In review: The Book Thief


Over the weekend, a quiet little film titled The Book Thief premiered in select theatres across the country. Based on the bestselling novel by Markus Zusak of the same title, directed by Brian Percival, The Book Thief is poised to steal your heart.

Through Zusak’s exquisite narration from Death’s perspective comes a witty and poignant critique of humanity and a pragmatic insight into Nazi Germany prior to the Second World War. The narrative follows ten-year-old Liesel Meminger as she discovers the power of expression through the written word by stealing books and learning to read with the guidance of her foster dad.

There is always a certain level of risk associated with adaptations, especially one of immense intricacy like The Book Thief. The film must strive to retain the complexity of the source material while avoiding alienating viewers who are not familiar with the book.

One of the most prominent changes, perhaps most commonly noticed by readers of the book, is Death’s lack of involvement in the narrative structure. Zusak’s whimsical narrator, voiced by Roger Allam, offers sporadic commentary throughout the film, though his presence is distinctly less prominent than it is in the novel. While this allows for a more linear storyline, the paramount message of the novel becomes saturated as Death’s absence fails to communicate his valuation of human existence.

The narrator of the book, whose relationship and fascination with Liesel amounts to pivotal revelations, should have been approached with more care rather than inserted as an afterthought to appease fans of the novel. What viewers are left with, instead, is a rather innocent recount of the Holocaust, without the analytical observations of the human race’s capacity for violence and redemption.

Nevertheless, the film is not without its triumphs, most notably, the stellar performances from its ensemble. Newcomer French-Canadian Sophie Nélisse captures Liesel’s innocence and inquisitive nature with impeccable precision, Ben Schnetzer charms with his quiet presence as the Jewish fugitive, while Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson guide the narrative with their humour and authority as Liesel’s dynamic, offbeat foster parents.

The visual direction works well to situate audiences in the snow-covered German countryside, with Percival and cinematographer Florian Ballhaus’s decision to shy away from grand, sweeping shots, which are only employed in conjunction with Death’s voiceovers to convey the omnipresence of the film’s narrator. The intimate camera placement throughout the rest of the film offers an authentic portrayal of the simplistic reality of a child’s raw perceptions during a time tainted by fear and brutality. In various scenes, Percival experiments with the juxtaposition of powerful visuals against contradictory audio elements, which serves to intensify the heavy context of the sequences.

Overall, Percival has created a beautiful film that will satisfy both fans of the novel and those who are not familiar with the source material.

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