Film Review: The Book Thief

Thursday 20 February 2014 by

The Book Thief, Film, Markus Zusak

Before I begin, let’s just state the fact – for the millionth time – that The Book Thief is my favourite book of all time ever. So when I heard they were making a film of it, I was nervous. I was cautious about how to interpret the film, and therefore cautious how to approach a review. I hope I do it justice.

*Spoilers alert – if you haven’t read the book then you have been warned*

When Death (Roger Allam is the voice of Death in the film) first comes across Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse), it is because her younger brother is dead. Now, by his own admission, he doesn’t have much interest in the living, but Liesel intrigues him. At her brother’s graveside, she picks up a book that has dropped out of the pocket of one of the gravediggers, thus starting her career as a book thief.

Cut to a new scene – Himmel Street. Liesel is left with Hans and Rosa Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson). And so begins the Book Thief’s new life. She encounters Rudy (Nico Liersch) and his love of Jesse Owens, the outbreak of World War II, a Jew named Max, and perfects the art of stealing books.

The film itself is beautifully done. It captures the magical nature of the book – its meandering normality of life so cut with the drama of the war. Liesel is young when it begins, and she doesn’t quite comprehend its magnitude – something that only begins to dawn on her at the burning of the books. In the act of taking one of the books from the pyre and hiding it, she steps herself right in to the reality of Nazi Germany, and the dangers it encompasses. Hans, ultimately her best friend (aside from Rudy, but we’ll get to him) teaches her to read, to write, and to grow up, and helps her to understand what that one act means. He is her protector, her mentor, and her confidant. And Rosa, in her gruff and bluff way, teaches Liesel to be brave.

Rush and Watson are so perfectly cast for their parts it’s now impossible to imagine Hans and Rosa any differently. The warmth and love they show to Liesel, and the bravery they show by hiding a Jew in their basement, is counterbalanced wonderfully by Liesel’s innocence and wonder.

The film stays pretty true to the book for the first part. It’s a slow start, with the key scenes standing out like bursts of fireworks in amongst the simplicity of school, and reading, and football. Then all of a sudden, it speeds up – events start happening all at once and you are caught up in the drama. And this is where it starts to differ from the book…

There is no crashed plane. For me, it was a huge part of the book, but I can understand that it may not be for everyone and after all, this is one interpretation of the story. They skim Hans’ conscription, which is fair enough, and the impact on Liesel when Max (Ben Schnetzer) leaves. The central character of Liesel is much bigger here than in the book – it is clear how pivotal she is to everyone’s lives. Including Rudy’s.

Poor Rudy. He never gets the credit he deserves. Nico Liersch does a stellar job here as the irrepressible (and hopelessly in love) boy who tries to be more grown-up than he ever will be. As a secondary character, Rudy shines. Only Geoffrey Rush’s adorable Hans keeps him from top spot in my heart.

*be ready for ENORMOUS SPOILERS if you haven’t read the book*

When the bombs fall on Himmel Street, your heart leaps to your mouth. If you’ve read the book, then you will know what’s coming, and the heart-wrenching detail of it is done with perfection. Although, I was disappointed in how they played out Rudy’s death – it felt like it was cheating somehow. They were never meant to have that last interaction, and it should have stayed that way. But the fact that this is ultimately my only complaint is proof of how well Brian Percival has interpreted The Book Thief. It feels authentic and true to the story, but cinematic enough to keep you held in your seat.

Perhaps Max is younger than I imagined, perhaps the street isn’t quite the same, and perhaps the mayor’s wife was too human. Perhaps they changed a few things. But for the most part, it stood up against my scrutiny, it didn’t wreck the book of my imagination, and it did the characters impeccable justice.

I will always tell you to read the book first, but I will now also be recommending that you see this film.

5 Houses

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