The Book Thief Review
Another week, another literary adaptation
Given the lack of originality in Hollywood these days, it comes as no surprise that just about every title on the New York Times bestseller list is getting adapted into a movie.The problem is that, as we discovered with A New York Winter’s Tale, not all books lend themselves to a film adaptation. Charlie Kaufman captured the struggles of adapting a novel into a film brilliantly in his screenplay for Adaptation. A story that itself grew out of the writer’s struggles in adapting the book 'The Orchid Thief' for the screen.
From one thief to another and 'The Book Thief' concerns a young girl’s experiences in Nazi Germany between the years 1938 and 1945 and whilst that may not sound very difficult to adapt into a film there are two main problems. Firstly the sight of people sitting around reading doesn’t really make for exciting cinema and secondly the novel’s story is narrated by Death.
Yes that’s right, the one with the hooded black cloak and scythe, although as Death (voiced by Roger Allam) points out, his appearance is actually more mundane. The use of Death as both a character and narrator might work as a literary device but it really detracts from the main story when used in the film adaptation. That’s not to take anything away from Roger Allam’s vocal performance and his very distinctive voice is so calming that you probably wouldn't mind him taking your soul. However, he only really narrates at the beginning and end of the film, with very little narration during the middle section.
It’s almost as if the filmmakers weren’t sure whether to use Death as the narrator and changed their minds half way through. Frankly it would have made more sense to drop Death’s narration entirely, it isn’t really needed and often takes you out of the film itself. This sense of indecision also applies to the language used in the film and once again it feels as though the filmmakers weren’t sure how to approach it. The pre-credit sequence is in German with subtitles but after that the film is largely in English, although sometimes people speak German or use the odd German word and in one scene all the children sing a Nazi song in German. Geoffrey Rush's character paints shops signs, which are in German, but also creates a dictionary on the wall of his basement that is in English.
The film is often unsure of its tone and seems afraid of its subject matter.
As a result everyone speaks English with a German accent, which might make sense given the international nature of the cast but does push the film close to parody. As Cate Blanchett proved in The Monuments Men, no matter how good an actor you are, putting on a foreign accent can easily slip into ‘Allo ‘Allo territory. The result is a slightly confused tone to the whole film that is exaggerated by the fact that the filmmakers appear to be somewhat frightened of their subject matter. No one is expecting a film that deals with the Nazi Germany, World War II and the Holocaust to be nice but the filmmakers appear happy to smother the story in saccharine and schmaltz.
Whilst it could be said that the events are seen through the eyes of a child, there is still a feeling that the entire film is just too restrained and safe. People constantly talk about being hungry, dirty and cold but everyone looks the picture of heath and no one seems to actually suffer. There is also a general lack of any real threat to the protagonists, with only a couple of scenes that suggest the danger they might be in for hiding a Jew. There is a scene of a book burning, one where Jews are paraded down the main street and even brief shots of Kristallnacht but the sense of a genuine threat and real danger is minimal.
The story itself concerns Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nelisse), who is placed with foster parents at the start of the film because her mother is a communist and is presumably on the run from the Nazis. The actual fate of Liesel’s real mother remains a mystery but her new parents are the Hubermann’s (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson). When Herr Hubermann discovers that Liesel can’t read, quite why she can’t is another mystery, he sets about teaching her. Liesel becomes best friends with Rudy, a blonde haired Aryan poster boy who idolises Jesse Owens, even to the point of blacking up - much to his parents consternation. Both Liesel and Rudy join the Hitler Youth and the sight of them in their uniforms and singing Nazi songs is quite disconcerting. However it also brings to mind the far more chilling scene in Cabaret were the Hitler Youth sing Tomorrow Belongs to Me.
The family spends part of the film hiding a young Jewish man called Max and it's Liesel's friendship with him that drives much of the second act. She also develops a relationship with a second surrogate mother in the form of the wife of the town mayor and its from her library that Liesel steals or, more accurately, borrows books thus giving the film its title. Sophie Nelisse is perfect as Liesel, all wide eyed charm as she discovers how to read and immerses herself in books and stories. Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson are also great as Liesel’s foster parents - the former is all charm, warmth and humour, whilst the latter plays the humourless scold with a soft side to perfection. Ben Schnetzer is suitably understated as Max and Nico Liersch is captivating as Rudy, who loves Liesel from the moment he first sets eyes on her.
Sophie Nelisse gives a stand-out performance as the wide-eyed Liesel.
The film is directed by Brian Percival, who is best known for directing Downton Abbey and that sense of taste and well mannered theatricality rubs off onto The Book Thief. He does, however, handle the transition to the big screen quite well and makes good use of his widescreen compositions but perhaps due to budgetary constraints the film still feels very low key. The adaptation was done by Michael Petroni, who at least has had experience in adapting literary sources, including Queen of the Damned and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The music is by John Williams, scoring his first non-Spielberg production since 2005's Memoirs of a Geisha and nabbing yet another Oscar nomination in the process. At times it's instantly recognisable as a Williams score but the music often perfectly compliments the visuals and tugs at the heart strings.
The Book Thief is a tasteful and well-made film adaptation but it lacks a sense of its own conviction, frequently playing it too safe and often afraid to tackle difficult issues head-on. As a result the film becomes confused in terms of tone and presentation, leaving the viewer dissatisfied and ultimately unmoved.
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