I am not going to say the recent film adaptation of The Book Thief was a bad movie. I’m just saying that in my expectations that it would be as good as the book, I walked out feeling like my time had been vampire’d because I could have waited to let it come out on video and been just as well off.
First off, I do recommend The Book Thief as a book. I had originally shied away from it because coming of age stories in Nazi Germany with the obligatory hidden Jew element are, frankly, almost a cliché. Been there, read that. When I finally picked up the book and read it, I ate a bit of crow because while this may have some of the necessary ingredients for the same old same old, it is put together in a way that made it a fabulous read.
What I should have realized before I saw the film was that what I love about the book are the little details, and the awesome narrator. If anything is sacrificed in a film, it is the details, and narrators are usually under-utilized. So, clearly, I was doomed.
Of course, being doomed in this way won’t stop me from complaining. For the narrator, I will only say that the narrator of the book was one of my favorite narrators in any book I’ve ever read. Full of insight and dark humor. I can more or less forgive the drastically reduced role the narrator plays as I know that it can be tricky handling narration on film without the whole thing sucking. I’ll grudgingly give the film a pass on this.
I’m not giving on the details, though. Not completely. There are some that, okay, fine, so the house didn’t fit the description completely. And the random German words were minimized. I can live with that.
But I maintain that other details do matter. When an author specifically calls out the main character’s eye color, and does so in terms connected to the time and setting (the author specified that Liesel had “dangerous” brown eyes. Kinda mattered in Germany at the time), maybe the filmmakers ought not to go dead opposite (we’re talking full on Elijah-Wood-hobbit-ass big baby blues). Really, there’s a detail that’s not too much to ask, in my opinion. Also, if you are going to insert a death scene in the film that was not shown in the book? Do not give it to a person who, while all right enough on screen otherwise, cannot actually act a decent death scene (if you watch, you will know this one when you see it. It screams out for a whole new award category for Most Terrible Death Scene That Should Not Even Be In The Film). But the real kicker was a seemingly tiny change that I am sure the film makers thought nothing of, but which changes a fundamental element. In the book, Liesel has an innate gift with words. She struggles with reading and writing, but actually forming sentences and choosing how to describe something she does without any help or assistance, and does remarkably well. She does not necessarily realize it is a gift until it is pointed out to her by another character, but it already exists in her. In the film, rather than having her produce the description on her own, they chose to have that other character coach her to better describe something. Totally killed a fundamental for me. There is a difference between doing something naturally and having someone coach you to do it.
I hated that moment.
All that said, the costumes were great, and I appreciated that they did retain a modest amount of the little German words and phrases thrown throughout the book (which I totally ate up). And there were some fantastic performances from the cast (bad, unnecessary death scene notwithstanding). It’s the first time that I’ve watched a movie with Geoffrey Rush where he didn’t creep me out (not saying he’s been bad in other things, just that I’ve found him creepy–on that list of people I don’t want to meet in a dark alley, like Christopher Lee).
Since it was in such a limited theater release in my area before the holidays, I assume that by now, I probably don’t need to warn anyone not to pop for theater prices, but if you see it screening, go see something like The Hobbit instead and wait for this one to come out on Netflix.
Or, just read the book.