The Book Thief: Book vs Film

Film or TV? - Film
Famous or Obscure? - Famous
Better on Page/Screen - Book, I think.

The Book Thief, Markus Zusak's acclaimed young-adult novel, is often hailed as a modern classic. I have been advised to read it on many occasions and on discovering that a film was soon to be released, I thought it was about time I followed the advice.

Narrated by Death (odd, but you get used to it) The Book Thief is the story of Liesel Meminger, a young German girl sent to live with strangers when her mother (a suspected communist) is forced to leave her behind. Liesel is adopted by the Hubermanns - kind, accordion playing Hans and brisk, foul-mouthed Rosa - and befriends their young neighbour, Rudy. The characters are well-drawn and engaging, each very different but like-able, and their struggles and worries shed a new light on the much maligned citizens of Nazi Germany. The Book Thief is original in its perspective, as although World War Two is continuously depicted on page and screen, how often do we hear the stories of the ordinary German people? These characters aren't Nazis, but their children are in the Hitler youth and their neighbours are members of 'The Party.' They may hate Hitler, but they must never say so, in order to keep their families out of danger.  It's also strange seeing the Germans get bombed and realising it's our lot doing the bombing.

The Book Thief is a good story with great characters, but despite some epic themes and dramatic circumstances it often feels like there's not that much happening. If I was to compare the style to another classic novel, I'd say it reminds me of To Kill a Mockingbird. Both novels are eventful, but - possibly because they are rooted in the day to day life of ordinary people - the drama around events seems minimal. And the pace is a bit slow. This isn't really a criticism, as the writing is always very good and the characters are engaging enough to hold the reader's attention. It's just an observation.

Perhaps this is one reason that the film
hasn't gained popularity in the same way the book did. A book can afford to spend time with the characters about their day to day lives and struggles. A film needs action and there's not all that much of it in The Book Thief. It's a shame, because the casting was great. Geoffery Rush brings the warmth and gravitas needed for Hans Hubermann while Emily Watson convincingly portrays the contrasting sides to Rosa. The kids do well too, especially Sophie Nelisse as Liesel. For a young actress she is very naturalistic, handling the humour well and helping create a very human portrayal of Liesel. Her scenes with Max - the Jewish man harboured by the Hubermanns - are especially touching. The German accents were strange to me at first, especially the use of the words 'nein' and 'und' when the rest of the time everyone was speaking English. However, I do think it makes more sense to have German characters accented accordingly, even if they aren't speaking the native language. I sometimes wonder what the French think of all the cockneys in Les Mis.

There are a few minor differences between book and film and most of the cuts I felt were necessary. Yet I did miss Max's present to Liesel - the story written in the newly blank pages of Mein Kampf, that reveals how much she means to him (The Stand-over Man). I cried my eyes out at that bit in the book. And it did bother me that instead of a novel, Liesel spent the majority of the film carrying around said blank copy of Mein Kampf. Isn't that dangerous? What if someone had picked it up and discovered the blatant vandalism of Hitler's autobiography? Then there was her storytelling in the bomb shelter. This might be personal preference, but I would say that people listening to a girl read from a novel, while waiting in a bomb shelter? Realistic. People in a bomb shelter wanting to listen to a girl make up a random story off the top of her head, with no recognisable plot? Unrealistic. I believe in the power of words, but only if they actually make sense.

Despite these changes -  and a notion that the last fifteen minutes felt rather rushed -  I thought that the film worked as well as it could have. The Book Thief must have been a difficult book to adapt and the ending, for instance, was never going to be especially filmic (another niggle - why the cheesy last scene, and the zooming in on Liesel's photo? We've just watched a whole film featuring her, we know what she looks like!). Overall however, The Book Thief was enjoyable, and my advice would be to ignore the critical hate. The film does not have the impact of the book, it's not ground breaking. But the acting is good, so is the cinematography and so is the score. It is faithful to Zusak's novel and its characters and it is definitely worth a watch.

My Verdict: 

The Book - Powerful and engaging (but a bit slow).
The Film - Well acted, enjoyable, but not as good as the book.

Rating:       They got the point 


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