How does a filmmaker adapt Markus Zusak’s bestseller The Book Thief (Knopf, 2005), written in the candid and empathetic point of view of Death? Following a fundamental rule, director Brian Percival decides to show not tell, and keeps the voice-over to a minimum. In fact, Death disappears for most of the first half.
The novel stands out for Zusak’s loose, lucid, and at times free-form writing style. Its narrative is metaphorical, blunt, fast-paced, punchy, and poetic. Sometimes the author moved the story line forward with a few succinct sentences, and through an inserted, hand-drawn picture book that’s part of the narrative. Percival goes for a down-to-earth and straightforward form of storytelling. Like Downton Abbey, for which he won an Emmy, the movie has crystal-clear characterizations with a not-too-strong dose of sentiment. It becomes temporarily arty during the hand-held sequences of panic or violence (depicting Kristallnacht).
Perhaps it goes without saying, but this is not a typical family film for the holiday season. The movie begins with Death (Roger Allam, never seen) narrating in English-accented baritone the opening line, “One small fact: you’re going to die” before he offers advice on what not to do when he comes calling, “Don’t panic, it doesn’t seem to help,”.
There’s an advantage to keeping the all-knowing Death from chatting too much; there’s no direct foreshadowing of who’s going to die, which might catch those in the audience who haven’t read the book off-guard. Presumably, many of the overhead camera angles are from Death’s point of view, a subtle way of keeping him in the thick of the story.
While Death makes his rounds in 1938 Germany, one tenacious girl catches his attention, stirring his curiosity: the blonde and green-eyed Liesel (Sophie Nélisse). In the book, she’s an ordinary 10-year-old living during the rise and the dying days of the Third Reich. She doesn’t know how to read or write, but has a determination to learn. (No wonder librarians love the book.) In the opening minutes, her younger brother dies on the train en route to their new foster home. The first book she steals, thus earing her titular nickname, is a manual dropped at his snow-covered gravesite, The Gravediggers Handbook. (Her mother, a rumored communist, disappears under murky circumstances.)
Her new parents have taken her in for the extra income. (The tough-talking Rosa is particularly disappointed that only one kid has shown up.) The working class Hubermanns aren’t members of the Nazi Party. By the time 1941 rolls in, Hans offers shelter to a young Jewish man on the run, the son of a comrade who saved Hans life 20 years earlier in World War I. In the book, the fictional town Molching is in southern Germany, and whether on the page or in the film, the hamlet lies under the flight path of Allied bombers. The look of the plaster-peeling town has a grey, pale palette, like living under a perpetual winter sky.
One could argue that Liesel has been made more palatable on film and not as scrappy. She only steals books, no food, and she doesn’t have a cruelly vindictive confrontation with the mayor’s wife. As in the source material, all of the likable characters are apolitical, if not defiantly, though secretly, anti-Nazi.
Screenwriter Michael Petroni has chosen appropriate moments and supporting characters to excise. And the film provokes in a way that the book does not—Liesel’s not as much of an outsider. She enjoys being part of her class singing along to a Nazi anthem, and her eyes are aglow at a book burning bonfire of what the town mayor has condemned as “intellectual dirt,” where the townsfolk sing “Deutschland Über Alles.” She has no idea yet of the broader implications of wearing a Hitler Youth uniform.
But who is the film for? It’s certainly for adult audience and teens, grades nine and up, if not a bit younger, who have made up the book’s core young adult readership. The art-house crowd will be drawn to the marquee names of Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson as Liesel’s foster parents. Rush, in particular, is a model of simplicity—just watch his body language. Instead of playing his pragmatic father figure as heroic, he slumps, defeated, knowing he must protect the Jewish refugee and honor his word at the risk of his family’s safety. (The international cast speaks German-accented English, more Low German than the Nazi German of 1940s Warner Brothers.) As Liesel, Nélisse gives an observant, reactive performance; the director leaves the drama to the story and the emoting to the adults.
But most importantly, admirers of the book will shed tears. Tellingly, the most moving scene has none of composer John Williams’s musical accompaniment, which otherwise flows almost nonstop.
The Book Thief opened in a limited engagement on November 8, and will steadily roll out throughout the country in the next weeks.
Directed by Brian Percival