The Book Thief Film Adaptation

the book thief movie posterLast night I went to see the film adaptation of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief and I loved it. Granted it took me about an hour to stop crying, but I really liked it and was impressed at how true to the book it remained. I’m usually the first person to cry foul if someone has messed around with a book I liked, and despite one major niggle I thought it was a fairly faithful adaptation. My thoughts below, but be warned, there are spoilers.

A huge number of film critics have slammed The Book Thief movie, criticising what is seen as mawkish sentimentalism, an insufficiently harrowing representation of the horrors of World War 2, using Death personified as a narrator and criticising the fact that the cast speak with German accents in a mixture of English with the odd bit of German thrown in. To all of which I say, okay, but did you read the book? The New Yorker Review went as far as to cast doubt on the plausability of the street being bombed… to which I refer you to history books about the allied bombings of Stuttgart. Anyone who wishes to try to reduce WW2 to all Germans bad all Allies good may find their efforts hampered by some of the work of bomber command but I leave that up to GCSE History teachers to explain.

It may be fair enough to criticise the film as being Oscar bait, but honestly, considering that it is an adaptation of what is ultimately a book for younger teenagers which found success as a cross over novel, exactly how harrowing do you think it’s appropriate to be? There were some fairly violent scenes depicting Kristallnacht with hauntingly beautiful music sung by a Hitler Youth choir, hauntingly beautiful until you read the translation of the lyrics and realise that it’s another example of Nazi propaganda designed to indoctrinate very young children into striving for the Aryan state from a very young age. I actually found it incredibly effective at looking at the war from a child’s perspective. Liesel (played brilliantly by Sophie Nélisse) is aware that people who are members of groups that Hitler disapproves of disappear. Her communist parents have disappeared one by one, and though she isn’t aware of the horrors of the concentration camps, she loves her friend Max and fears for what has become of him. I thought the scene where a group of Jewish men were being marched through the town and Liesel runs among them looking for Max was actually more convincing in the film than in the book. In the book, she finds Max and they are both beaten. You can imagine that worse might have happened to Max if this really happens. In the film, she doesn’t find Max in the crowd, every man she sees could be him, and she runs through them promising that she will not forget until she is beaten by a Nazi officer. There are critics who have poured scorn on the moderate actions such as these that individual characters take to code that they are “good Germans”, but the film very clearly demonstrates the real world consequences that actions like these would have had at the time- a family on the verge of poverty because the father refuses to become a member of the Nazi party, conscription to the army if you showed sympathy towards the plight of a neighbour considered “undesirable”, the risk that you yourself will be considered undesirable and taken away. It’s easy to say that the characters should have done more, but I wonder if many who watch the film will think the same as I did- would I be brave enough to do that? Do I oppose injustice in my far safer world?

As I mentioned earlier, there is a change from the book that irritated me. When the bombs drop on Himmel Street in the book, Rudy is killed in his sleep and Death’s description of collecting his soul is heartbreaking:

He lay in bed with one of his sisters. She must have kicked him or muscled her way into the majority of the bed space because he was on the very edge with his arm around her. The boy slept. His candlelit hair ignited the bed, and I picked both him and Bettina up with their souls still in the blanket. If nothing else, they died fast and they were warm. The boy from the plane, I thought. The one with the teddy bear. Where was Rudy’s comfort? Where was someone to alleviate this robbery of his life? Who was there to soothe him as life’s rug was snatched from under his sleeping feet.
No one.
There was only me.
And I am not too great at that sort of comforting thing, especially when my hands are cold and the bed is warm. I carried him softly through the broken street, with one salty eye and a heavy, deathly heart. With him, I tried a little harder. I watched the contents of his soul for a moment and saw a black-painted boy calling the name of Jesse Owens as he ran through imaginary tape. I saw him hip-deep in some icy water, chasing a book, and I saw a boy lying in bed, imagining how a kiss would taste from his glorious next-door neighbour. He did something to me, that boy. Every time. It’s only his detriment. He steps on my heart. He makes me cry.

The Book Thief- Markus Zusak

In the film adaptation he stays alive long enough to half tell Liesel he loves her before dying in front of her. That annoyed me because it felt like a “film moment”, a betrayal of the book for no real narrative reason. It was a crude attempt to tug the heartstrings and the film would have been better without it. It was like someone had spent a bit too long in the fan fiction forums.

In spite of that, I really think it was a good adaptation of The Book Thief. If you enjoyed the book, I think there’s a very good chance that you will like the film, though it’s not as good (these things rarely are) it’s by far one of the better film to book adaptations I’ve seen and the younger cast member are enchanting.

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