WASHINGTON – “The Book Thief” was a smash hit in young adult fiction, spending more than 230 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list.
Now, Markus Zusak’s 2005 novel is getting the big screen treatment. And just as the book sold more than eight million copies in 30 different languages, we now get an American film production with a British director interpreting an Australian novel set in 1939 Nazi Germany.
After watching her brother die on a train, Young Liesel (Sophie Nelisse) is put up for adoption by her mother, just like Charles “Foster” Kane. While Welles’ Kane met Adolph Hitler in a newsreel, Liesel gradually grows to hate the Fuhrer, put off by book-burning demonstrations and the loss of loved ones. She rebels in her own little way by stealing books, first salvaging pages from one of these book- burnings, then swiping novels from the local burgermeister (aka mayor).
Around the same time, her adoptive parents Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson) agree to hide a Jewish refugee named Max (Ben Schnetzer) in their basement, repayment for Max’s father saving Hans’ life during World War I. Liesel and Max bond over reading and writing, turning the basement walls into giant dictionaries, but the young girl can’t tell a soul, not even her bullied blonde best friend Rudy (Nico Liersch), who looks a bit like the bullied boy in “Let the Right One In” (2008). Here, Liesel’s parents have let the right one in (Max), but they’re not fighting vampires; these monsters are much scarier: Nazis.
Movie history has shown that Oscars abound when a Nazi-themed book meets a strong screenplay adaptation: Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett turned Anne Frank’s memoir into “The Diary of Anne Frank” (1953); Ernest Lehman adapted Maria Von Trapp’s book and the Rodgers-Hammerstein musical into “The Sound of Music” (1965); Jay Allen adapted Christopher Isherwood’s book and plays by Joe Masteroff John Van Druten into “Cabaret” (1972); Alan J. Pakula adapted William Styron’s book into “Sophie’s Choice” (1982); Steve Zaillain adapted Thomas Keneally’s book into “Schindler’s List” (1993); Ronald Harwood adapted Wladyslaw Szpilman’s book into “The Pianist” (2002); and David Hare adapted Bernhard Schlink’s book into “The Reader” (2008).
“The Book Thief” may aim for these heights, but feels less like an Oscar contender and more like a family outing with the kids. This is mostly due to an adapted script oppressed by its own S.S. — safe and superficial. Roberto Benigni got away with candy-coating the Holocaust in “Life is Beautiful” (1997) because it was the premise of the entire plot — a father’s fantasy game for his son to survive the concentration camps. “The Book Thief” tries to play its story straight, while sanitizing its tone.
Screenwriter Michael Petroni has a knack for turning strong novels into mediocre movies, adapting Anne Rice’s novels into “Queen of the Damned” (2002), C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader” (2010) and Matt Baglio’s “The Rite” (2011). His “Book Thief” adaptation will feel predictable even for those who haven’t read the novel, including a close call ripped straight from “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994). As an S.S. officer comes dangerously close to finding Max before grabbing a paint brush, you’ll remember the prison guard nearly discovering Andy Dufresne’s secret before grabbing the rock hammer.
The writing is filled with on-the-nose dialogue. Note how Rudy aspires to be Jesse Owens, whose 1936 Berlin Olympic performance thumbed an American nose at Hitler’s white supremacy. His racist father insists it’s not proper to have a black hero, and fellow runners trip him into a puddle to give him a muddy black face. “I thought you wanted to be black,” the bully says. OK, we get it.
The most disappointing thing with the script adaptation is a rather misguided finale. Without spoiling who or how, let’s just say there’s a goodbye between two characters with dying words. What begins as a most touching moment is ruined with a cliche, where a character dies just seconds before saying, “I love you.” As dead eyes roll back in the head with the “L word” left unspoken, you’ll roll your eyes at an overused script device. Act Three would have been better served by the screenwriter taking liberties with the novel’s epilogue, culminating with a key reunion scene that is merely brushed over in the book and the movie. It wouldn’t have to be drawn out; “12 Years a Slave” ended with a reunion that was brief, yet powerful.
Enough bad news. There’s plenty to love about “The Book Thief.” British director Brian Percival (TV’s “Downton Abbey”) has plenty of skill, opening with a clever transition from the clouds to the smoke of a train. In Liesel’s classroom, he uses a stylish rack focus to a piece of chalk and a symbolic tilt from a Hitler portrait to the stone face of a strict school teacher, a Wackford Squeers (“Nicholas Nickleby”) figure fitting for a director who adapted Dickens’ “The Old Curiosity Shop” into a 2007 TV movie. Finally, he shows a mastery of slow disclosure when Liesel first meets her foster father, who slams his hands on a suitcase, saying, “Where is it?” We worry he’s angry, until Liesel points to one of his hands to reveal the prop of a loving father-daughter “shell game.”
It’s these detailed family moments that make “The Book Thief” worthwhile. The family unit is entirely authentic, from Geoffrey Rush playing Christmas carols on his accordion to Emily Watson rationing the family from three square meals down to two. As a high-angle camera looks down on Rush and Watson in bed, we could be looking at two Oscar nominees in supporting actor categories. All the while, young Sophie Nelisse shoulders the load, cracking a smile here, shedding a tear there.
Still, the most fascinating character is Death, who like the book narrates the film, creating an existential fable like Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” (1957) or Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire” (1987). “The Book Thief” is far less daring than those art masterpieces, but it’s certainly more accessible. Perhaps that’s what we need this holiday season — a movie that parents can show their kids as a warm-up for the heavier “lists” and “choices” by cinema’s Schindlers and Sophies.
Overall, “The Book Thief” is powerful source material with great performances and stylish direction carrying a lazy script. And so, I felt the same way about the film as Death does toward humans: “I’m always finding them at their best and worst. I see their ugly and their beauty, and I wonder how the same thing can be both.”
★ ★ ★
The above rating is based on a 4-star scale. See where this film ranks in Jason’s 2013 Movie Guide. Follow WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley on Twitter @JFrayWTOP, read his blog The Film Spectrum or listen Friday mornings on 103.5 FM.