A disappointing transition from page to screen: A review of The Book Thief movie

The Book Thief, the movie, image of Liesel holding a book

Starring Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, and Nico Liersch.

After being blown away by the book-to-screen accuracy accomplished so far by the Hunger Games series, I probably went into watching The Book Thief with too high of expectations. Where as The Hunger Games and Catching Fire only cut out what was acceptable, barely altering the storyline, The Book Thief took some unforgivable liberties in my opinion.

Frankly, the movie and I didn’t get off on the right foot from the beginning when they made Liesel the older sibling. After that, I began to expect the worst. And I wasn’t let down, my list of disappointments grew as the movie progressed. A big problem with The Book Thief is it took out a lot of the back story. This would  be a very long post if I were to go through all that was left out, but let me just focus on two very prevalent points that I take issue with. First, Max, the Jew in Liesel’s basement that she befriends, is reduced to a secondary character. He is barely touched upon. There is no mention of his previous life before going into hiding, and interactions with him are limited to only when Liesel comes down to visit. We are never given that telling scene where Max figuratively boxes with the Fuhr, and even worse, the premise behind why Max paints over the pages of Mein Kampf is changed entirely. The movie shows Max painting over the pages with the expectation that Liesel will write her story on its pages, however, in the book this is actually where Max tells Liesel his own story, and it is how she begins to realize exactly what Hitler, his use of words, and this war means. All of this is lost with this seemingly minor change, but it is anything but minor when you get down to it.

Liesel reading to Max in the basement

The second point I have a problem with, which happens to be a particular scene, is how Liesel ends up stealing books from the mayor’s library. The movie, much like it does with Max, completely does away with this back story. If one hasn’t read the book, there is only the faint allusion to the mayor’s wife having lost a son, but it is basically left at that. The struggle with loss that brings the mayor’s wife and Liesel together is never brought up. And instead of getting angry at the mayor’s wife for firing her Mama and being stuck in her grief for years, Liesel is unceremoniously kicked out by the mayor when she is discovered reading in the library. This was just all completely wrong and that relationship that develops after the misunderstanding between Liesel and the mayor’s wife is empty of all it contained so that what transpires at the end of the film has less impact.

But I don’t want to just rant about how this movie failed. Aside from its horrible choice of exclusions, they did an amazing job in casting the main characters. Liesel was exactly as I had imagined her. Rudy was also cast to perfection from his lemon locks to his lovable personality. Unfortunately, Hollywood went a little too far with Liesel and Rudy’s relationship. One: they sped it up, making their developed affection for each other unbelievable (the movie barely aged the two children, which didn’t help), and two: they gave Rudy his last words, “I lov—.” NO, NO, NO! Unacceptable, Hollywood. You ruined the most tear-jerking part in the book by making it a silly “Romeo and Juliet” moment.

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I will give the movie credit for one thing. They cast Hans beautifully. Who knew that the infamous Captain Barbossa was the perfect person to play the loving, accordion-playing foster father of The Book Thief. Geoffrey Rush made the role his own, bringing Hans and all his familiar traits to life, from the teasing husband to the caring man who gave a lot to others and took very little for himself, and who had convictions he would not sacrifice, not even for the Fuhrer. It was during the interactions of between Hans and Rosa, Liesel and Hans, or Liesel and Rosa that I felt I had a purpose in watching the rest of The Book Thief movie. Once again, I felt the laughter, the love, and the heartbreak as I had while reading the book. Finally, the movie had done something right.

Liesel and Hans hugging

I also wish Death had narrated as much as he had in the book. His view and the things he talks about aside from Liesel’s story are fascinating aspects in the book I would have liked to have seen transferred to the screen. He sees what Liesel cannot and really gives the reader a sense of time and place of just what is going on in Germany and across Europe. He is the perceptive and all seeing, who is both repulsed and fascinated by the human race. As a result, Death gives us a curious lens to look through and the movie missed that very important concept in their  only too brief inclusions of Death’s narration. Perhaps this type of narration is difficult to fully develop on screen, but I would have liked to have seen more of an effort.tumblr_mvjs0ohocc1s7fkwpo1_500

I’m not saying the movie is all that bad. Having recently read the book, I am prone to be a bit more judgmental than someone who hasn’t read it in awhile or who hasn’t read it at all. All I’m saying is to be prepared for a lot of change…for better or for worse, you can decide for yourselves, but I am leaning toward the latter.

 

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