Book Thief: Inspiring Movie of Tougher Novel

Based on Markus Zusak’s bestselling novel “The Book Thief,” the film version, directed by Brian Percival, is considerably softer and more sentimental than its estimable literary source.

As a movie targeted at children and adolescents, The Book Thief goes out of its way to be inspirational in its message and lavish in its technical aspect—in other words this Fox release is Disneyfied story that was more ironic and ambiguous as a book.

Even so, it’s rare to see a picture these days that celebrates the arts of reading and writing, and though “The Book Thief” is not as strong and effective as the source material, it claims merits that justify attendance.  (I also highly recommend reading the book, preferably after seeing the movie).

Fox is opening this picture in New York on November 8, and then goes nation-wide on Thanksgiving Weekend, November 27.

Markus Zusak’s novel was published in his native Australia in 2005, and then throughout the rest of the world in 2006.  The book has sold 8 million copies worldwide, holding a place on The New York Times best-seller list for almost 7 years. It has been translated into over 30 languages, winning in the process many literary awards and other distinctions, including number-one position at Amazon.com.

The tale’s orphan-protagonist, Liesel, is a courageous young girl who has the capacity to transform the lives of everyone around her when she is sent to live with a foster family in World War II Germany.   At first, books and the act of reading, which demonstrate the power of words and of the force of imagination, are a means of escape from the tumultuous political events that surround her.

Early on, Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) is sent to live with foster parents, the kind-hearted and accordion-playing Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush) and his wife Rosa (Emily Watson), whose toughness is more a façade to inner sweetness and good-heartedness.

Recovering from the recent tragic death of her younger brother, she is understandably shy and timid around her new, surrogate parents.  Like other outsiders, she struggles to fit in in her social milieus, both at home and at school, where her cruel classmates label her  “dummkopf,” due to her inability to read.

Stronger than she appears to be, Liesel, driven by a single-minded obsession of a scholar, is determined to change her debased status at all costs.  She transforms and reinvents herself, but she doesn’t do it alone.  She is assisted by her empathetic “Papa,” who works day and night with Liesel as she pores over The Gravedigger’s Handbook, the only book she took after her brother’s funeral.  What begins as a spontaneous, even impulsive, theft, turns into a life-changing experiences with profound and impactful consequences Liesel as well as those around her.

Liesel’s love for reading and her growing appreciation for her new family are heightened when she befriends a Jewish refugee, Max (Ben Schnetzer), the new guest in the Hubermann’s home.  Their bond is based on the shared passion for books.  Max encourages Liesel to be more alert, sharpen her observational powers, while he hides from the Nazis in the house’s dark and dank basement.

Liesel develops a different kind of friendship with a young neighbor, Rudy (Nico Liersch), who initially teases Liesel about her book thievery until he realizes that he’s actually falling in love with her.

These two friendships, along with Liesel’s growing love of books provide an escape and avenue for joy in the short run and a more lasting pathway to shaping Liesel’s identity and fate in the long run.  In due time, she matures into appreciating not only the power of words, but the power beyond words, an idea that was more compelling and multi-nuanced in the book.

The direction by Brian Percival, who is better known for Downtown Abbey, is functional but impersonal.  A filmmaker with sharper skills would have made a stronger movie out of such an original and imaginative tale.

The compromised movie version is all heart and soul and message–the triumph of perseverance–whereas the book was more grounded in harsher reality, juxtaposing literature and politics, or rather the long-lasting power of reading despite tyranny, dictatorship, and evil.

A moving and poignant portrait of resilience, The Book Thief is too much of a life-affirming tale, emphasizing the contrast between Liesel’s naivete and innocence (in the positive sense of these terms) and Hitler’s pervasive tyranny that defines life at her homeland.