I’ve never read Markus Zusak’s 2006 historical-fiction novel The Book Thief, though I’ve seen and heard many a classmate obsesses over the World War II-set coming of age drama, which spent more than 230 weeks atop The New York Time’s bestseller list. Narrated by Death, Thief is the story of Liesel Meminger, a young German foster child who is taken in by Hans and Rosa Hubermann, a lovingly aged couple who end up hiding a Jew in their basement as the Nazi regime takes control of the country. My mom was a passionate fan of the book this past summer and I remember her reading it in tiny chunks, stopping after a chapter or two and taking a few deep breathes to clear her mind from the dark subject matter. Anytime I would ask how she was enjoying the story she would look at me and sigh, “It’s heavy.” It was obvious she was fan of Zusak’s work since she couldn’t stop returning to Liesel’s journey, but it was also clear the novel was taking quite an emotional toll on her, which may be the reason die-hard fans end up dissatisfied with the film adaptation. It’s simply too nice. As adapted by Michael Petroni and directed by frequent Downtown Abby-helmer Brian Percival, the film version of The Book Thief forgoes the extreme severity of the historical situation in favor of a neatly-packaged drama that’s perfect for the entire family due to the vibrant work of its talented cast.
The fresh-faced 13-year-old Sophie Nelisse is quite the breakthrough as Liesel, carrying the entire movie on her shoulders with surprising grace and maturity. Like Quvenzhané Wallis in last year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, Nelisse has the difficult task of embodying a vulnerable, curious young girl who must face adulthood in the wake of tragic events and she nails the protagonist’s emotional journey. After the death of her younger brother, Liesel is brought to live with the Hubermann’s and Nelisse plays these early scenes with a muted, delicate fear that instantly gets us on her side. Slowly, Liesel becomes a precocious youngster and Nelisse effortlessly balances her character’s feisty hunger for literature and love (she’s perfectly reserved and humorous in her budding relationship with warm hearted neighbor Rudy) with her more feminine vulnerabilities over why certain things come to be in a world gone mad. By the film’s potent climax, Nelisse’s confidence in her character’s confusion and curiosity shines brightest and allows her to be relatable in scenes of hope (a make-shift snowball fight is a heartwarming highpoint) and despair (the horror of the morning after an air raid).
This is screenwriter Petroni’s biggest strength in adapting the novel for he presents the story entirely from Nelisse’s perspective, and director Percival runs with this in creating a film that is polished and extremely neat. All the settings appear movie-set-ready and nothing about the look of the film provides the grit we’ve come to expect from similar movies set in this time. And while it’s true that the film is tied into a nice little bow in terms of tone (it’s clear the studio wants this to be a controversy-free drama the entire family can see throughout the holiday season), the events are always presented through Liesel’s doe-eyed curiosity, so it somehow make sense that the look of the film is so clear cut and tidy. This is, after all, a 13-year-old’s perspective of World War II and all the perfectly dangling Nazi flags should look like dramatic, bold red carpets in the mind of an imaginative young girl who is looking to the world to heal her familial wounds. Everything feels and looks incredibly perfect – even James Newton Howard’s nuanced score comes on just at the right sentimental moment – though that’s exactly how the optimistic Liesel views the world and it makes the film version’s toning down of the source material’s heavy nature something that can be artistically justified. While you wish this cleanness would crack as the events of WWII become more severe, it’s clear this film is catering to all audiences and you can’t be too hard on it for playing it safe for the sake of family appeal. I mean, how often do we get Nazi-oriented dramas that you can take the whole family to? If anything, Thief gets some credit for making the emotionally distraught nature of WWII accessible for young audiences.
Added strengths come in the form of Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson, two veterans of the business who bring warm empathy to the roles of Hans and Rosa Hubermann. Watson is humorously brash as the tight-wound Rosa, at first playing an intimidating stalwart but later peeling back her character’s layers and revealing why Rosa must be so strong-willed in a society dominated by a male-heavy regime. Rush, who has spent way too much time under pirate makeup recently, reminds us why he is such a supreme talent, never missing a beat as he fills Hans with warmth and graciousness. Hans and Liesel share a lovely relationship and Rush is so tender in his early scenes with Nelisse that you feel for their dynamic incredibly. It helps that he can lighten up any moment with his sincere grin and Rush gets some nice laughs as his character teaches Liesel how to read using The Grave Digger’s Handbook. As a whole, Rush, Watson, and Nelisse are the beating triangle that gives the film its emotionally effective heart.
Eventually, adapting a 550-page book in a little over 2 hours proves to be quite the challenge as plot points rack up one after the other and never really leave a lasting imprint. Even the main story about hiding Max (Ben Schnetzer) in the basement is short-shifted, though it does lead to quite the tense moment when a Nazi officer unexpectedly shows up to search the house. Though it jumps from one event to the next like a checklist, the film never feels over done or short on emotion because the cast constantly allows you to feel the emotions such events take on their characters. Even the young Nico Liersch uses his somewhat short screen time as Rudy to expertly depict how innocence is lost in the darkest of times. Ultimately, The Book Thief succeeds on the strength of its cast and no matter how one enjoys this overtly safe adaptation it’s almost impossible not to feel for the characters involved. In terms of Holiday family films, this impressive cast has delivered a nice little emotional gift. For the many children too young for Schindler’s List, The Book Thief makes for an effective introduction to this horrific period in history.
Review by Zack Sharf