When Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief hits bookshelves in 2005, one critic referred to it disdainfully as “Harry Potter and the Holocaust.” This reaction likely spurred from that decade’s ubiquitous Holocaust literature aimed at teens; among them, Everything is Illuminated and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which received lesser film adaptations. However, Zusak’s novel was a book of deep feelings and big thrills, with an aching humanity filling the story and the haunting spirit of Death narrating. It was a vibrant tale set against a dismal wartime backdrop. Brian Percival’s film adaptation, in comparison, is too plain, lacking any of the dynamism that drove Zusak’s bestseller.
The Book Thief follows the life of young Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse), a nine-year-old girl abandoned by her mother and left in the custody of Hans and Rosa Huberman (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson). Liesel is quiet, with sorrow-filled eyes, and her classmates scorn her for not knowing how to read. However, during a period where hundreds of villagers pack the streets for book burning festivities, Liesel wants nothing more than to learn to read and write.
Hans is helping her out in this pursuit of literacy. He teaches her how to read The Grave Digger’s Handbook – a slim book she retrieved from the gravesite of her younger brother. He then sets up giant letters of the alphabet on the walls of their cruddy basement, gives Liesel chalk, and tells her to scribe the words she wants to learn on the walls.
However, the basement soon becomes the hiding place for Max (Ben Schnetzer), whose father was a friend of Hans’ and gave him an accordion. Max is Jewish and had to abandon his mother during Kristallnacht to find shelter and Hans and Rosa press Liesel not to give away that they are keeping a Jew in their basement. “A person is only as good as their word,” Hans tells her.
While Zusak’s novel contains a vivid depiction of Nazi Germany, unafraid to show the brutality and terror that both Jews and Germans resistant to join in with the nationalist fervor went through, the film adaptation is pallid and bland. For a story meant to evoke a period of intolerance and piercing hatred, there is nary a scene of violence, foul language or genuine repulsion.
Since the child protagonist aims the film toward a young audience’s perspective, it is disappointing that there is such a lack of historical context to teach children about the horrors of the Holocaust. Although both Liesel and Max are away from their parents, they confide in each other based on their mutual love for books but seldom talk about their fear of what may be happening to their families.
A good cast can only do so much with the material. Rush and Watson are actors who never turn in bad performances, but even their characterization here is slim. He is a kindred soul with a friendly wink who quickly bonds with Liesel, while she is a scowling matron of the house who fusses about having to work harder to feed an extra guest.
Meanwhile, Nélisse is competent, which a 13-year-old French-Canadian actor taking upon a German accent in an English-language film should take as a compliment. (Nélisse was striking in her 2011 debut, Monsieur Lazhar, which earned her a well-deserved Genie Award). She has a beautifully expressive face, but her character is too timid to give the actor much to project. Stronger is Nico Liersch as Rudy, Liesel’s spunky, talkative friend, with an Aryan complexion and a sly smile, always asking her for a kiss.
The biggest fault of the film belongs with director Brian Percival (an Emmy-winner for Downton Abbey) and screenwriter Michael Petroni, who play it safe where the book was thrilling and dangerous. The Book Thief is a long novel filled with daring subplots, many of which were excised for the adaptation. Instead, the film plods from plot point to plot point, draining both the life (and Death) from this tale.
One of the novel’s slyest feats was that the spirit of Death narrated the story. His commentary, witty and self-referential, added an aura of suspense and dark comedy to the novel. For the adaptation, British character actor Roger Allam voices Death, although infrequently. While the narration enlivens the blandness of the film, it also reminds the audience that there is a better book out there that they are not currently reading.
The Book Thief is tasteful and flavourless, a Holocaust drama that is too nice and dull to be emotionally affecting, or even a good history lesson for a younger audience. Petroni’s script removes the severity and somberness that blackened the edges of Zusak’s pages. The film, at its best, is a reminder of the enduring power of art in the face of persecution and war, shown best in scenes where Hans’ accordion playing and Liesel’s storytelling brighten up a bomb shelter where German citizens have gathered. However, The Book Thief is also a reminder that there is more powerful art available, in the form of Marcus Zusak’s vivid, deeply moving novel.
The Book Thief is a bland adaptation, with a safe, slow-moving script that drains the life (and Death) from a vivid and moving bestseller.