Written by Michael Patroni, based on the novel by Marcus Zusak
Directed by Brian Percival
Starring Sophie Nelisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson and more
Books and movies are, by their very nature, different beasts. What works perfectly in one medium inevitably becomes hopelessly awkward in the other. Even the best stories inevitably need to adapt in order to survive.
“The Book Thief,” the movie adaptation of the immensely popular best-seller by Marcus Zusak, does more than survive. It very nearly succeeds in making the transition flawlessly, beautifully balancing the complicated tangle of humor and heartbreak faced by a little girl growing up in WWII Germany. It’s warmer than the book, less haunting, and though the epilogue is a letdown it still takes audiences on a memorable journey.
For those unfamiliar with the story, “The Book Thief” follows a young girl named Liesel who is sent to live with strangers in Nazi Germany. She makes friends, helps take care of a Jew her foster parents are hiding in the basement, and marks certain passages in her life by the theft of books that eventually spark her love of reading.
I won’t spoil the ending – though those who have read the novel will already be familiar with it – but the words “Nazi Germany” and “WWII” should be enough of a warning. The movie condenses certain elements of the story, shifting timelines and justifications in order to neatly adapt the over-500-page book into just over two hours of running time.
The plot, however, isn’t the best part of “The Book Thief.” The real treat is watching the excellent cast bring these familiar characters to life, making them each so vivid and lovable that they’re capable of winning the hearts of even those who haven’t read the book. For those of us who have, it’s the embodiment of every book-lover’s secret fantasy.
Sophie Nelisse is perfect as Liesel, her angelic face defiant, grief-sticken and joyous by turns. Nico Liersch is incredibly sweet as Liesl’s young friend Rudy, bright and eager enough that he almost seems to be glowing onscreen.
Geoffrey Rush, one of the few familiar names in the cast, is every child’s fantasy of a beloved father figure. Emily Watson, the other familiar name, slowly lets the warmth seep through as the much more blustery mother figure. Ben Schnetzer, playing the Jew hiding in the basement, is both wise and haunted.
The connections between all of the characters serve as the heart of the movie, both very real and carrying a kind of pureness that seems to exist only in childhood and the best children’s stories. Here, loyalty is absolute, love can survive even the most terrible conditions, and broken hearts will always find each other. Even in the movie’s darkest moments, it has a faith that makes the entire thing seem oddly hopeful.
The only character that suffers a bit in translation is Death, who served as the narrator of the original novel. The movie is a bit less fantastical, and a bit more chronologically straightforward than the novel, and as such his narration duties (and one-on-one time with Liesel) are dramatically reduced. As such, he’s less the complex, well-rounded character he is in the novel and more of a framing device. An extremely cool framing device, to be sure. But that’s a step down from full-blooded character.
It’s that change that makes the movie’s final scene a bit of a letdown as well. Forced to scrap the conversation from the novel, it becomes a monologue by a framing device that is far less interesting than everything that came before it. During the rest of the movie, the scriptwriters largely chose to have the characters show the parts of the story that Death had narrated in the book. They should have figured out a way to do so here as well.
After all, even the best story needs to have a proper ending. No matter what medium you’re telling it in.