Friday, December 20, 2013

In Which I Review The Book Thief (movie)

I am haunted by humans...

Several months ago, when this blog was brand new, I reviewed the novel "The Book Thief" favorably. It's a unique, uplifting and heartbreaking book that I encourage everyone to read. When the trailer for the movie came out, I had high expectations. The trailer for the film seemed to capture the spirit of the book, about stealing back from life when it steals from you. It had a great cast and appeared to remain true to the written word. 

I finally got a chance to see the film and while I'm not disappointed in that it changed the overall plot of the book (it stayed very true to the conceptual outline), I do think the movie failed to capture the spirit of the novel and robbed it of some of that uniqueness that Zusak put into the book. Something was just missing. Some spark failed to grab me in the same way the book did. 

Let's start with some positives. The casting of the film was spot on. Sophie Nelisse managed to capture the inquisitive and precocious nature of Liesel Meminger. She was both compliant and defiant in a world that reinforced her "rightness" as a German born Christian while at the same time emphasizing to her dismay the "wrongness" of the states persecution of the Jews. Nelisse had great chemistry with her peer, Nico Liersch (Rudy), and I had no trouble buying them as best friends. Her interactions with Ben Schnetzer (Max) felt very real; you could see how concerned Liesel was about Max's health and his continued evasion of the German police. Nelisse and Geoffrey Rush (Hans) played off each other very well and their relationship of father and daughter was poignent if rushed. In the book, great pain and time is taken to set up Liesel and Hans's relationship; we see them learning to read and write together. Liesel is plagued by nightmares and episodes of terror and it is Hans who is there to soothe her fears away. All of that was missing from the film and having it in even the smallest degree would have gone a long way to solidifying the father/daughter bond of Hans and Liesel.

Geoffrey Rush as Hans Hubberman was excellent, though I had very little doubt that he would be anything other than that. I loved how he--a native Australian--managed to change is heavy accent into a believable German one. Hans is both the comic relief, making fun of his wife, and the heart of the book/movie to Liesel's soul. If I laughed during the film--which was few and far between un-surprisingly given the subject matter--it was because of Hans. Like I said above, I do wish more attention had been paid to building the bond between Hans and Liesel. While it did not feel forced by any stretch of the imagination, I missed the quiet moments in the basement where Hans and his child would read and write on the walls. It's an important motif to the overall book about Liesel coming into knowledge and how it helps in her relationship with Max. Hans's marraige to Rosa (Emily Watson) wasn't as caustic in the book. There, they are forever at odds, though more out of love than any type of bitterness. Rosa doesn't hesitate to help Max when he shows up at the door seeking Hans, though she is a worrier by nature. Another characteristic of Hans that got brushed over was his stance on the NAZI party in Germany. In the book, it's quite clear that Hans doesn't agree with the policies of the ruling party and has refrained from joining the party due to this. In the movie, they show Hans being sympathetic to the plight of his Jewish neighbors but more scared of the party than disagreeing with them outright.

Another highlight of the film was the sense of fear, lurking around every corner. Special attention was paid to the indoctrination of the German children into the NAZI party's mindset. Liesel, standing in her uniforms with the swastika, singing a song about "Germany for the Germans" probably wholly unaware of what that entailed for others not born German Christian. Loud angry speeches in German punctuated scenes like the conflagration of books which prompts Liesel to steal her first book. Max, hiding under a German flag, while a member of the SS inspects the basement and the family waits on tenterhooks to see if they will be figured out, all provided a sense of living in fear day in and day out. The friendship between Max and Liesel was sweet and tender, the former being a stand in for the latter's dead brother. However, while it was sweet, there were certain scenes from the book that needed to be there: like the book Max gives Liesel. While he does give her the book in the film, it is blank, ready for her written word. But the book originally held a story Max himself wrote about the power of the written word, a message that encourages Liesel to begin writing herself. Instead it was reduced to a quick bit of exposition where Max explains why writing is important to life. It fell flat, at least flatter than in the book where you get to read Max's story.

The title of the book and movie comes from Liesel's exploits breaking into the "mayor's" house and stealing his wife's books, something that Liesel believes is bold and daring and her opportunity to steal back from life when it has taken so much from her. But it's also something that the the wife of the mayor encourages in secret, making sure Liesel is never caught and has an easier time stealing the books than she should. Sadly, in the movie, this dichotomy is swept under the rug, as is the majority of the relationship between Liesel and Elsa.
The stealing of books also goes hand in hand with Liesel and her best friend Rudy stealing other items, like food from nearby farms, something that is wholly left out of the movie. It may have been a secondary plot in the book, but it was important in that it showed how desperate the family and people in Germany had become. In the end, the book thief didn't feel like much a thief and I hate that they left out the line, "sometimes when life robs from you, you have to rob it back" which is the story in a nutshell.

One more thing. While I appreciate that the movie did incorporate Death as the narrator, I feel as though it robbed the voice of Death of all its unique quality. The character of Death in the book is so much richer and full bodied; it's one of the high points of the novel and something that sets the book apart from others. But in the movie, Death has a few lines here and there, and while the actor delivered them well, they were devoid of that sorrow and humor I associate with the Death voice in the book.

Overall Rating: B-

I don't think this is a movie people are going to rush out and see nor would I claim that it should be. It was good and there are certain highlights (like Rush as Hans Hubermann) but there was something lacking overall that prevents me from gushing like I would have liked to. Read the book then wait for Netflix to stream the film.

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