The Netflix Queue: The Book Thief (2013)
I’m not a huge fan of comparing a film adaptation to its print source material. They’re different media; narrative structures need to change and elements of the story may need to be altered to make it work on screen. The idea that the book is always better than the film is a false one: both have value, and with changes made judiciously and with a discernible reason, you can take a great book and turn it into a great movie.
That said, The Book Thief (2013) is hard to separate from the novel by Markus Zusak from which it is adapted. Books as physical objects and words as concepts and identities are so central to the story at the heart of The Book Thief that ignoring the source material does the film a huge disservice. Of course, it also helps that not much is terribly altered from page to screen.
In 1939, 10-year-old Liesel Memminger (Sophie Nélisse) travels with her mother (Heike Makatsch) and younger brother Werner (Julian Lehmann) to the town of Molching, where Werner and Liesel are to be left with foster parents Rosa and Hans Hubermann (Emily Watson and Geoffrey Rush). Werner dies along the way, leaving Liesel alone and confused with an outwardly harsh foster mother and meek but loving foster father who teaches her to read by way of a book she stole from her brother’s grave site.
Two years later, Max, the son of the man who saved Hans’s life in the Great War, shows up on the Hubermann’s doorstep. Max is Jewish, and this is Germany in 1941, so when Hans agrees to hide Max in their basement because of a promise made to his father, it’s putting the whole family’s lives in danger. But he keeps his word, and words (and their power) are the central theme here. Max and Liesel bond over reading, and he even makes her a Christmas present – a copy of Mein Kampf in which he paints over every page in white so that she can use it to tell her own story – that ultimately repeats the sacrifice his father made for her.
The Book Thief is far more linear on screen than it was in the book: foreshadowing and late reveals are forgone for immediate explanations, which is a bit startling and distracting. When Frau Heinrich (Kirsten Block), the mayor’s wife, offers Liesel free reign of her private library after witnessing her stealing a book from a public book burning, she almost immediately explains that it was her son’s library, and that he was killed in the war. The library represents “everything that he knew,” but without a hint of mystery as to why it’s so important to Frau Heinrich to pass that on, it feels a little meaningless.
The best translation from book to screen is the character of Liesel’s best friend Rudy Steiner (Nico Liersch). Rudy is blond, blue-eyed, athletic, and essentially the exact desired outcome of the Hitler Youth programs, except that he’s so fundamentally good. When we first meet him, he’s a naive 11-year-old known for covering himself in coal and pretending to be Jesse Owens (interestingly, it’s not the act of donning blackface that he’s shamed for, it’s the desire to emulate a black athlete. Regardless, it’s a completely innocent act of childish daydreaming). He pursues his crush on Liesel when he sees opportunity, but he respects her rejections and never becomes creepy. He stands up to the vicious Hitler Youth leader Franz Deutscher (Levin Liam) and keeps the Hubermann’s secret when Liesel lets it slip to him. Rudy adds so much emotional heart to a film with an absolutely soul-destroying final act that it’s almost unfair.
The Book Thief isn’t a perfect movie, but it’s as faithful an adaptation of the novel as I had hoped, and it manages to be genuinely touching without feeling manipulative given its subject matter.