A Holocaust-based novel by Markus Zusak, this cinematic adaptation of The Book Thief is a children's interpretation of war. Albeit if that was the original intention of the author, Brian Percival's notion of making this film to introduce children to the concept of war is actually quite successful at painting a delicate realism while maintaining an unbreakable sense of innocence. In many ways, this film is actually told from the view of two children: our main character, Liesel, and the unseen narrator, Death. Both Liesel and Death share a similar confusion about humanity and why they do the things that they do. This is the purposeful question of the entire film: if Death does not understand why things work despite all its experience, then why teach children all the errors and hypocrisy of humanity's doings?
The film plays out like a very simplistic, direct fable. There is very little to show or say in overindulgence or pretentiousness from the filmmakers. The film clearly makes its points and moves on to the next. This is also why Liesel's story is very easy to understand for children. It has all of the important introductory lessons future generations can learn in elementary school before diving into a more detailed look at the horrors of the Holocaust and World War II as children get older. It is the story of Liesel's eventual discoveries about the power of stories in order to distract one self from the inescapable terror the Nazi party was orchestrating for Germany. Sophie Nélisse as Liesel is pitch perfect as the German girl unwilling to let go of her creativity and heart. She has a remarkably wondrous face that reacts so well to everything that is happening around her. Every pain, love and accomplishment is written in her eyes. Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson are fantastic as Liesel's adoptive parents, the Hubermanns. The father ironically possesses more a motherly and warm output toward Liesel than the mother who is far colder, but strong and poised. Liesel meets many friends including Max, a fugitive Jew hiding from the Nazi party, a son of a soldier who once saved Hans Hubermann's life. No matter the personal cost, Hans has pledged to keep his Max safe from his very apparent death. Max is played with great youthful intelligence by Ben Schnetzer who inspires Liesel to read and write in an effort to detail what is happening in the outside world. Since Max can't leave, Liesel only has her words to describe the days outside the basement where he hides.
The film takes place over the course of seven years where people leave a village or leave the world permanently, showing how all of this does not destroy Liesel's resolve and innocence as far as Death can observe. Brian Percival preserves Liesel's innocence by keeping Sophie Nélisse in the role and aging her only through clothing and make-up/special prosthetics. To further emotionalize the story, the score is a classical one of accordions and strings composed by the great Oscar-champ John Williams. His music illustrates the children's view of this world. As a whole, The Book Thief is rather unusual for its take on two points of view on life's atrocities, this human girl and this alien of sorts, but it is one of the most poignant cautionary tales concerning the fight for the good in life in many recent years.