Film directed by Brian Percival
“He was the crazy one who had painted himself black and defeated the world.
She was the book thief without the words.
Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like rain.”
When I first launched Required Reading last year, one of my first reviews was the beloved YA novel The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. It is the story of Liesel Meminger, an illiterate book-lover with an innate understanding of the power of words, even as she struggles to possess them. Her story begins in Nazi Germany, where she lives with a foster family on the outskirts of Munich, sitting on the secret of the Jew who is hiding in their basement. But although the story is about Liesel, it is narrated by Death, who is everywhere during the war, and is particularly haunted by Liesel’s tale. This year, The Book Thief was released as a film, adapted by Michael Petroni and directed by Brian Percival. Since I have already reviewed the book in the past, this review contains spoilers for both the book and the film.
If it is unsettling to read The Book Thief and see a child innocently blundering through Nazi Germany, it is even more compelling played out on the screen. It is gut wrenching to see Rudy and Liesel wearing the uniforms of the Hitler Youth and the Bund Deutscher Madel (League of German Girls), complete with swastika patches, playing soccer under Nazi flags, and being forced to throw books on the bonfire. Perhaps the most chilling sequence of this terrible innocence begins with a close up of Liesel as she sings, and the camera slowly pulls out to reveal an entire children’s choir in uniform. The German song sounds beautiful, but the English lyrics that subtitle it reveal the vile anti-Semitic and racist content.
In the lead up to the big screen debut of The Book Thief, there was a great deal of speculation about whether the narrator would be featured, since he is one of the most beloved aspects of the book. While the thing I loved most about the book was the rare opportunity to take the German perspective, for many, it is that narrator that sets The Book Thief apart from other World War II fiction. The answer is that he is here but, for better or worse, in a much smaller capacity. He does not interject in the middle of scenes as he does in the novel, but helps move the narrative from place to place, and through time. This change helps the film to run smoothly, and for the most part, all of the other minor changes tend towards streamlining the story as well.
The Book Thief adaptation does make some larger changes that I felt were wrong and unnecessary. First, when Max arrives on the Hubermann’s door step, Rosa briefly proposes turning him in, in direct contrast to her reaction in the book. Gives how irascible and hard Rosa is as a character, her unwavering determination to save Max is one of the things that makes her character relatable despite this gruffness. I think it was a mistake to make this change, however believable it might seem, because it irrevocably changes how we understand Rosa’s character. Second, in the aftermath of the final air raid, when Liesel loses so many of the people she has come to love on Himmel Street, the film has Rudy survive just long enough for Rudy and Liesel to say good bye. In a story with an already heart-rending conclusion, this change felt like an unnecessary bid to pluck one more heartstring, and for me, it cheapened Rudy’s death.
There was one significant change which felt both compelling and right. In the air raid shelter, instead of reading aloud from her stolen books, Liesel makes up stories. I liked the way that this change emphasized her finding her own voice, instead of reading the words of others. In the book, this only begins with her decision to write down her story, but in the film we can see the beginnings of this change in her storytelling the in bomb shelter. The way the film brings her to write her story is also more fluid and powerful than its execution in the book. Instead of receiving a journal from the mayor’s wife, Max paints Mein Kampf into a blank journal, and gives it to Liesel with the Hebrew word לכתוב(write) inscribed inside. He tells Liesel about how, in the Jewish tradition, life is imparted by the word. This sequence gives Liesel a powerful incentive to tell her story. This part of the adaptation truly grasped the significance of the book’s message about taking back the words from Hitler, who used them so deftly as a weapon.
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