make a good movie, yet this is one occasion where the movie should have stayed a book.

The Film

The Light Between Oceans is the story of a young couple living together in isolation, operating a lighthouse on Janus Rock. Newly married, and eager to begin a family, their lives are quickly marred with tragedy, as Isabel experiences multiple miscarriages. The day following the loss of their second unborn child, a rowboat washes ashore with a young infant inside.

Isabel convinces her husband Tom not to report the finding, as is his duty – that instead they can say it was their child, that the child they had been expecting came early. Hesitantly, Tom accepts – that is until a few years later, while visiting the mainland, he finds the child’s grief-stricken mother. The movie follows the arc of their love story – through all the wonderful moments, as well as through the most devastating.

Many decisions within a film can make it or break it. The decision to extend scenes and emotions in this film was one that caused it to suffer greatly. Viewers will go into the film expecting a heartbreaking story of loss and agony, yet will find themselves waiting for the heartbreak to begin. The film drags its viewers along, barely keeping their attention. When the drama finally begins in The Light Between Oceans, the impact of the scenes are not as strong, as the film has already let viewers down and failed to engage them completely within the story. Without this solid foundation, the strong performances and captivating original story are brought down.

THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS: A Story Lost In Adaptation
source: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Alicia Vikander’s heart-wrenching performance as Isabel Graysmark resonates long after the film has ended. Her character, while lacking a lot of depth at the start of the film, becomes the most complex, allowing Vikander the opportunity to show the brilliant range she is able to accomplish as an actress. Her character is one full of light, who is met with the most devastating moments of motherhood, and Alicia Vikander accurately portrays the agony and heartbreak – each moment of grief and pain more intense and heartbreaking than the last.

Michael Fassbender’s character is very different from Isabel. Tom Sherbourne is a reserved and quiet individual recently returned from the western front. He is looking for peace and isolation – something he has not had for the four years he was at war. Fassbender delivers a beautiful performance, controlled yet powerful, but viewers may find that he is overshadowed by his counterpart, Alicia Vikander. While her heartbreak is visible to all, he is one of the few onscreen that is able to keep his emotions in check.

The Judgement of Solomon

In the bible, there is a story that everyone has heard. It is the story of King Solomon, and the near impossible burden of deciding between two women who each claim that a child belongs to them. Finding himself unable to decide who the real mother is, King Solomon rules that the baby will be cut in half, giving each mother the same share. One of the women steps forward, making the decision that she will forfeit her claim for the child as long as no harm comes to him. With this heartbreaking sacrifice, King Solomon knows that she is the child’s true mother, as the real mother would rather give up her child than see harm come to him.

While there is no king or threat of violence to the young girl, there are similarities that can be drawn between the film and this biblical story. Isabel is the false mother, having convinced her husband to allow her to keep and raise the child as her own. Hannah is the real mother, who after finding that her daughter survived being lost at sea, will do anything she can to get her back. The child, as in the story, is torn between the two women – unable to do anything to sway either to one side or the other.

Love and Forgiveness

Love and forgiveness are constant elements within this film. What does it mean to love another person? What is forgiveness? So many questions are raised throughout The Light Between Oceans, creating a multi-layered exposition of emotions and catharsis. It is without these emotions that we fail to live and move on through our lives.

THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS: A Story Lost In Adaptation
source: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Love is the first of these two that viewers are asked to consider – love of a child, love of a spouse, love of a daughter and love of a parent. Traditionally, viewers see the same cliché story of a young couple falling in love and beginning their lives together. Yet, when tragedy and heartbreak enter their lives, viewers begin to question what true love is. What is it when you are forced to choose between those you love? And can someone ever be truly selfless when love is involved?

Forgiveness is another element of the film that viewers are asked to consider. Can one forgive those who have betrayed them or denied them a life of love and happiness? Most importantly, what does it really mean to forgive someone, or to forgive even yourself? There is so much heartbreak and loss in this film, and so many actions that occur in response to it. Forgiveness comes and goes throughout in the most poignant ways.

The Light Between Oceans

The title itself is the physical representation of light. A large majority of the film surrounds the lighthouse on Janus Rock. The island is a physical location where two oceans meet – the Pacific and the Indian Ocean. Its deadly waters and underwater landscape make it treacherous for passing ships. The lighthouse, located between these oceans, is the only light to guide and warn all who dare to sail through.

THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS: A Story Lost In Adaptation
source: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

The lighthouse is not the only light between two oceans, though. The light is also represented by the little girl, Lucy Grace. From the moment it is discovered what Isabel and Tom have done, Lucy Grace is thrust into a sea of turmoil – between the family she once thought was hers and the family she is now living with. She is the light in both their lives, a pure innocent at the mercy of both forces.

If one looks further into the film, we see that light runs deeper and can be represented by our actions rather than a physical entity. In this film, forgiveness is represented as a light – the light we find between the decisions we make and the consequences that constantly fight back. Forgiveness is the hope shining through the darkness, through the storm. It not only gives us the direction to make it through our present circumstances, but also guides others who find themselves caught up in the storm.


Through deep felt themes and metaphorical representations, this film stands as a well thought-out story of two people whose decisions in their darkest moments change the lives of all those around them. Yet, while the story and performances were strong, The Light Between Oceans is an eternal example of how an adaptation should have stayed a book. The long, drawn-out beginning, and over-exaggerated direction will leave many viewers bored and disengaged from the book’s symbolism and heartbreaking story.

Have you seen The Light Between Oceans? Let us know what you thought in the comments below!

The Light Between Oceans was released in the United States on September 2, 2016 and will be released in the UK on November 4, 2016. For all international release dates, see here.

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