D: Brian Percival / 131m
Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Sophie Nélisse, Ben Schnetzer, Nico Liersch, Levin Liam, Rainer Bock, Barbara Auer, Roger Allam
Literary adaptations are a perilous thing, both for filmmakers and audiences alike. For every Schindler’s List there’s a Bonfire of the Vanities. Some are critically bulletproof, such as the Harry Potter series; despite the turgid nature of the first two movies featuring the bespectacled wizard, they were huge box office successes and paved the way for the remaining instalments (which, effectively, meant they were commercially bulletproof as well). Most fall somewhere in-between, neither success nor failure but an often strange combination of the two e.g. The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones or Smilla’s Sense of Snow, one moment distilling the essence of the original novel, the next demolishing that moment with an ill-judged sequence or change from the source material. Others simply die on the screen (the aforementioned Bonfire of the Vanities, The Osterman Weekend, the Jack Black version of Gulliver’s Travels).
Most try to be faithful to the novel they’re adapting but sometimes this is the very thing that stops the movie from being a success: by cleaving to the set-up, the characters and the events depicted in the novel, the movie somehow misses the spark that made the book a must-read. Instead of a must-see movie, audiences are presented with an adaptation that keeps the essential components but fails to breathe cinematic life into them.
And so it is with The Book Thief. Adapted from the novel by Markus Zusak, The Book Thief in question is Liesel Meminger (Nelisse), a young girl who is given up for adoption by her mother (who may or may not be a communist) during the Second World War. She is taken in by the Hubermanns, Hans (Rush) and Rosa (Watson). Hans is a gentle, encouraging man who teaches Liesel how to read; from this Liesel develops her love of books. Rosa is stern and constantly criticising Liesel’s behaviour (though you know she has a soft spot for her, however horrid she might be). As time goes by and Liesel settles in to life with her new Mama and Papa, the war that seems to be going on in a separate part of Germany altogether, begins to encroach on their daily lives.
One day a young Jewish man called Max Vandenburg (Schnetzer) comes to their house. On the run from the Nazis, he is hurt and needs a place to hide. Owing a debt to his father, the Hubermanns at first hide him in Liesel’s room, then transfer him to the basement. There is an anxious occasion when a Nazi officer visits them and asks to see the basement but he goes away pretty quickly and has no idea that Max is there (and it turns out he’s not even looking for him). Helped back to nearly full health by Rosa’s administrations and Liesel’s reading to him (through books stolen from the burgermeister’s library), Max leaves before he can put them in greater danger. Then Hans is conscripted, despite his age. With the war getting nearer and nearer, Liesel’s future looks increasingly uncertain.
The Book Thief is a curiously flat, dramatically sterile movie that sticks to the same pace from its strikingly photographed opening to its let’s-try-and-be-upbeat-even-though-the-ending’s-a-downer conclusion. There’s very little drama here, very little of what the Germans refer to as sturm und drang (“storm and drive”). Michael Petroni’s adaptation is as dull and uneventful as a trip to a colour chart museum. There’s the visit by the Nazi officer, which should have the viewer on the edge of their seat, but as there’s so little invested in Max’s character, it doesn’t come across as a tense moment at all; it would have been more dramatic by this point if he had been discovered. The only other source of “trouble” that Liesel faces is from school bully and Nazi Youth member Franz Deutscher (Liam), and all he does is make empty threats about “reporting” her (and literally does no more than that). With such an absence of tension throughout, The Book Thief – while remaining true to its source – ends up being a collection of scenes that relate to each other but do little to involve the viewer at any particular point.
As a result, Rush and Watson have to fall back on their expertise to raise their characters from the level of caricatures or cardboard cut-outs, while newcomer Nelisse actually manages to impress even though she has as little to work with as her more experienced co-stars. Percival’s direction does nothing to improve things and is workmanlike at best, though the production – on a technical level – makes up for the emotional detachment, and is often lovely to look at. And there should be one final word for the narrator. Step forward, Death, as voiced by Roger Allam. If there is any further proof required that The Book Thief doesn’t work as well as it should, then take a listen to the dreadful dialogue Allam has to give voice to. If you’re not cringing after the first few sentences (right at the start of the movie) then you’ll probably enjoy The Book Thief a lot more than most.
Rating: 5/10 – dull as the proverbial ditchwater, and spoilt by a lack of engagement from its director and its writer; saved by the professionalism of its cast and crew, but a major disappointment nevertheless.