I finally got up the courage to watch the movie adaptation of my favorite book…
Director: Brian Percival
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 131 min.
Death is usually impartial to the humans he encounters as he travels the world, gently collecting souls. But when young Liesel Memminger catches him in the act of taking her little brother, Death is entranced. He stays and watches Liesel as she and her mother bury her brother beside the train tracks. He watches as Liesel steals a small book that fell out of a gravedigger’s pocket. Then he follows Liesel to her new home with her foster family on Himmel Street. Being accused of communism in Hitler’s Germany is a dangerous thing, and her mother has been forced to give Liesel up to ensure her safety. Death watches Liesel grow up under the gentle care and guidance of her stepfather and thunderous love of her stepmother. He watches her struggles and triumphs as she learns to read and her blossoming friendship with Rudy Steiner across the street. And when a Jew arrives on her doorstep begging to be hidden from the Nazis, Liesel finds that as with reading, the greatest joys are often wrapped up in struggles and pain.
The Short Assessment:
The Book Thief is my Favorite Book Of All Time, so I feared a film adaptation would anger or disgust me. But I actually found this to be a very conscientious adaptation. The book was better. And I think that there were a few shortcomings as a film (places where without prior knowledge from the book, some things would fall flat or seem disconnected). And there was one scene they changed that did really annoy me because it was unnecessary, dumb, and cliche. (The ending for Rudy Steiner. If you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about.) But there were also a number of strengths (acting being at the forefront) and beautiful moments. If you have read the book, you may truly enjoy the film as well. I did.
The Long Assessment (some spoilers):
Geoffrey Rush is the real reason I was willing to watch this film, because I knew he would be awesome, and he was. And Sophie Nelisse blew me away. She is a phenomenal young actress. It is a testament to every actor, as well as the writers and director, that at no point did I feel like the portrayal of a character in the film clashed with my imagining of the character from reading the book. This is why I say it was a conscientious adaptation. It was clear that those involved had studied the characters Zusak wrote and became them. Hans Hubermann melted my heart. Liesel and Rudy were simultaneously carefree, reckless children and premature adults, aged by the burden of war and responsibility.
There were major cuts made to the text; these were by and large necessary to turn a 500+ page novel into a feature-length film. For the most part, it ran smoothly. I regretted losing the theme of how words change the world (Max’s story “The Word Shaker” is cut). I also regretted losing the many complex auxiliary characters, such as the Nazi sympathizing Frau Diller, which helped create the book’s incredibly nuanced picture of the German people and their motivations. But too many characters in a short film is confusing, so I do not begrudge the screenwriters this cut; as we still had Ilsa Hermann, I think it was a wise decision.
But I think we needed more narration from Death in the film to make it more cohesive. There is a very long break between Death’s early narration and his return, and I found it jarring. Additionally, they chose to end the film with Death’s line “I am haunted by humans.” But because we did not get as much character development from Death in the film, this fell flat for me. In the film, Death does not cradle the souls of the Jews killed in concentration camps; he does not walk with Hans Hubermann in the war. He tells us at the beginning that he is entranced by Liesel, but in the end, he does not take her journal (as he does in the book). A few of these moments would have gone a long way toward making that final line more impactful and driving home the point that although their lives are brief, they are so meaningful that an eternal being like Death carries them with him forever and feels compelled to tell their story.
I also think the post-bombing scene didn’t quite work. Full marks for effort–they really tried to capture the gentle grief of Himmel Street’s final moments that we see in the book. But in the book, we had forewarning. Death told us in the beginning that one of the three times he met the book thief, there were bombs falling all around. We knew it was coming. As we got closer, we got a clearer picture of who would live and who would die. We had time to process. So in the end, there was no numb shock or anger or vain hope that someone would survive. Instead, we grieved at the loss. In the film, events were strictly chronological. Those who had not read the book would have no forewarning. So in the film, Death explains about collecting the souls while we see the people peacefully sleeping. Then we viewed the bombs falling from a distance. I liked this choice. Unfortunately, though, I didn’t feel much momentum when Liesel was rescued from the basement. I think in the book, the momentum of the bombing carried over into Liesel’s frantic discovery of the bodies. In the film with the scene break, it didn’t carry over for me. And then of course, Rudy. Perhaps that added dialogue was meant to replace Death’s frequent “Kiss him, Liesel!” in the book, to give the kiss its due heartbreaking drama. But it still seemed far more tragic in the book–when it was already far too late when she found him and they never shared an “I love you” moment at all. And let’s face it–the whole “I have to tell you…I…lov….” thing: disgustingly cliche.
So as an adaptation of the book, it was faithful to the characters and themes, but lost some of the depth and nuances. As a film, there were a few points where prior knowledge from the books would fill in gaps and make the significance more clear. But overall, it had a story arc and hung together well. The acting was fantastic, and it was lovely visually. I was impressed and enjoyed it.