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The Book Thief Steals Onto The Big Screen

2013 November 22
by Kelly Dickinson
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book thief movie posterAs Hollywood continues to mine young adult literature in hopes of finding the next big franchise, you can’t turn around without running into another film adaptation of a YA novel.  In November alone,  Ender’s Game burst into theaters only to be followed by the highly anticipated release of Catching Fire.  The Divergent trailer will be analyzed carefully for months and behind the scenes photos from both The Fault in Our Stars and If I Stay bounce around Facebook and Tumblr at rapid speed. However,  The Book Thief managed to slip into movie theaters around the world this month with much less fanfare.

In fact, when I asked teens and adults alike about their predictions for this 2007 Printz Honor winner’s big screen treatment, many expressed surprise that a film version was happening at all–let alone that it was premiering in a few days.  But once they heard the news, the book’s fans were as anxious as any Hunger Games or Harry Potter devotees.  Would the silver screen in some way ruin the book they love so passionately?  How could the film will capture the novel’s unique narrator, Death?  Will the book’s unusual imagery and strong emotional story somehow become cheesy in translation?

So, did the filmmakers manage to capture Markus Zusak’s expansive yet intimate tale of “a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist fighter, and quite a lot of thievery” (5)?  I believe they pulled it off–to a degree.

The novel runs just a little under 600 pages,  includes several intertwined but distinct narrative threads, and is narrated by the wry and omniscient Death.  So it seemed obvious there would be cuts and alterations made when the story jumped from page to screen.  Happily, the filmmakers generally made appropriate choices when selecting characters, scenes, and story lines to trim, cut, or condense.  Readers will certainly miss hearing the story of Max’s life before he arrived in Molching as well as his first two story gifts to Liesel, told in the novel through his drawings and handwritten text.  Faithful fans will also notice the disappearance of certain secondary characters and the condensing of certain scenes.  However, the film manages to remain a complete story; overall, the edits do not create gaping narrative or thematic holes.

However, the changes to book’s complex narrative would been much more problematic without the support of the film’s strong cast.  The casting can frequently make or break a film adaptation.  After all, readers have been developing and living with particular images of the characters in their heads; when a film version fails to connect with readers’ expectations for the characters, it can ruin the experience.  And in this case, I think the casting is a key factor in the film’s success.  As Liesel’s foster parents Hans and Rosa Hubermann, Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson bring both star power and emotionally anchoring performances.  The almost saintly Hans and brusque but large-hearted Rosa could easily become one dimensional stock characters in the wrong hands but thankfully, Rush and Watson bring great depth, complexity, and humanity to their roles.  Nico Liersch as Rudy, Liesel’s best friend, and Ben Schnetzer as Max, the Jewish man hidden by Liesel’s family, are both excellent as well. Liersch’s  expressive face and wiry build exude Rudy’s energy and open emotions.  Schnetzer captures Max’s anger, despair, intelligence, and hope and his performance, especially in his scenes with Sophie Nelisse as Liesel, almost makes up for the loss of his character’s back story.

But it’s clear that Sophie Nelisse as Liesel Meminger, the book thief herself, will likely be the film’s breakout star.  Liesel is the lynchpin of the narrative; she acts as a connecting point for the other characters’ stories and her book thefts and interactions with Death provide a framework for the sprawling tale.  Luckily, Sophie Nelisse turns out to be an outstanding Liesel.  She can be tough, guarded, and sullen as well as highly emotive, joyful, and enthusiastic.  From her delicately shifting expression during the Nazi Party rally to her awe in  the mayor’s library to her despair in the face of her friend’s death, Nelisse brings Liesel to life.  Her performance especially helps the film capture one of the book’s primary themes: the power of books, stories, and words.  As a reader, I couldn’t help but respond to Liesel’s discovery of reading and stories when watching Nelisse’s expressive but subtle performance.

Additionally, the film makes a valiant if not entirely successful attempt to recreate Zusak’s unusual narration and structure.   While we did hear from Death through a voice-over, this device was used sparingly–a smart choice since voice-overs can become distracting rather than enriching on film.  The color saturated, almost dream-like cinematography worked well in many scenes but occasionally, the film’s version of Molching became a little too beautiful.  As other reviewers have pointed out, the film’s vision of Molching needed a little more dirt and grit at times. Portraying the bombing of Himmel Street though images of its sleeping inhabitants with Death’s gentle narration worked well on screen.  However, the film’s concluding scenes of Liesel’s future apartment with Death’s narration moved into cheesy territory, primarily due to slight but significant changes made to his final lines.

Overall, fans of the novel will likely leave the theater generally pleased–but with the overwhelming urge to reread the book.  Hopefully, viewers who have yet to read the book will leave the theater intrigued and eager to pick up a copy from a local library or bookshop.  While composing this review, it struck me that the filmmakers had taken on a nearly impossible task in trying to translate this particular novel to film.  The Book Thief  is a book about books. From its narration and structure to its major themes, it is a novel absolutely rooted in the written word.  And in the end, it’s a story that remains the most complete and satisfying in its original format.

What did you think about The Book Thief’s translation to the big screen?

-Kelly Dickinson, currently reading Rags & Bones: New Twists on Timeless Tales edited by Melissa Marr and Tim Pratt

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