John

Boyne

was at home in his native Dublin a few years ago when an image suddenly popped into his head: Two young boys, seated across from each other, divided by a prison fence. The boy behind the fence was wearing the striped clothing given to the Jews when the Nazis locked them inside the gates of the concentration camps.

"That was the first thought, just two boys sitting at the fence, talking to each other," says Boyne, the Irish novelist who took that image and went on to write the young-adult bestseller

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

.

Boyne's book was published in 2006. British screenwriter and director

Mark Herman

(

Brassed Off

,

Little Voice

) read it, worked on a screenplay, and then made a film of it in Hungary - with a cast headed by

David Thewlis

,

Vera Farmiga

, and

Asa Butterfield

and

Jack Scanlon

as the boys.

Scanlon is Shmuel, who with his family has been rounded up and taken to the camp. Butterfield is Bruno, a boy from Berlin who has just moved to a country house nearby. His father (Thewlis) is a German SS officer, whose assignment is to run the camp. He tells his son that it is a farm, and tells his wife that it is a work camp for Jews. The smokestacks, the awful smell - they're a mystery.

Already a winner at the Heartland Film Festival, with three nominations announced last week for the British Independent Film Awards,

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

opened Friday at the Ritz Five, as well as at the Showcase at the Ritz Center in Voorhees. Essentially a children's fable, the PG-13 drama, contrasting the innocence of youth with the horrors perpetrated by adults, is powerful stuff.

"Because I'm a full-time writer and my mind is always engaged in storytelling in some way, ideas come to me," explains Boyne, 37, in town with filmmaker Herman recently for a showing of the movie at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. "I write down a lot of ideas, and most of them are useless. But every so often you get one that seems right, and usually when I get one that seems right I think about it for a long time - maybe up to a year before saying, 'All right, now I'm going to write a novel. . . . '

"But with this, when I had that idea, I started writing it the next day," Boyne says. "I felt a creative urge like I'd never had before. I felt, 'I have to sit down, I have to start writing this.' And it just seemed to take me over. . . . Where it came from I don't know, and don't really want to know."

Herman, 54, optioned the rights to Boyne's book himself. He shopped the project around after completing the script, and Miramax Films signed on.

Although the picture maintains the childlike guilelessness of the book, the endings of both novel and movie are brutal - endings Herman was not about to compromise. "There were discussions with Miramax about how [the ending] was shaped, but never about the actual content," Herman says. "They were very supportive of the ending. And the more we tested it, the more it was getting a very, very good reaction. Perhaps the opposite of what some people might have expected."

Herman did reshape the narrative a bit, to encompass more of Bruno's relationships with his mother, father and teenage sister.

"I changed the time structure of the book, and I lessened the frequency and the length of the two boys meeting at the fence, and that created a space to develop the family," Herman explains.

And Boyne is fine with all that.

"It was a sensible decision," he says, seated alongside Herman at a Center City hotel. "A book and a movie are so different, you can't just slavishly translate every scene on the page up onto the screen.

"In a way, actually, I quite like the fact that the book has its own focus, which is the boy, and the movie has its focus, which is the family. But they're both telling the same story."

In preparation for the shoot, Herman resisted the temptation to go back and watch previous Holocaust movies - features like

The Pianist

and

Schindler's List

.

"I looked at films that just helped me with the research, factual films," he says. "Not the dramas - I didn't want any other dramas to influence the way we shot it."

So he revisited

Alain Resnais

' chilling documentary of the Nazi death camps,

Night and Fog

, as well as a six-part BBC series,

Auschwitz: The Nazis and the "Final Solution."

Herman also made his own Nazi propaganda short, for a scene in

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

in which Bruno watches a Nazi-made "documentary" that presents an altogether different view of how the Jews are being treated in the camps: hearty meals, pleasant cafes, games, sport, smiles.

"I based it on research of this existing footage, a film called 'Hitler Gives the Jews a City,' which is a film that's not really shown very much," Herman reports. "We thought about using that actual footage, but it seemed too old, too dog-eared. So we re-created that. It was a very strange feeling, making this propaganda film."

Hello, Dalí.

Variety reports that

Antonio Banderas

has signed on to star in a biopic about wax-mustachioed Spanish surrealist

Salvador Dalí

, the innovative painter and self-promoter famous for his trippy landscapes and melting clocks. But the Hollywood trade mag also reports there are

two

other Dalí projects in the works:

Al Pacino

is attached to play the artist in

Dalí & I: The Surreal Story

, with

Andrew Niccol

(

Gattaca

,

Simone

) directing; and

Robert Pattinson

, who's in the soon-coming

Twilight

, plays a younger Dalí in the already completed

Little Ashes

, about the early career of the artist and his pals - director

Luis Buñuel

and writer

Federico García Lorca

.

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.