Words: Marta Catalano
The cinema industry periodically approaches the delicate and controversial subject of the Holocaust, sometimes with great success (see The Pianist, 2002) and in other cases not meeting the critics and audience’s approval (see The Reader, 2008).
The Book Thief offers a fresh approach. An adaptation of Markus Zusack’s book, the narrator is quite peculiar one: death, who opens, dominates, and ends the whole story. As the film is set during the Second World War, one couldn’t possibly think of a better narrator. In the movie however, the deep voice of Roger Allam comes as unexpected and almost too superficial. What was portrayed as an almost omnipresent voice in the book, comes here across here as isolated and fragmented.
This is the story of Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse) who, after her brother’s death, is adopted by Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa Hubermann (Emily Watson) because her mother cannot keep her for various reasons, including her communist leanings. The actors’ German accents are perfect and contribute to make the film more realistic. The drama unfolds as Liesel starts to collect books, either stealing them (or borrowing, as she likes to say) from the mayor’s wife or saving them from destruction (during book burnings). Later on, the family help hide a Jew called Max (Ben Schnetzer) in the cellar, who becomes Liesel’s friend and further shows her the power of words.
In effect, here words can be said to be one of the main characters of the story. In Zusack’s novel, the importance of books and words cannot be stressed enough. In a time in which freedom of speech and thought was denied and where words were the means of horrific propaganda, books offered not only a way to escape and react, but also a way to try and make sense of it all. Words make Liesel aware of what is happening around her, and strengthen her relationship with people. Her stepfather teaches her how to read, Max gives her a book he made cutting out sections from Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’, and books also connect her to the mayor’s wife. In the movie these moments are sped through, leaving the audience unsatisfied with the real power of words that the film is trying to portray.
In the novel, the narration is focused through Liesel’s point of view and her perception of events, which blurred the distinctions between politics and the relationships between people. However, with this adaptation this distinction comes across as being far too simplistic. The scenes are often rushed during pivotal events such as Kristallnacht or the book burning sequence. However, this serves also as a reminder that the focus of the story is not merely the horrors of the war which provide the essential background, but the relationship between people, the fact that there was no clear cut distinction between “good” and “evil”, that there were “good” Germans willing to help, such as Liesel’s new family. Plus, even though it fails at recreating the same depth of the book, the acting and setting in this movie are powerful enough to engage you. Every actor is able to portray the characters following the book and adding a personal touch, making them as lovable as Markus Zusack was able to make them.
It is true: there is something that always gets inevitably lost in adaptation, but more than that there is definitely something missing in this movie. Perhaps it is the lack of critical moments or the simplistic and romanticized way they are portrayed. However we cannot help but wonder if a powerful best-selling novel like Zusack’s one, that tackles such a delicate subject in a way that was never tried before, should have been left in print.