Title: The Book Thief
Director: Brian Percival
Major Players: Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Sophie Nelisse
Out Of Five? 3
Another week, another adaptation. From last week’s much-loved romantic fantasy, Winter’s Tale (now A New York Winter’s Tale for UK audiences) we move to the equally adored The Book Thief, Markus Zusak’s novel about a teenage girl with a love for literature growing up in Nazi Germany.
At the start of World War II, nine year old Liesel (Sophie Nelisse) is sent to a working class neighbourhood in Germany to live with foster parents Hans and Rosa (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson). On her way there, she steals a book which starts her lifelong love affair with literature, something that helps her and her adoptive family survive the hardships of war – and that inspires the young Jewish man sheltering with the family to survive.
Adapting a popular book is a minefield – and it doesn’t matter which book is being brought to the screen. The nature of cinema is such that changes will have to be made – characters lost/changed, plots altered – and the risk of alienating the book’s followers is always a real one. I’ll put my hands up and say straight away I’ve not read The Book Thief but, from what I’ve been told by those that have, this is a reasonably faithful adaptation, which will be of some comfort to its many fans.
World War II is seen very much through Liesel’s eyes, so everything we see is from the point of a view of a teenage girl, including major events like Kristallnacht and book burnings, but with the bewilderment that goes with somebody of her age. The book itself was aimed at teenagers, so telling the story from Liesel’s perspective makes sense for that audience. But director Brian Percival has decided to aim the film at the same age group as well, which makes it a frustrating watch for an older audience.
The little we see of what was happening in Germany at the time – Kristallnacht, the transportation of Jews, book burnings – is presented in a soft focus, with little indication of the horrors of the events themselves or their implications. We get glimmers – the book burning starts with a rally to celebrate Hitler’s birthday – but little more.
And that soft focus spreads right across the film. The fact that Percival comes from the Downton Abbey School Of Directing is not insignificant, and it’s a style that he’s brought with him to this film. Everybody – even Max, the refugee who nearly dies – looks remarkably well fed and healthy, despite the poverty and lack of food being regularly mentioned. When Liesel first arrives in the town, her would-be foster mother is reluctant to have anything to do with her because she’s “dirty and smelly”. Nothing could be further from the truth! She’s immaculate, in her Sunday best with perfectly coiffed hair.
There is a strong sense of the film playing safe, not wanting to upset anybody, which also explains the underplaying of the realities of wartime Germany. It may have an extended life in schools as an introduction to teenagers about World War II, especially from the German perspective. But as a piece of cinema designed to re-create a period in modern history, it is well wide of the target.
Thankfully, Percival has assembled a solid cast and their performances are The Book Thief’s big redeeming feature. Geoffrey Rush is warm and likeable as the compassionate foster father who would rather be short of money than work for the Nazis. And Emily Watson is suitably sharp tongued and careworn as the foster mother, outwardly complaining about their lack of money, but quietly and wholeheartedly supporting her husband’s stand.
There is something of the fairy tale about The Book Thief, which doesn’t sit comfortably with the film’s setting. While it has some moving moments, a little more of the realities of the time and a little less soft focus would have given us something far more powerful, instead of a history lesson for teenagers.
The Book Thief opens in cinemas nationwide on Wednesday, 26 February.