The Book Thief

the book thiefReleased: 2014
Director: Brian Percival
Starring: Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson

Words are still the most powerful force


There’s always a real sense of trepidation when going to see a film adaptation of a book that you truly love (see my thoughts on Les Miserables for proof that this isn’t confined just to books, but musicals too). It’s almost inevitable that any great book will eventually reach the screen, even those which are called unfilmable. Some adaptations work well, others don’t and when they don’t work the disappointment is palpable. The disappointment felt of course is directly proportional to how much the viewer loves the book. Given how much I adore Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief I was half-excited and half-terrified when it was announced that a film adaptation was in the pipeline.

In 1938 nine-year old Liesel Meminger is fostered by Hans and Rosa Hubermann after being removed from her Communist mother; she is illiterate but soon begins to learn to read and appreciate the power of words thanks to books that she steals. The family is placed in danger by the arrival of Max Steiner, a Jew, who has escaped Stuttgart following the events of Kristallnacht. As Max hides with the Hubermanns, he and Liesel form a close bond of friendship as they read together but their lives are constantly in danger from both Allied bombing raids and the Nazi persecution of Jews.

Almost 24 hours on from seeing The Book Thief I’m still struggling to pin down my verdict on it. Can I really judge it on its own merits as a film or will my views of the book always cloud my judgement? There is much to like in The Book Thief. The acting is flawless – Geoffrey Rush is perfect as Hans Hubermann, he truly captures the character’s kind and mischievous nature. Emily Watson is great as Rosa – the battleaxe with a tender heart buried underneath her thunderous nature. I also thought that Sophie Nelisse as Liesel was very good – she was vulnerable but feisty at the same time.

The John Williams score was lovely – not as memorable as some of his other works, but it suited the film well. The film looks great and there are a couple of moving moments. The (very busy) screening I was in had a lot of sniffing and discreet throat-clearing a few times, particularly in the last ten minutes or so.  I may even have shed a tear or two myself.

There were a number of problems though. As a fan of the book I knew that the emphasis was on the healing power of words but I’m not sure that was made clear enough, I would definitely be interested to know from people who haven’t read the book if they had picked up that theme. I was also really disappointed in the portrayal of Death (the character). In the book he is the narrator, he is funny, compassionate and always present. In the film he is sonorous and pops up only now and then and it’s usually to tell us something that we already know. His particular interest in the colours that he sees in humans is completely removed and while it makes no difference to the plot as such, it does serve as evidence that much of the book’s symbolism and power is lost in its translation to the big screen.

There were also a few moments when I found my mind wandering, something that never happened while reading the novel. At 131 minutes this is a little overlong for my liking – despite the removal of lots of seemingly incidental moments which explore the themes of being a bystander and witness to cruelty and the choices that characters make.

The Book Thief isn’t a bad film, it’s not a travesty and I’m sure it will act as a suitable introduction to the Holocaust for younger viewers but it (probably inadvertently) proves the message of the novel. Books are the most powerful force in the world.

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  1. The book has been recently recommended to me by a colleague so I think I’ll check it out. The film doesn’t sound like something I should rush to see though.

    • Definitely read the book as soon as you can – I adore it. The film is good but can wait for DVD.

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