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Movie review: 'The Book Thief' admirably matches the novel's respect and essence

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The Book Thief

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THE BOOK THIEF-- 3 STARS

As it is frequently mentioned on this website, there is an ever-present tug-of-war going on between novels and their film adaptations. The levels of love/hate and joy/disappointment are no greater in the world of cinema than with literary translations to film. My constant assertion has always been three-fold. First, I don't care if it's Shakespeare, the "Great American Novel," or a damn comic book that fancies itself as a "graphic novel," the book will always be better than the movie, period. There is no argument. The book is the unquestioned original and contains a depth and detail that can't be honed down to two hours or even twelve. Secondly, novels and film are two completely different mediums. They shouldn't be compared together. An infinite amount of things that glow within written prose are purely not possible to convey the same way cinematically. Finally, I am a movie guy, not a book guy. I judge things as movies and I don't make time to read books ever. I will never be a book critic. What you read in my reviews will inform you upon the film experience and occasionally reference comparisons to literary work. That's it. In the end, to me, all a movie can best hope to do is convey the essence and spirit of its source material respectfully and in an entertaining manner.

The latest victim of this tug-of-war is The Book Thief, which premiered locally at the 49th Chicago International Film Festival in October (where the director and stars hosted a panel) and debuted to wider audiences in November. The film, directed by up-and-coming British director Brian Percival and adapted by Michael Petroni (The Rite), is based on Australian Markus Zusak's best-selling young adult novel from 2005. The novel won numerous awards and is held in high regard by adults, history buffs, teachers, and teenagers alike for its subject matter, period detail, and message. Any movie based on a novel with that kind of reach and success is bound to have its hole-pokers waiting to burst balloons. As a film, I think The Book Thief does enough to get half of that aforementioned hopeful goal to make people happy. The film has its respectful essence, but lacks a bit of the spirit and entertainment value.

Narrated by the Angel of Death (voiced by noted stage actor Roger Allam), The Book Thief opens in 1938 during the early stages of Nazi regime's rise that would lead to World War II. A young girl named Liesel (13-year-old Canadian actress Sophie Nelisse) arrives by train to her new foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, played by Academy Award winner Geoffrey Rush and two-time Oscar nominee Emily Watson. Her younger brother died of sickness on the train ride, leaving Liesel alone to get acclimated with the Hubermanns. Hans is a caring and hard-working painter, optimist, and non-Nazi supporter who fancies playing a mini accordion. Rosa is a sarcastic, disciplined, and easily aggravated woman that runs the house.

When Liesel starts going to school, she is quickly singled out and teased by her peers for being illiterate. Only one boy, a neighbor named Rudy Steiner (Nico Liersch), befriends Liesel and includes her in things. At home, Hans slowly begins to teach Liesel to read, starting with the first book she ever found, a manual for grave diggers that she picked up at her brother's burial. She becomes a quick study and voracious reader, but finds out books are frowned upon by the current Nazi regime. This is never more apparent than her and Rudy's bullied participation in a mass book burning.

In the smoldering pyre, Liesel retrieves a book but is spotted by the mayor's wife, Ilsa Hermann (Barbara Auer), who implores her to keep it a secret. Soon after, Ilsa introduces Liesel to her gorgeous personal library and extends the invitation for her to come anytime she wants to read in a safe place. When Ilsa's husband catches this practice and forbids it, Liesel becomes a sneaky "book borrower" from the Hermann home when no one is around.

The surrounding war escalates and the Hubermanns agree to hide a Jewish refugee in their basement after the Kristallnacht attacks on Jews. That young man is Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer, in his film debut), the son of the man that saved Hans' life back in World War I. With a new educated person in the house, Max and Liesel develop a strong friendship that will change her life. They share book readings together and he begins to encourage her to write as well. However, the risk of hiding Max begins to increase, putting Liesel and the Hubermann's in jeopardy.

The Book Thief does an admirable job trying to tell this novel's story through the lens of a child. Liesel's growing understanding of what's really happening around her acts as our exposure to the Nazi occupation and how people change. If it feels too safe or too naive, as other critics have stated, I have to feel much of that is by design. In a way, those critics are not right and are not wrong either. If you need the deep, dark, and sordid version of things, go find Elie Wiesel or similar works elsewhere. Let The Book Thief be what is in in the young adult department.

From what I can ascertain from the novel, Liesel's own diary explanations and monologues accompany each chapter. I'm told that they are a big part to the novel's overall voice and tone, but, like similar monologue issues in Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games series, that kind of thing doesn't work cinematically, especially if you have an existing narrator next to that. This is the missing spirit that is meant to work alongside a novel's essence. The lack of that extra layer of voice and perspective could disappoint stalwart fans of the book who come to the film asking for everything to be there.

With Liesel being the standout focus and unquestioned main character onscreen, even next to award winners like Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson, I think her character's voice isn't too diluted without the extra narration. The greatest asset to that success is the wonderful performance by newcomer Sophie Nelisse. Like Asa Butterfield a few years ago in Hugo, she is a talented youth given lead work to carry a large-scale film next to veterans. She is an outstanding discovery to keep an eye on. This, hopefully, won't be the last you see of her in movies.

There is a bit of a fantasy quality about The Book Thief that takes some getting used to. After all, we're getting a story narrated cheekily by Death himself describing the lament or pleasures of his busy job during the war. When you do that, you enter a bit of Meet Joe Black territory. That overseeing presence makes a few things about The Book Thief float rather than hold weight. With that, the film can lag with stretches of dullness where the magic doesn't quite work to entertain, especially when laying out this very different coming-of-age story in a highly dramatic setting.

Those stagnant sections take away from the memorable moments that occur in between. One beacon that helps artistically balance the drama with the fantasy is a stirring Oscar-worthy musical score from the great John Williams, providing music for his first non-Spielberg film in eight years. I still recommend The Book Thief to both readers of the novel for judgment and to general audiences for appreciation towards the story and the time period. While it's not overly compelling, this would make an excellent classroom film in a high school Social Studies class where The Pianist and Schindler's List are too violent or heavy.

LESSON #1: THE INHUMANITY OF THE NAZI REGIME'S ATTEMPTED DESTRUCTION OF CULTURE-- Nazi book burnings were deemed by the government to be the cleansing destruction of materials and ideals found to be subversive towards the National Socialist administration. The type of works targeted commonly had liberal, pacifist, anarchist, Jewish, and communist themes. What they were really destroying were people's hopes, imaginations, and values. They were destroying a whole aspect of culture that was counter to the one they wanted to create. There's a definite inhumanity in that.

LESSON #2: THE INQUISITIVE AND IMPRESSIONABLE WORLD VIEW OF CHILDREN AND YOUNG ADULTS-- Too many people are going to come out and call The Book Thief an overly "sugarcoated" World War II drama. They are going to demand more revealed truths and reprehensible honesty to what the Nazi regime forced upon its citizens. They forget that this story is being told and interpreted by a child who is just coming to understand the world around her. Her world view is completely different than that of an adult's, even in a war scenario. Often children are sheltered and not told the whole story, causing them to fill in the holes with their own slanted impressions and conclusions.

LESSON #3: THE DOORS OPENED BY LITERACY-- A bit of the first two lessons come back for this one. Literacy is a colossal turning point for a youth's sense of culture and world view. Reading and writing foster the creativity and curiosity to expand thinking and intelligence beyond their normal surroundings or understanding. In our information-driven society, literacy opens the doors for those young people to become aware, learned, and contributing members to society. Literacy greatly sparks lifelong learning and expression for Liesel in this novel and film. It completely changes her life and inspires her.

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