News Column

Review: 'The Book Thief'

November 29, 2013


Nov. 29--Something is missing from "The Book Thief."

It happens every year -- multiple times -- that while I am watching a movie, I can't help but think: I like the elements of this story, but it doesn't seem like all of the elements are here; I'd probably prefer the novel upon which this film is based.

While I watched "The Book Thief," I was surprised at the number of story elements that seemed weak, like the depth of characterization, the development of Death as the story's narrator, and the Holocaust looking like it was staged on the studio backlot of a musical.

When I viewed a brief synopsis of the book after seeing the movie, I was surprised at the number of basic elements changed or eliminated for the motion picture. You have to think that there's a reason that a book stays on the New York Times best-seller list for more than four years.

Australian author Markus Zusak's 2005 book was clearly adapted for the big screen based on that popularity and intended for Oscar voters, who have seen their share of Holocaust movies and will find this one lacking. Will the book's fans? Time will tell.

The film is set in a small German village in the years 1938-1943, where preadolescent Liesel Meminger lives with her adoptive parents after her brother dies on the train trip there. Her world is changing rapidly, and the same is true of Germany, as Hitler's persecution of Jews grows.

It isn't long before Liesel is fitted for her Hitler Youth uniform and singing along at Nazi rallies, supporting what she can only determine must be a just war until she witnesses in the streets in front of her home the Nazi repression of her friends and neighbors.

In a film that should have been opened up more, it seems like everything that doesn't happen inside of her house (like the family hiding a young Jewish man in the basement) happens in the street that runs in front of Liesel's home.

How small is this town, anyway? It appears to be studio-lot-sized, and too frequently filled with people milling about outside, as if this were a Christmas stage musical.

As Liesel, French-Canadian teen actress Sophie Nelisse is quite good as a confused young girl through whose eyes we see the beginning of World War II from the German perspective.

Her early moments warming up to her new father (Geoffrey Rush in a mushy, undemanding role) show a solid chemistry with the man who teaches her how to read, opening her mind to the world of books as an escape from the horrors of war.

We don't see any atrocities in "The Book Thief," which goes for a soft-touch approach to Nazi violence and most everything else. There's a serious lacking of any real sense of danger in this placid picture -- which ultimately makes the losses suffered that much more surprising.

Even Liesel's new mother, with Emily Watson playing an overworked matron who washes clothes for those who can still afford such a service, goes too quickly from crude-complaining whiner to harpy with a heart of gold in a film that too often feels like a fable.

From Rudy the best-friend boy who lives next door to Max the warm-hearted refugee in the basement to Liesel's accordion-playing papa who plays humanitarian in the village, everyone we meet seems to be a saint. It goes beyond sentimentality; it just isn't real.

But these elements are chosen for expansion in the storytelling over the girl's "borrowing" of books from the burgermeister's home, which becomes an element of the story used more for precious amusement -- Look how close she came to getting caught! -- than for coloring her character as someone who will not let Nazi book-burnings end her education.

The depiction of Death as the film's narrator is a unique element. I can imagine that Death joins Liesel's character in becoming the conscience of the novel.

That essence isn't achieved in the film, which just feels too neatly packaged for public consumption.

Michael Smith 918-581-8479


Cast: Sophie Nelisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson

Theaters: Cinemark Tulsa, AMC Southroads 20, Starworld 20

Running time: 2 hours, 11 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (some violence and intense depiction of thematic material)

Quality: 2 stars (on a scale of zero to four stars)


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