I've been thinking about Stones From The River, and I have a couple of comments, intended more as practical suggestions than critical analysis. They won't make much sense if you haven't read the novel.
Stones From The River, it seems to me, is a romance, set in improbable times. It's the story of a German dwarf, and the men -- and women -- she's loved, set in Burgdorf, a small town near Dusseldorf, between the end of WWI and the end of WWII.
What strikes me about the novel is the amount of love Trudi Montag manages to generate in the 30 or so years we see of her life, even though she may not be aware of some of it. Just counting the men in her life, there are six stories. There's her father; Georg her first friend; Klaus the dentist; Konrad the Jewish boy she hides from the Nazis; Matthias the gay pianist; and, finally, her great love, Max the painter.
I'd consider structuring the film around Trudi's revelations of these relationships to a young American soldier who, at the beginning of the film, hates Germans. As he learns about Trudi's loves, he begins to understand that not all Germans were Nazis, and that some Germans -- those who, for one reason or another, couldn't be fed into the German war machine -- kept humanity alive during the Third Reich. This structure requires a slight change to the ending of the novel -- it puts an American soldier in Trudi's home -- but it lets Trudi tell her story from her own point of view.
It may be necessary to add an even more compelling narrative to the "present" of the post war years, something like a criminal trial or investigation, or a detective story of some kind.
I think the structure will support any filmic style, including edgy super-realism.
I'd begin the film with scenes of the American troops coming into Burgdorf. It's the end of the war. Trudi is in her 30's. You can feel the tanks before you hear them. In a bomb shelter. The room shaking. Faces mainly. The door is kicked in. The German civilians "surrender" to the American soldiers. The first time we see Trudi as a dwarf is either when an American is billeted in her house or the first time she's interrogated. Everything after that is scenes of the occupation mixed with her memories of her life and her loves.
The difficulty is getting from an essentially psychological book that's a journey of self-discovery to a film where a little more is at issue, i.e., the guilt of individual Germans, or, possibly, something more compelling. Trudi is the town gossip. A perfect source for anyone trying to get to the bottom of events in Burgdorf.
I'd avoid falling into some kind of pattern with the flashbacks. For example, I wouldn't start each segment of the film with the dwarf talking, flashing back, talking, flashing back. I think there should be many contemporary scenes mixed in, her father dying, a woman throwing her child off a bridge, Hanna,the little girl she falls in love with, and so on, and, also, long historical segments that cross episodes. The amount of time the dwarf spends setting up the historical material should be very minimal. A few historical moments that impressed me: the summary execution of the town's benefactor, Trudi's interrogation by the nihilist Gestapo, Trudi swimming, the old lady beating up the Hitler youth, Trudi and the circus dwarf.
The only problem I have with the novel is understanding the relationship between Trudi and Max. I think the film needs to be explicit about why Max picks Trudi for a lover. I don't think the reason matters, it just needs to be there and be believable. And I'd be tempted to portray Max with a little irony and cynicism. A painter who paints the colors of his orgasms? We can do better than that in the era of concentration camps and sadistic medical experiments. Or, we can use it to consign Max to the world of the dreamers.
I appreciate Tom's putting Stones on the table. It's an interesting book and an interesting exercise. It could be fun to circle the best scenes and dialogue Arnold Manoff style.