Welcome to this week’s installment of Movie Monday, where we will discuss books that have been turned into movies. What I loved, what I hated, and whether or not the movie did the book justice.
This week I’ll be tackling “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak, an absolutely astonishing novel that shows us a side of World War II Germany we have rarely, if ever, been shown. I was in awe the author’s ability to mix historical fact with fiction, his words evoking a strong sense of time and place as well as the overwhelming emotional tone of the story but also the time period itself. It’s one of those rare works of literature that is incredibly thought provoking and effects you on a deeply emotional level. If reading this novel didn’t move you even a little bit, then I suspect you are devoid of emotion and you have no soul.
*SPOILER WARNING: If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, do not read ahead. Go read the book, then watch the movie, then you may proceed.*
The book is the story of Liesel Meminger, who along with her little brother, is removed from her mother’s custody and travels to live with another family. While traveling to her new home, her younger brother dies. As she watches him be buried, she steals a book she finds on the ground called The Gravediggers Handbook. (Hence: The Book Thief) She arrives at her new home and meets her new parents Hans and Rosa Hubermann. Hans is kind and gentle, and Rosa is harsh and not entirely welcoming. She also meets Rudy, her next door neighbor who has offered to walk her to school, and the two of them become fast friends. Later, Hans and Rosa hide the son of Hans’ old friend in their basement because he is ill and Jewish and running away so he’s not put into a concentration camp. Liesel and Max bond quickly over their love of books and writing and he encourages her writing because he believes she has a great talent for it. As it comes time for Max to leave, Liesel is heartbroken, but he promises he’ll see her again someday. Liesel and Rudy remain best friends and are each other’s constant companion. Hans is forced to enter the army and fight under Hitler because Germany is losing too many soldiers. While he is gone, Rosa is grief stricken and fears he’ll never return, as does Liesel. Months later, Hans comes home injured but otherwise ok. While the war rages, neighboring towns and cities are being bombed, and all of the local residents of Liesel’s town are forced to take cover in each other’s basements. While they wait for the announcement that they are allowed to return to their homes, Liesel begins to tell stories she has made up to the scared children to calm them, but the adults enjoy them too and it becomes a good way to pass the time and take everyone’s mind off of the horror of the war that rages so near to them. One night while Liesel is alone in the basement writing, and the rest of the town is asleep, the alert system fails and bombs fall and kill nearly everyone she knows including Hans and Rosa, and Rudy and his family. Liesel survives beneath the rubble and is miraculously pulled out, and only survived because she had been in the basement writing as the bombs hit. She’s taken in by a kind woman and lives out the rest of her life, gets married, has children and grandchildren, and when death finally comes for her she greets it like an old friend, having lived a full and happy life.
The film was released under the same name of the novel in Fall of 2013. As far as adaptations go, this one is actually pretty great. The book is so unique that I feared the film would be an absolute disaster, but it was obvious after watching it that the people involved in making the film set out with the best intentions of doing the book justice. I was incredibly glad that they stayed with Zusak’s brilliant choice of making “death,” as an abstract entity, the narrator of Leisel’s story. Critically, it didn’t do that well, but I often find myself at odds with what the critics think of movies I enjoy.
A lot of credit should be given to the film’s screenwriter, Michael Petroni, who did an excellent job bringing the author’s words to life and made a conscious effort to add direct quotes from the book into the film. It seemed like everyone who worked on this movie shared the goal of sticking to what made the book so special instead of adding or removing certain scenes or characters from the book that may not translate well to film or changing things in the story just to add dramatic effect. This is often the case with adaptations, that the filmmakers are too wrapped up in what they think makes for a better movie and stray too far from the source material.
Some of the highest praise for this movie should be given to all involved in casting the actors that were perfectly suited for the roles.
The young actress who plays the main character Liesel, Sophie Nelisse, was an impeccable choice for the role. Her porcelain doll like features and wide-eyed expressions, along with her gift of being able to capture the vibrant spirit of the character who is both young and yet uncommonly wise beyond her years, made the role seem as if it were written exclusively for her. Emily Watson and Geoffrey Rush, who play Liesel’s adoptive parents Hans and Rosa, were also perfect for their respective roles. Emily Watson captured Rosa’s tough as nails and perpetually grumpy exterior, but also captured her strength and guarded but loving nature. Geoffrey Rush brought even more depth to an already complex character. Hans is unfailingly kind, going out of his way to make Liesel feel at home and teaching her how to read, and develops a strong and sweet bond with his adopted daughter which comes across on screen in a way that feels completely genuine.
The young actor Nico Liersch who plays Liesel’s best friend Rudy was a perfect match to the way the author wrote him. Ben Schnetzer who plays Max, the dangerously ill Jewish man and the son of an old friend of Hans’s who shows up at their door begging to hide out in their basement, was also just as the author wrote him.
One of the main themes of both the book and movie is the power words have and how writing can become an outlet used to cope during the harshest of times. Liesel’s character goes from not being able to read or write very well at the beginning of the story, to being an excellent and gifted writer and story-teller by the story’s end.
I give this adaptation a rating of 8 out of 10 stories, comparable to the 432 Park Avenue Building in New York.
While the filmmakers did an amazing job making this movie and doing their best to stay true to the book, it just doesn’t quite hold up to the magic of the novel and if someone were to just see the movie without first reading the book, they may not get just how truly special the story is. It’ll be close, but not quite. However, if you’ve both read the book and seen the movie, I’m sure you’d agree with me that they make an excellent pair.
I hope you enjoyed my review of this week’s Movie Monday book to screen adaptation!
To stay caught up with Books Music, and All Things Written, subscribe below or follow me on social media.
Facebook: Books, Music, and All Things Written
Happy reading and viewing!