The Short Version
The book is a masterpiece. The film is . . . serviceable. A paint-by-numbers rendering of the Sistine Chapel. The cast was excellent, as was the cinematography. The music, though sparse, was effective. But the script was lacking in almost every way. What was a beautiful, unforgettable story in novel form was adapted into a film that was missing everything that made the book unique. Though the filmmakers tried to satisfy fans of the book with garnishes of dialogue and character moments here and there, it was ultimately an oversimplified, neutered version of an intricate and intimate story that deserved better.
The Long Version
Before you read this review, there are a two things you need to know about me in order to understand where I’m coming from:
- The Book Thief is my favorite book of all time, and I regard it as a literary masterpiece that, despite its many accolades, still isn’t as well-known as it should be.
- In general, I am fairly liberal with book-to-film adaptations and don’t mind if changes are made as long as there are reasons for said changes and the film is made with respect to the material from which it is adapted.
With those two bullet points in mind, The Book Thief should have worked. Very little was changed from the novel to the film, and the story elements that were left out weren’t overly necessary to the story the film was telling. The cast was excellent. The music fit the tone of the film perfectly. The imagery was breathtaking. In the end, it came down to the words. “Words are life,” the character Max tells our heroine Liesel in one of the film’s more touching moments. In the case of the film adaptation of The Book Thief, however, the words are also the heart . . . and the movie’s downfall.
Before we examine what didn’t work about the film, I want to spotlight the elements of the movie that did work. First, the cast was fantastic. I could have done without the monotone line delivery of the child actors, but Sophie Nélisse and Nico Liersch both did fine jobs as Liesel and Rudy, respectively, and Ben Schnetzer fit the role of Max nicely. However, the true standouts in this category were Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson as Hans and Rosa Hubermann. Both perfectly encompassed their characters, adding subtle nuances to every scene they were in and drawing the audience into the cramped, harrowing world of life on Himmel Street.
Second, the music was beautiful. Composed by John Williams, the score for The Book Thief was both sentimental and haunting, using mostly piano throughout with strings for emphasis. This is not big, booming, Jurassic Park John Williams; this is subtle, resonant, contemplative John Williams. My only complaint is that there was very little score in the movie itself.
Third, the cinematography was excellent. From the framing of each shot to the imagery itself, the film was a breathtaking sight.
So with all of that, what could I possibly have a problem with?
Easy. The words.
Aside from the touching story and the intriguing narrator (which I will touch on later), one of the most endearing qualities of The Book Thief is the beauty of its prose. It is, quite honestly, one of the most elegant and poetic books I have ever read. Its brilliant use of language and descriptive imagery does more than just paint a picture; it plants an idea. It creates a three-dimensional space in your mind for the story to inhabit, and it will stay there long after you’ve read its last words and put it back on the shelf.
The film, however, doesn’t have those words. Instead, it has the feeling of a movie that, like Rudy during the Jesse Owens Incident, is mostly racing toward the finishing line without a care in the world. I mostly blame the script for my dislike of the movie. The whole thing just felt rushed, like the filmmakers were so desperate to get to the shocking climax that they didn’t take the time to fill out the beginning and the middle. It’s still an emotional moment, but it should have hit harder. And I really feel like the only reason it resonated at all was because of the respective actors’ performances prior to the climax. (Vague enough? I’m not a spoiler person.)
One of my favorite aspects of the book was its narration. Narrated by a different personification of Death than any I’ve ever seen before in fiction, The Book Thief immediately established itself as a unique work with its choice of perspective. And, despite my doubts that Hollywood would be so bold, the character of Death is also featured in the film adaptation. However, after seeing the film, I wish he wasn’t.
Roger Allam was a great choice; his voice is full of personality, and the filmmakers really couldn’t have picked a better voice for Death. My problem is that the character doesn’t matter at all. Ultimately, his inclusion is just fan service for viewers who have read the novel. He has a few monologues here and there, but they all feel out of place and tacked on. In the book, the character has meaning, providing a different perspective on the horrors of war and the ramifications of our choices. In the film, his voice interrupts the story during a handful of quiet, landscape-filled scenes, injected random, shortened versions of some of his asides. My favorite part of the book became one of the things I wish they had just left out of the movie. It simply didn’t fit.
In the end, I was disappointed. Perhaps it is my own fault for putting the book up on so high a pedestal that an adaptation couldn’t possibly do it justice. Or perhaps it truly was a misfire, and I am not the only one who feels this way. Either way, I still have the book, and I will continue to enjoy reading it. Even Hollywood can’t take that away.
Final Grade: N – Needs Improvement