Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Review of THE BOOK THIEF: Eruditon in War

February 20, 2014

I got to read the novel "The Book Thief" by Markus Zusak because this was required reading for one of my kids in her 7th grade English class. It may not be the easiest book to start reading as the beginning chapters were rather cryptically written, and, for younger readers, the experience of any war may not be familiar. Despite this, the book eventually absorbed me in its tale of life in Germany during World War II as experienced by a young girl.

The story was innovatively narrated by Death himself. The language used by the author was poetic, rather than plain and simple prose. The author's use of descriptive metaphors was very original and evocative. This made reading the book an exercise in imagination as you picture the movie in your mind as the story unfolded with the beautiful words. When this movie version came out, we went to watch it to see if our movie in our heads matched the one envisioned by the filmmakers.

It is 1939 in Nazi Germany. Liesel Meminger loses her mother and brother, and was brought to foster parents Hans and Rosa Hubermann on Himmel Street. From her beloved foster father Hans, Liesel develops a life-long love affair with the printed word. This beautiful obsession with books was born as she struggled through the difficulties of war, the air raids, and the deaths; even if she had to steal the books she reads.

As directed by Brian Percival, the film is more straightforward than the book in telling the story. The horrors of war were still there, but these were shown very sensitively in full consideration of the young audience it targets.  It could have been a more harrowing film for adult viewers had the director chosen to go that way.  But Percival decided to go for sentimentality and melodrama among the characters, than focusing more on the violence of war.  The lush cinematography and meticulous period production design of this film also deserve notice.

Sophie Nelisse, the pretty child actress who played Liesel, did creditably well in her difficult central role. She had won an acting award already in her native Canada with her very first film role at age 10 in 2012. Now 12 years old, with her riveting lead performance here, it looks like she has a promising international career ahead of her as well.

Award-winning actors like Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson played Hans and Rosa Hubermann, Liesel's foster parents.  They definitely brought on the acting gravitas required for a serious piece like this. Both of them were so effective in being able to convey their emotions with only their facial expressions, even without a word being said.

Special mention has to be given to young Nico Liersch who played Liesel's best friend, Rudy Steiner. He plays his rascal role so naturally and charismatically. Fortunately, Liersch also had excellent chemistry with Nelisse, so we will also cherish the charming relationship between Rudy and Liesel.

On the other hand, Ben Schnetzer, the actor who played the Jew in the basement, Max Vandenburg, I felt was a bit lacking in his performance. Max is a heavier and more dramatically-loaded role than Rudy, yet he failed to connect with me the way Schnetzer portrayed him. The relationship of Max and Liesel is a most intriguing one in the book, but in this film, it felt shallow with little heart.

The sweeping music that accompanies this film has earned for John Williams his record breaking 44th Oscar nomination for Best Original Score. The last time Williams won an Oscar was for the haunting theme from another film set in World War II: "Schindler's List." His other wins were for "E.T.," "Star Wars," and "Jaws," classic movie music all.  

The script by Michael Petroni is actually almost a perfect adaptation of the book, literally as far as the main story is concerned. The dialogues shares the same love for words as the book does. The film touches on all the important parts of the book. For some of those who have read the book though, they may look for some deeper emotions which they felt while reading the book with all its little nuances, but is missing in this film version.

Although as in most book adaptations, due to the constraints of a reasonable running time, the film skips through many details. In particular, the ending felt rushed as it was shown as a montage of only wordless scenes and dramatic music, with the story told via a voice- over narration by Death (voice of Roger Allam). The words used were very eloquent, and can still evoke deep emotion. But those who read the book know that the missing details could have made a more dramatic impact that what was shown in the final print. 8/10.

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