You might remember Markus Zusak’s “The Book Thief” as the One Book, One Community selection in 2010. Well, this year, the best-seller is getting a film adaptation, directed by Brian Percival (“Downton Abbey,” “North & South”) and starring Geoffrey Rush (“The King’s Speech,” “Pirates of the Caribbean”) and Emily Watson (“Gosford Park,” “War Horse”). The movie had a limited American release Nov. 8 and is now in theaters nationwide.
The movie had a lot to live up to. The book has a very distinct voice and style, and its heartwarming and heart-breaking story set in Nazi Germany likes to play with time elements, something that doesn’t always translate to film. A lot of what makes Zusak’s work stand out is the way it’s told, from the point of view of Death himself, someone who admits he was plenty busy throughout Germany over the years the story takes place. Death tells the tale of Liesel Meminger, a young girl who goes to live with a foster family in a town near Munich in 1938. The story details the deep relationships Liesel forges with her foster parents, especially her papa, Hans Hubermann; the neighbors, especially the sweet-talking, fast-running Rudy Steiner, who’s always smiling and seeking Liesel’s affections; a Jewish man whom Hans protects from the concentration camps; and the books that help Liesel through these trying times.
As could be expected, the movie doesn’t try to copy the tone and style of the book, focusing on telling the story and developing the characters. What results is a highly effective adaptation that carries emotional weight as well as its source material. Death is used sparingly as a narrator, coming in only now and again to paint the broader picture of Germany during the time the story takes place. He also delivers most of his more memorable lines from the book, and thankfully, both close with the same haunting lines.
There are a few scenes that are added to fit more of a traditional movie narrative, including one obligatory moment of Liesel and Rudy shouting their hatred of Hitler while they’re all alone (after reading the book, I got the feeling that everyone in that town was too afraid to even whisper their objections to the Third Reich). There are also a lot of really sweet moments between Max and Liesel that had to be trimmed for time, and a few of their gifts to each other were combined for brevity’s sake.
But the film by and large keeps a steady pace while giving the characters’ relationships ample time to evolve, the biggest flaw in a lot of adaptations and something that would have crippled this movie if it had gotten wrong. The performances by every actor live up exactly to what Zusak laid out, from the major parts of the Hubermanns to the enigmatic mayor’s wife (though they downplayed her depression a little bit, the disconcerting yet honest relationship she has with Liesel and her books is still there in strength). Rush’s portrayal as the amiable moral stalwart Hans is the highlight of the film, just as the character is in the book. No matter how grim things may seem, his tenderness and genuine caring for his loved ones is infectious, and the audience feels the bond between him and Liesel (I’d put their chemistry up with any father-daughter relationship this side of “To Kill A Mockingbird”).
Though the movie tells the story of “The Book Thief” more traditionally than its source material, it comes across as just as genuine and heartfelt. If you’re looking for something a little more challenging and apart from the norm, you’re definitely going to prefer the book. If you’re just looking for an emotionally powerful story and a chance to get in a good cry, then go see the movie. Both rate highly on my must-do list.