A Review of The Book Thief

Gertie-Pearl Zwick-SchachterOctober 29, 2016The WordMedia

The Book Thief stole two hours of my life. Markus Zusak’s popular young-adult novel was adapted as a movie in 2013. Unfortunately, it fell a little flat for this reviewer.

The plot involves a young girl, brought by her fleeing mother to a foster family in Germany, where she falls in love with books. Although the movie was enjoyable at times, my mind often wondered when it would be over. The enticing and dynamic characters were the one thing that kept my eyes on the screen. Death is our narrator and the role is played by Roger Allam. He has an appealingly dramatic voice, although his face is never shown. I enjoyed his personality and tone and he was a breath of fresh air during the darker parts of the movie. He appeared at the very end, but I spent the entire last part waiting for a surprise that didn’t come. This may have worked in the book but it feels false on film.

Death introduces the viewer to Liesel (Sophie Nélisse), an extraordinary young girl whose mother abandoned her because she wanted to keep her daughter safe as she fled Germany in 1938. Liesel is brought to live with an older couple in a small German village. Her new caretakers are the kindly, hapless, and adorable Hans (Geoffrey Rush; he is the best thing about the movie), and the grouchy, prickly Rosa (Emily Watson).

I loved the way Rush expresses love and kindness. The warm way he portrays his hearty, upbeat character is truly lovely. I also enjoyed how Watson shows her soft heart, even while screaming until her voice goes hoarse. As Liesel, Nélisse was extremely likable, but her character seemed more like a starlet than a desperate orphan; she had perfect hair even after being shoved into a dirty, cramped bomb shelter.

Unhappy and struggling to adjust to her new life and parents, Liesel finds solace in stealing, reading, and sharing books. Uneducated, she is coaxed out of her shell by Hans as he teaches her to read using a gravedigger’s manual she picked up at her brother’s funeral. Being a feisty little girl, she makes friends with another hearty neighborhood child, Rudy (Nico Liersch), who never fails to make you laugh and cry with his crazy antics. I fell in love with Rudy when he first appeared, just as he did with Liesel. Poor Liesel, however, only realizes it once it is too late.

We learn that nothing perfect can last. It seems that everything might work out for Liesel when the bombs start to drop. Max, a beloved refugee staying at Liesel’s home, knows it is time to go and his presence can only endanger Liesel and her family. He doesn’t want to do anything that could possibly hurt the kind people who have cared for him. After a tearful goodbye, Max departs. Fearing his capture, Liesel runs through crowds of jailed Jews screaming his name, only to be shoved aside by cruel Nazi soldiers.

This tasteless, somewhat dull, movie at least ends with an exciting disaster scene. The director, Brian Percival, took more than a few wrong turns in his retelling of the story from the book. World War II was a horrific time in history, where millions lost their lives. In an attempt, perhaps to make it less horrifying as a movie intended for children, the brutality of the war was removed. But in not showing this harsh reality, it took something away that could have made the film more interesting. The Nazis seemed more irritating than terrifying. Bothersome at the most, these almost-respectful Nazis gave the poor citizens, and perhaps movie spectators as well, a headache. Until the end, the loss of life was more fairy tale than tragedy. The movie smoothed the harsh edges of reality to make it less threatening, but what child wants to go see a slow-paced, two-hours-plus, war movie? Everything from the neat domestic scenes to Liesel’s perfectly styled clothing and hair felt a little too Hollywood.

The movie whitewashed an ugly time in history before hurling viewers to a final, brutal moment. It might have been more successful if it had shown the Nazis in their true form and the story was more succinct. Fewer plot points would have made the movie more viewer-friendly and memorable. The actors’ great performances were, to me, lost on a story that seemed to drag. Perhaps the director should have trusted children to handle an adult topic with appropriate maturity, or that parents wouldn’t allow their children to see this movie until they were older.

I gave this movie a three out of five star rating. The portrayal of the past was historically inaccurate and most of the film was dull. But I did very much enjoy the shocking ending and, on that note, the movie really delivered. Despite the movie’s mistakes, there were characters to love and emotions to tug at your heart, and that is what I feel really makes a movie. An adult may enjoy it more than I did. However, my recommendation is for children, especially younger ones, to steer clear of The Book Thief, at least for now.

Gertie-Pearl Zwick-Schachter is 13 years old and lives in New York City. She loves to debate, sing, act, read, play guitar, and be with her friends and family. Most of all she loves to write and dance!