The hardest task set before any feature film is to live up to a beloved and bestselling book. Markus Zusak’s “The Book Thief” was not only widely read and well loved; it is also a book-lover’s book. It is a story about reading and the lust for book ownership. No movie adapts a book to the satisfaction of the people who love to read, but the film “The Book Thief” bungles by directly sacrificing what made the book great.
“The Book Thief” tells the story of an orphan adopted by a couple on Heaven Street in a small town in Germany. The orphan girl has an uncontrollable love of books, but she must overcome obstacles to read. The family hides a Jewish friend from the military and ultimately suffers the terrible fate of many inhabitants of a country torn apart by World War II.
In an interview with The Daily Californian, director Brian Percival called the book “a 500-page reference document for this 100-page script. It’s very subjective. There are always going to be people who prefer the book, and that’s absolutely fine. We hope we’ve been faithful, but we hope we can reach a wider audience. And if a thousand kids pick up the book because of the film, then that’s great.”
The adaptation is rocky, and the film also suffers from aesthetic and pacing problems. The backdrop of Germany under the Third Reich is hardly new territory for movies to explore, yet “The Book Thief” is awash in long glory shots of swastika flags rippling in the wind and closeups of pitiless Nazi officers presiding over scenes of overwrought dread. The two-hour length ends up feeling much longer, and time is spent in formulaic and manipulative scenes starring Nazis, beautiful children and the film’s one magical Jew.
Starring Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson and the young Sophie Nelisse, “The Book Thief” does not suffer for want of a brilliant cast. The performances of Rush and Watson are absolutely superb; they are an island of brilliance in a sea of dullness. In the interview, Rush said he mined the novel for insight into his character, Hans Hubermann: “I didn’t want him to sit at the kitchen table saying, ‘I’ve got no work,’ so instead I tended to my accordion, worked at fixing things. Because that’s what people do when they’re unemployed.”
He plays his character effortlessly as the sort of man everyone would like to have as a grandfather. Hans Hubermann is by far the most lovable character in the film, largely owing to Rush’s expert portrayal of a simple man who would not join the Nazi Party. Rush plays the accordion in some of the best and lightest scenes of the film. “I hope I convinced you that I was a pretty ordinary amateur accordion player,” he said. “I hope I convinced the audience and Sophie as well. The accordion is like holding lungs; it’s the breathing. It’s that flow of the bellows. Hans has a matter-of-fact ordinariness, to the point of being quite boring. He’s not the hero or even unusual. But underneath it, he’s almost a radical.”
Hans crosses the line into radical territory by saving Max, played by Ben Schnetzer. Schnetzer comes across like a poor man’s James Franco, and long sections of the film hang on his large dark eyes and full lips. The adaptation of Max suffers deeply between novel and film, and the resulting character is not half the man he used to be. Closeups between him and Nelisse take on an uncomfortably erotic quality in the overlong scenes they share in a confined space.
Nelisse is a gifted young actress who handles her role with aplomb, and audiences will likely see her again. She explained in the interview that she had no trouble at all identifying with her character, the orphaned Liesel Meminger and titular thief. “I love to read,” she said. “When I read ‘The Book Thief,’ I would see the scenes in my head. And now when I read the book, I see the movie. I remember how I did the scene and what I felt in the moment.” When asked to name a favorite book, her answer was charmingly age-appropriate. “ ‘Fablehaven’ is one,” she said.
The film, like the novel, is narrated by Death, whose voice is interspersed with Liesel’s own storytelling. In the novel, both devices are charming and unusual, setting the book apart from every other story in which Jews hide from Nazis with the help of virtuous poor people. The film bookends with the voice of Death and forgets it through the interminable middle. Liesel’s stories are made into a pastiche of every montage in every film that unsubtly ages and evolves a character in time for the third act to arrive.
That “The Book Thief” falls short of its source material is regrettable but expected by all readers who go to the movies. That it leaves a star-studded cast so underserved is a crime. That it gracelessly parades another cadre of photogenic Nazis past a jaded and yawning American audience is nearly unforgivable. That it focuses on those manipulative elements to emotionally wring the audience rather than letting Liesel’s story present itself in the foreground is its true failure. “The Book Thief” is two hours of Oscar bait built on a great book about a brave young book-lover. Here’s hoping nobody bites.
Meg Elison covers literature. Contact her at [email protected]