Books that get turned into movies mostly just disappoint everyone. Fans of the book want the movie to be perfect, and of course movies are crazy faulty and never make anyone happy. Fans of the movie turn to the book and often find that it doesn’t align with the mutated version they fell in love with. I didn’t read The Book Thief, but the film strikes me as probably an acceptable adaptation that will be enjoyed by moms everywhere as a vaguely literary, super sad movie that they can go see with their book club.
In pre-WWII Germany, after the death of her brother, and her mother’s inability to care for her, Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) goes to live with a new family as the war is just beginning. She finds a new home with friendly sign painter Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and hard-working Rosa (Emily Watson), and Hans teaches Liesel to read as she slowly adjusts to her new life and makes a friend, Rudy (Nico Liersch). As things heat up in the outside world, this new family must open their arms to a refugee Jew, Max (Ben Schnetzer) and hide him to keep him alive. Also, Liesel steals a bunch of books at different points throughout this joint. I promise you, that’s not any kind of secret. THE ARISTOCRATS! Wait, THE BOOK THIEF!
The strength of the film lies in Liesel’s threefold experiences,
1) Of the war, as a kind of distant event that affected daily life in strange ways (It’s completely unsettling to see the Nazi insignias worn so boldly by smiling children as they gleefully sing about ending Jews, communists and black people). The Book Thief does an acceptable job of keeping the violent menace of war out of the picture and allowing the home front to play a larger role, the everyday concerns of keeping body and soul together in a town where everyone is eager to inform on one another.
2) Of her vague sense of awakening sexuality as she feels something real and sincere for Max, although one wouldn’t call it love or lust, and resists Rudy’s gentle affections. Max is both semi-brother and aspiration to her, an inventive creative soul who helps her connect to her own innate creativity and unique point of view.
3) Of her loss of family and recalibration with a new set of parents devoted to her well-being. Liesel’s loss defines her for some time, and it’s remarkable how much more a person can lose, even when they thought they’d lost everything.
The film is remarkably detailed and the particulars are handled well, from the exceptional costumes on down to the sets. However, the movie clings awkwardly to something that the book probably handles quite deftly: Death as a weird, chatty voice-over narrative framing device. Annoying. Every time you get into the story, Death pops back up again to pull you right out, and not in a fun Terry Pratchett-esque way, or a charming Neil Gaiman manner, but instead as a kind of pompous, smug bastard who wants to lecture everyone about how great he is at killing people.
The acting can’t be sh*t-talked too badly. Honestly, Emily Watson is the anchor of the film and a hell of a lot of fun to watch as the big bad gruff mama bear, and what’s his name from Quills, oh yeah, Geoffrey Rush, is a gentle giant good cop of a father to young Liesel. And Liesel! What luminous eyes you have, so expressive and wonderful. Sophie Nélisse is a better actress than she seems, awkwardly stumbling her way into womanhood. And dear Nico Liersch what a delightful and adorably good natured young man! (See, I’m telling you, moms will love this.)
It’s worth acknowledging that movies set in Germany during World War II are inherently difficult to talk about with sensitivity and understanding. The Book Thief is sad. Almost too sad, so be careful if you’re not in a good place to handle those feelings. While it’s a bit ridiculous at times and a bit boring at others, I can see it being meaningful to certain folks and almost appropriate for younger viewers as there’s a distinct lack of questionable content (although there are some deaths that could be quiet upsetting). Amidst a backdrop of loss and unimaginable pain, The Book Thief manages to convey some authenticity and emotional bravery, although the final result is, unfortunately, ultimately, mostly forgettable.
Amanda Mae Meyncke is terrified they’re going to try to adapt a Flannery O’Connor novel again sometime soon. Follow her on Twitter, now.