The Book Thief Translates Superbly onto the Big Screen


By Meilan Solly

As a self-proclaimed bibliophile, I have read countless books throughout my life. None, however, has made such an impression as The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. I love The Book Thief for many reasons: It takes an incredibly incomprehensible subject and humanizes it for readers of all ages, and it features descriptions that are unusual but thought provoking – where else can you read about Death’s fascination with colors?

My love for The Book Thief meant that I received the news that it was being turned into a movie with anticipatory nervousness. Part of The Book Thief’s magic is in Zusak’s carefully crafted words, and I was worried this would be lost in any movie adaptation. Brian Percival, however, proved me wrong.

The movie version of The Book Thief is directed by Percival, who is known for directing the TV show Downton Abbey. It stars Sophie Nélisse as the titular book thief, Liesel, a girl who finds a home with foster parents Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson) Hubermann. Liesel easily adjusts to life with her new family, even making friends with the classic boy next door, Rudy Steiner (Nico Liersch).

In Nazi Germany, however, life does not stay simple for long, and soon a new figure enters Liesel’s life – Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer), a young Jewish man who the Hubermanns decide to hide from the Nazis. Liesel and Max soon become very close, and Max even helps Liesel pursue her newest passion: reading and stealing books.

The Book Thief exceeds expectations, allowing viewers to feel the depth of the story even without the aid of Zusak’s narration. This is due in large part to Nélisse, who captures Liesel’s playfulness, intense loyalty, and desire to both understand and control words with a level of finesse unusual for actresses of her age. In particular, a scene where Liesel recites a story to the terrified residents of Molching during an air raid truly highlights Nélisse’s skill.

Liersch, who plays Liesel’s best friend Rudy, also offers an impressive performance.  Rudy is a fan favorite, and for good reason. His constant refrain “How about a kiss, saumensch?” is one part of Rudy’s appeal, but his lemon-colored hair and desire to be Jesse Owens are close seconds. Liersch relays the true essence of Rudy’s being, showing his childhood innocence and bringing to life one of the novel’s best scenes (where he jumps into a river to save one of Liesel’s books) in a way that truly shows how important Rudy is to Liesel.

The third performance which was truly astounding came from Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush, who portrayed Liesel’s father Hans Hubermann. Hans is one of the most likable characters in the novel: he is heroic but has a sense of mischievousness, and it is clear from his first meeting with Liesel that he cares deeply about her. Rush highlights the lighter side of Hans, including his constant accordion playing, but he also displays Hans’ deep sense of integrity in a moving scene where he attempts to protect a Jew who is being taken by the Nazis.

The movie as an independent work is exceptional, and when compared to the book it is also excellent. However, as The Book Thief is based on such a well-loved novel, there are several unappreciated discrepancies, the most important of which is the lack of development in the relationship between Liesel and the mayor’s wife, Ilsa (Barbara Auer). Their relationship is quickly developed in the first quarter or so of the movie, but it then abruptly disappears until the very end. Understandably, the movie has a fixed amount of time to relay the contents of a 550-page novel, and on the whole the film did so exceedingly well. In the case of Ilsa and Liesel, though, the relationship did not translate in a meaningful way. Part of the problem is Auer’s portrayal of Ilsa, who in the novel is described as a waif of a woman with no dominating characteristics. In the movie, Ilsa is somewhat timid, but nowhere near the level that is displayed the book.

Also, the main theme of The Book Thief is a love for words. This passion is what drives Liesel to steal books in the first place, and it is also what gives her the courage to overcome the rather unfair hand she has been dealt by life. Liesel’s fascination with books is very apparent in the novel, but the movie simply skims over the important process of Liesel learning to read. In the book, this is a huge plot point, as it is what truly bonds Liesel and Hans together. The lack of attention to this point is understandable given time constraints, but it did seem strange for Liesel to quickly go from not knowing how to write her name to being able to read H.G. WellsThe Invisible Man.

The one aspect of The Book Thief which I had mixed feelings about was the ending. It is hard to describe without including spoilers, but one could say it is the most important point of the novel/movie. In the novel, the ending is tragic but almost cathartic — it is classic Zusak, painted with words that help readers understand the depth of what is happening. In the movie, the ending arrives without warning, plunging viewers into a heartbreaking but almost anticlimactic whirlwind of emotion. Nélisse, as usual, shows Liesel’s devastation with skill. Liersch, however, fails to meet the standards set by his earlier performance, though this is partly due to a script change that greatly differs and almost seems to disrespect the novel.

Overall, The Book Thief is a movie that should not be missed. The main actors’ performances are highly impressive, as each actor truly captures the essence of their character’s personality. The script is also of note, since the writers manage to tell Liesel’s story in an effective manner without resorting to quoting Zusak in every scene.  Despite its minor flaws (most of which are only noticeable to those who have read the book), The Book Thief is an exceptional film that truly does justice to the masterpiece on which it is based.