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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Stealing Hitler’s words: A review of The Book Thief

Cover image of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

“It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and it will become busier still.”

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

It is simple enough for me to say that I love most books, but there are few books that have also had the ability to dominate my emotions in such a way that they are torn from my inner core and put on full display, smeared across the pages. The Book Thief is one of those books. It is also one that I have been wishing to read for awhile now and now that I have, I am very glad that I did. While I’m late to the bandwagon, I think it is appropriate that I read it now; not only has a movie adaptation been released, but Markus Zusak, an already bestselling and well-known author, also won the annual Margaret Edwards Award this year for his contribution to young-adult literature in the US.

On that rewarding note, in The Book Thief, Markus Zusak tells his story in a fascinating combination of first- and third-person narration. The first-person narrator is Death personified, but not in the stereotypical fashion you would automatically imagine. No, Zusak’s perception of death is like that of meeting an old friend, which is very humanizing, almost comfortingly so. There is no figure cloaked in dark robes carrying a scythe, but rather he arrives as a source of solace for the numerous dead and dying during the war.

For a quick summary, although I’m sure everyone knows this by now, The Book Thief follows the life of a young German girl, Liesel Memminger, who is given into foster care by her mother for her own protection. It is on this journey to her new home that Liesel commits her first act of book thievery, on her way to becoming the infamous book thief. Death comes into contact with her for the first time here when her brother passes away in his sleep, and it is during her brother’s brief funeral that Liesel finds and takes The Grave Digger’s Handbook, accidentally left in the snow presumably by a young grave digger apprentice. It is upon this discovery that Liesel’s obsession with books and words is born, and under the guidance of her accordion-playing foster father, Hans Hubermann, she learns to read.

The narrative shifts between Liesel’s experiences occasionally interjected with Death’s own narration as he watches Liesel and collects the dead across Europe, revealing the turmoil occurring beyond Liesel’s everyday activities on Himmel Street. These activities range from stealing books from the mayor’s wife’s library to refusing requests for kisses from her best friend and partner in crime, Rudy Steiner. However, dangerous times come to Himmel Street when Max Vandenburg, a Jewish man in hiding, knocks on the Hubermann door, the result of a promise to the wife of a dead comrade after the First World War. As the war comes closer and bombs are fly overhead, Liesel’s world is both opened and closed, as she realizes the sheer force encapsulated in the words she has learned to read — words that can be used for good as well as for evil.

While the book starts out somewhat slowly, there is a lot to love about the craftsmanship behind Zusak’s writing, which is both elegant and moving. His decision to tell his story through Death’s eyes is ingenious. Immediately, the reader is forced to bear witness to Death’s sharp matter-of-fact statements on the rising number of dead and the Jewish “showers” while at the same time being lulled by the innocent play between Liesel and Rudy, as they exchange humorous endearments from “saukerl” to “saumensch.” Zusak also reveals the uncanny understanding and insight of a child that adults often overlook, such as the simple comment made by Rudy’s brother Kurt in regards to the fallen dominoes looking like dead bodies. Zusak captures this in each of his young characters, creating children with indomitable spirits that observe and fight back in their own way with the rest of the adult world.

The book is one of those tools Liesel uses to fight back with, and it is used as a motif throughout the novel, highlighting the power of words. In addition to using words for defiance, Liesel also uses them as a shelter for herself and others, especially when she reads to Max during his sickness or to the rest of Himmel Street while in the basement during the bomb raids. Significantly, Max also revitalizes the power of words for good, inscribing his story onto the painted-over pages of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, which is just one example of the remarkable use of symbolism employed within The Book Thief.

While I wish to find fault with Death’s early spoiler in the novel, which forecasts Himmel Street’s heart-wrenching destruction, I cannot manage it. Death was made even more relateable with this addition of a human fallacy and I was no less enthralled by what I read despite knowing how it would end. I still followed each character’s timeline, almost desperately so, mentally exhausted by the emotional attachment I had developed for them. So true-to-life, these characters literally breath on the pages — Death’s preparation was not enough.

A poignant read that is devastatingly brilliant and absorbing from start to finish, Zusak reveals a World War II Germany that is rarely touched upon. And, just like Death, we, the readers, are haunted by these humans Zusak has introduced us to. Liesel, Rudy, Hans … they are the types of characters that resonate and are well worth carrying around long after the last page is turned.

I am haunted by humans quote from The Book Thief with Death and Liesel holding hands

5 out 5 book thumbs up

Image of a green book giving the thumbs upImage of a green book giving the thumbs upImage of a green book giving the thumbs upImage of a green book giving the thumbs upImage of a green book giving the thumbs up

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, published in Canada by Knopf, © 2005

Available at Random House of Canada, Amazon, Indigo, and independent bookstores.