In the world of book to movie adaptions there is a lot of competition. If these movies would have to duke it out there would have to be playoffs to determine the champion. One such movie hit theaters and died. Was it really such a bad adaption? Did the movie not even work separate from the novel?
I hated The Book Thief. Markus Zusak’s novel I mean. Well, that isn’t strictly true. I couldn’t get off the first few dry, boring pages! I couldn’t stomach it far enough to be able to hate it. So when the friend who loaned it to me wanted me to go see the movie with her, I jumped at the chance. Why was The Book Thief such a reading phenomena? Surely the movie would tell me.
Despite my dislike of the book I went into the theater with an open mind wanting to understand why the book was so beloved. I didn’t yet know how poorly The Book Thief movie was thought of by film critics, nor that director Brian Percival of the popular BBC television show Downton Abbey was at the helm.
I was pleasantly surprised.
Sophie Nélisse blew me away. Such a nuanced performance. If Liesel is anything like this young actress portrayed then she’s a protagonist to root for. Was her hair a little too styled for a starving German girl during a world war? (This was a major complaint from critics – that she looked like she was coming from a beauty pageant.) Actually no. If you’ve ever met a German (and I lived amongst them for over 6 years) you’d know they are the most impeccable of people. Cleanliness and good grooming extends not only to an individual’s dress and body but to their homes and to their streets.
This is a matter of imagining the look of something and it not matching what you end up seeing on the screen. One friend talked about the disconnect she had between the old German town in the movie and the Americanized rundown town she’d imagined reading the novel. It took her some time to adjust to the two imaginings not meeting up. This was not a book showing the horrors of the battlefront, quite far from it, it focused on a child’s perspective of war. This has and always will extend to those such a protagonist loves and only those events she experiences. Critics should not expect a war movie in any traditional sense, you’ll leave with failed expectations.
And this is the problem with reviews about The Book Thief, the movie. They list all the things they loved (the same things you’d want from any good movie) then talk about their personal disappointment. (Of course, this is the beauty of opinion – we can all have different ones.) Ironically, I found only one review where the critic had also read the book. You can read it here. Between conversations with book fans and this article I realized people had missed the point of the story.
The setting of WWII is negligible. It was a time of hardship to highlight the theme of the story. Death also was utilized to good effect to focus us on that specific emotion. It was the most powerful element of The Book Thief adaption and Brian Percival balanced it perfectly. Roger Allam’s voice personified death, making the most of those moments when he swept into the film, helping us transition as we jumped pockets of time. By the end of the movie I knew why Death was so fascinated by Liesel. No matter what she experienced, no matter how hard, she beat them. She endured. All due to one little emotion…hope. Hope, the one conqueror of death.
For a movie theme is vitally important, more important than in a book where you have time to meander a little bit. I know that food gangs, hunger wars and a large amount of the thefts were all stripped out of the movie. We didn’t need them. Sure, they would have illustrated the misery of war, but really none of those are solely war-time problems. No, the point of the movie were those things Liesel used to uplift herself and those she loved. Education, literacy, good friends and family, loyalty. These are the events the story needed to focus on and did.
Sophie Nélisse is arguably the anchor performance of the film, but those characters who support her are by far her equal. You fell in love with the Hubermanns, portrayed superbly by Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson, the same way Liesel did. You were caught, like her, between two loves, lovely, loving Rudy (Nico Liersch) and educated, dreamy Jew, Max (Ben Schnetzer). (Can you tell I adored Rudy?)
It’s safe to say the cast carried this movie home. The acting wasn’t the only brilliant bit of production though. The cinematography, score and design set us up with the perfect environment to enjoy such an uplifting story. Markus Zusak’s decision to let Brian Percival (and screenwriter Michael Petroni) derive the best elements of his story was a great decision you wish more authors would make.
What happens when a great movie comes out during a time of gritty, dark and depressing-only reality-driven films? It gets panned. Viciously stabbed to death because the story followed its protagonist. In the case of The Book Thief, a journey of hope.
The whole point of an adaption is to capture the heart of the novel in visual form. If more directors and screenwriters adapted with this purpose in mind we’d have better films (Ender’s Game could learn a lot from this movie, including the idea of well placed voice overs to jump time and cohesify theme.) Luckily we have many more adaptions to weigh in on. At the forefront of the big rush, The Book Thief has made a tough adaption to follow.
Incredibly, after seeing the film version I’m ready and willing.
Yes, I know. Crazy, but I’m going to give Markus Zusak’s novel, The Book Thief, another try.