Oh, the horror! No, not the horror of war. Well, that too. I’m referring to the horror of taking a perfectly good book and turning it into a perfectly awful movie. THE BOOK THIEF is the film adaptation of the very popular 2005 novel of the same name by Australian author, Markus Zusak.
It is 1938, Nazi Germany, and Liesel Meminger is a young German girl who is brought to the home of an older couple, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, as they have agreed to foster her. It is unclear to Liesel why her mother had to give her up but she seems to take it all in stride… at least she does in the movie. At the funeral for her younger brother who has died en route to the Hubermanns, Liesel snatches up the gravedigger’s funeral guide as a souvenir. With that act, she embarks on a pastime of book thieving, or “book borrowing” as she calls it. As war falls upon the residents of Himmel Street in the fictional Munich working class suburb of Molching, favours are called in, secrets are kept and alliances are made… all while Death watches and waits. Needless to say, Death doesn’t have to wait very long as the war turns against the Nazis, which everyday Germans pay for dearly.
When I heard that the film was going to be made, I wondered how they were going to handle the language issue. Although the novel was originally written in English, the dialogue is generously infused with German words – most of them being expletives and most of those being delivered by the protagonist’s foster mother. I had hoped that the film would be in German but no such luck. Instead, we’re given a mixed bag of mostly German-accented English; some full-on German, which is subtitled; and a bit of German 101 words such as “nein”.
I also wondered how they were going to handle the time progression. The story runs from 1938 to 1945 – seven years, which for teenagers is half a lifetime. I had hoped they would use two sets of young actors but they went with just one and that just didn’t work at the end, as the kids still looked like kids when the war ended. That being said, the two main young actors – Canadian actress Sophie Nélisse and German actor Nico Liersch did a great job and really held up their end against acting heavyweights Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson.
Lastly, I wondered how they were going to handle the character of Death, whose narration throughout the novel adds to the sense of foreboding doom that will ultimately turn Himmel Street (“Himmel” being German for “heaven”) into hell. In the film, Death becomes a pretentious gimmick whose narration reduces the story to an albeit dark fable.
If you haven’t read the novel, you may just like the film. It is slickly made – although the sets look like something Disney might create if they ever do a Bavarialand – and the acting is very good. It’s certainly suitable viewing for young people, as even the victims of the Allies’ carpet bombing die without a scratch on their bodies. But the screenplay is a mess. Writer Michael Petroni, who also penned the third Narnia film, takes the best scenes from the novel and either distills them down to quick, meaningless vignettes or dispenses with them altogether. Liesel and Rudy become best friends but we don’t understand why. Mama Rosa is gruff but she’s not nearly as caustic as she is in the novel. And when Jews are being marched down Himmel Street (on their way to Dachau Concentration Camp, as the novel explains), we’re left thinking that many, many more people in Molching were hiding Jews in their basements than just the Hubermanns.
So, save your money and give this film a miss or, better yet, use your money wisely and buy the book.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link, select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 35:10.)