I consider myself a fan of Markus Zusak’s The Boof Thief, one of the most acclaimed novels to come from an Australian author in recent years. I only gave it 3.5/5 in my review, but I was impressed with the idea of a Holocaust story narrated by Death and centering on a young German girl rather than a Jew. And perhaps more pertinent is the fact that I became enamored with Zusak’s writing style and his journey towards success, an inspiring story for all aspiring writers about the necessity of hard work and dedication.
When the book started making every best-seller and critics list I knew a movie adaptation would be forthcoming, but I knew whoever made it would have their work cut out for them. Would they make Death the narrator in the film version as well? Who would do the voice? Was it going to be in English, like the novel, or in more realistic German? And when you strip the book down, not a lot of exciting incidents happen throughout — so how were they going to make it more exciting for a screen audience?
As it turned out, my fears were more or less realized in the film version of The Book Thief, directed by Downton Abbey’s Brian Percival. In an attempt to capture the essence and the quirks of the book, the film was trapped by a number of obstacles and failed to deliver the same emotional punch as its source material. It wasn’t terrible by any means — there were poignant moments and some strong performances — but it bordered on dull at times and missed out on an opportunity to create the resonating experience that the book was.
The story, which begins in 1938, is simple. Young Liesel Meminger (Canadian teen actress Sophie Nelisse) is entrusted to lovely foster parents Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson) following the death of her brother. The narrative then follows young Liesel as she lives through the Holocaust, making friends, hiding Jews and stealing, of course, books. It’s a relatively small-scale movie in that it focuses on only a few characters, but the larger events of that time are not ignored.
The most positive elements of the film come straight from the book, being the humanity it depicts in one of the darkest times in human history. The suffering and brutality is there, but it’s not an in-your-face kind of story that tries to shock you with the visceral horrors of war. The focus is more on the Liesel and the children, the good Germans, and the little decisions they had to make to deal with the atrocities happening around them every day. The whole feel of the film is different to most WWII films I’ve seen in the past. I wouldn’t call it “sanitized”, but it is the kind of Holocaust film that can be watched by the whole family.
Geoffrey Rush, who is magnificent as always, provides warmth and humour as a wonderful man who needs to balance what he believes in against the safety of his family. Emily Watson is also very good — though not exactly who I pictured from reading the books — as the foster mother who has a heart of gold behind her snarky exterior.
On the other hand, the things that didn’t work also didn’t work because they were taken straight from the book. The idea of having Death narrate the story is a clever literary device that has become one of the defining characteristics of the novel, but it hasn’t translated well to the screen and comes across as gimmicky without really adding much to the film. Death is voiced by British stage actor Roger Allam, who doesn’t a fine job, though it’s not the type of voice I imagined when I was reading the book (this is subjective, of course). But he doesn’t really do anything except pop up on rare occasions to sneak in a word or two, and it’s jarring because it’s easy to forget that he’s even part of the story. I had the same problem when I read the book, but it wasn’t anywhere near as uncomfortable as it was in the film.
The other problem is that, when you start stripping away Zusack’s beautifully storytelling, you realise that not a whole lot of stuff really happens in terms of physical action. Not to say that nothing happens, but it becomes more difficult to generate excitement when this kind of story is translated to the screen. Coupled with its overlong 131-minute running time, there are times when The Book Thief feels plodding. The ending, in particular, comes on a strange note and somewhat abruptly. It worked well in the book, but not so much in the film.
I sound a little harsher than I mean to be because there are some well-executed elements and a warmth and humanity in The Book Thief that make it a worthwhile movie to watch. Perhaps my expectations were too high and the things about the adaptation that didn’t work clouded my overall judgment of the film. Maybe they needed to deviate from the source material to make the film a more memorable experience, but as it stands I think it was merely a passable adaptation of a beloved novel.
3 stars out of 5