The year is 1938, and Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse) is beginning a new life on a street named after Heaven in Germany. She’s been adopted by Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa Hubermann (Emily Watson). Her mother, an alleged communist, has been forced to flee the country in order to protect herself, leaving Liesel with a new family.
Though she has some trouble adjusting to her new home, Liesel quickly forms a strong friendship with her neighbor, Rudy Steiner (Nico Liersch). Rudy is impressed when Liesel beats up the class bully, Franz Deutscher (Levin Liam), after he makes fun of her for not knowing how to read.
As her friendship with Rudy grows and she settles into her new home, Liesel is taught to read by Hans, and she becomes obsessed with words. The first book they conquer is a grave digger’s handbook, which she stole when her brother was buried.
Liesel keeps a dictionary on the basement walls, writing the words that she discovers in chalk. Even after the war breaks out and the Nazis begin burning books, Liesel finds ways to read, “borrowing” books from the library of the buergmeister’s wife, Ilsa (Barbara Auer).
Her book-borrowing isn’t the only secret Liesel is keeping. She and her adoptive parents are also hiding a Jewish man named Max (Ben Schnetzer) under their stairs, protecting him from being taken to a concentration camp. Max was able to escape during Kristallnacht and has come to Hans for help, knowing that his own father saved Hans’ life during World War I.
Liesel must keep Max a secret from everyone, even Rudy, or her family will face grave consequences.
Brian Percival (TV’s Downton Abbey) directs The Book Thief, based on the novel of the same title by Markus Zusak. The novel was adapted for the screen by Michael Petroni (Queen of the Damned, The Rite).
I’ll cut right to the chase, here: The Book Thief is a phenomenal film. Yes, a few changes have been made from book to film, but the story is every bit as emotional and gripping on screen as it is on the page. I get that when such a beloved story is adapted people are bound to get upset over any little difference, but I won’t bother picking apart the alterations that have been made from book to film. They’re both fantastic.
One very important element of the novel is preserved: the narration by Death. This narration is one of my favorite aspects of the novel, and in the film it proves to be equally thought-provoking, though it occurs less frequently. It also allows for a unique way to wrap up the story neatly. We don’t get a direct flash-forward to Liesel in the future. Instead, we’re shown her empty home and told a little bit about how she lived between the war and her death at age 90.
The film brings the book to life with beautiful costuming, sets and cinematography which capture the period very well. The score, composed by five-time Oscar winner John Williams, does a great job of enhancing the story’s impact as well.
Visual and musical beauty aside, the film also boasts top-notch performances by the entire cast. Sophie Nélisse is not just a promising young actress — she has an incredible amount of talent which seems to already be fully formed. Her two companions, Nico Liersch and Ben Schnetzer as Rudy and Max, are both wonderful too.
I can’t think of anyone other than Geoffrey Rush who could fill the role of Hans more capably. He really captures the heart of the viewer. I also love the way that Emily Watson slowly reveals the softer side of her character as the film progresses, while even in her most tender moments maintaining the tough-as-nails edge we saw in her when Liesel first arrived at the Hubermann home.
In short, I loved everything about The Book Thief and would highly recommend it. Catch it now while it’s still in theaters!
The score: 5/5!