It isn’t often that a book comes along that deserves to be described as a “stunning masterpiece,” but the novel The Book Thief is as haunting and beautiful a book as you will ever read. It’s been adapted for the big screen, and the question in a project like this is whether the adaptation really reflects the majesty of its source material.
The answer, ultimately, is no, although the movie does have some stunning moments. That said, it’s difficult to accurately tell a story that depends so much on the written word. Author Marcus Zusack’s novel was so carefully composed and perfect in tone that any movie would likely suffer in comparison.
The book is narrated by Death, an appropriate choice for a novel set in Nazi Germany. In the film, the role is voiced by Roger Allam, who takes a special interest in a nine-year-old young German girl named Liesel Meminger. Her parents are taken away by Nazi soldiers after being accused of being Communists and her six-year-old brother dies after he is separated from her. Orphaned and alone at age nine, LIesel is fostered to Hans and Rosa Huberman, a couple who change her life in ways she could not have imagined.
She quickly bonds with the kindly Hans, who stays up with her at night when nightmares keep her awake for hours. It’s during those late-night sessions that he teaches her to read and she begins devouring every book she can find (or steal). The first book they read together is called The Grave-Diggers Handbook, a paperback that fell out of the pocket of the teenage boy who dug the grave slated to hold her brother.
Besides her love of reading, the other profound change in her life is the arrival in the household of Max Vandenburg, a 24-year-old Jewish German man (played by Ben Schnetzer) who is hidden in the basement by her adopted parents. He arrives near death and Liesel quickly befriends him, reading to him as she tries to help nurse him back to health.
Like Liesel, Max is wracked with nightmares as he mourns the family he lost in the harrowing aftermath of Kristallnacht. Together they try and figure out a way to navigate a life that is sad and dangerous and every so often filled with the smallest of joys.
The book is very insular and contained, and that works on the printed page. But the producers of the movie spend more time on a number of subplots that tend to deflect from the central story of Liesel and her new life. A fair amount of time is spent on her relationship with the young neighbor boy Rudy (played by Nico Liersch), who develops a crush on Liesel at the same time that his powerful Aryan looks attract the attention of local party officials.
It’s difficult to say much more without giving away the ending of the film, but what you think of the film The Book Thief will probably depend a lot on whether you read the book first. Fans of the novel will probably find the film adaptation to be a less compelling portrayal of the story, but isn’t that almost always the case for films adapted from books? For viewers that come to the story without a preconceived impression of the story will no doubt find it touching, if slightly predictable in spots.