Welcome to By The Book, where we compare the book with its visual adaptation. Are they faithful and delightful partners in storytelling or are the authors turning in their graves through these unholy versions of their work? Tune in to find out…
Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, aside from having an excellent cover with which to judge it, is a New York Times Bestseller, and was snapped up for adaptation by Sunswept Entertainment. The tale is that of Liesel Meminger, a young girl growing up in Hitler’s Germany, who has a predilection for stealing books and a Jewish man hidden in her basement.
The Voice Of Death
The Book Thief, both as novel and film, opens with this thought: ‘You are going to die.’ This structural choice, to rely on Death himself as unreliable narrator, is carried across from book to film, but its effect is markedly different. It’s inevitable that the film loses some of the book’s freedoms – we can imagine any voice we like when we read – but it’s in the unenviable position of having to make a very specific choice for a very universal thing. Perhaps spurred on by the title of the opening chapter – ‘Death and Chocolate’ – it’s Roger Allam’s velvety tone that echoes around the cinema. It’s not so much a bad choice as an uninteresting one; adapting from such an unconventional novel, it might have been nice to think a little more outside-the-box than “old wise dude”. Perhaps a younger man or even, god forbid, a woman?
Saumensch and Saukerl
Another of director Brian Percival’s unenviable tasks was deciding how to translate an Australian book set in Nazi Germany for a global and US audience. His solution leaves the film hovering in between, with English, Australian, and Canadian actors struggling through German accents with varying degrees of success. It’s the most meet-in-the-middle solution, and arguably the best one available to keep everyone happy, but it’s a lack of consistency that does the damage here. Again, German accents present far less problems on the page, as does the habit of switching between the German language and English. On the screen, as well as a blight of bad accents (I’m looking at you, Rush and Watson) the decision to perform some lines in subtitled German and others in English becomes nonsensical when the characters are technically always speaking the same language.
The man in the basement
Despite only appearing 100 pages in and on a relatively minor number after that, Jewish refugee Max Vandenburg is a pivotal element of the novel’s setting, themes, and emotional arc. He’s the obvious stop-and-start point for an adaptation and, indeed, he features heavily in the trailers and promotional material for the film. But the adaptation’s decision to apportion the story much the same as the book means that in reality, Ben Schnetzer’s Max – and his friendship with Liesel – aren’t on screen for much of the running-time. It’s a reflection of the film’s approach to Nazi Germany as a whole – despite two or three rather spine-tingling moments, including the book-burning scene on the posters – the perils of Himmel Street in 1942 produce a slight tension in the shoulders rather than the heart-pounding anxiety that they should. The stakes should be ludicrously high: a Jewish refugee, hidden in the basement, at the height of the Third Reich? And yet The Book Thief‘s perils raise barely a shrug.
What does Markus Zusak think?
Unlike other By The Books, The Book Thief was only published in 2005, meaning its author is still alive and kicking. Zusak’s hands-off approach (“I actually made it a point not to have any conversations about adapting the novel”) mean there’s relatively little to say on the subject – but one area he confessed to concern over is how to handle the book’s ending. There’ll be no spoilers here as we’re keeping it vague, but it’s certainly up for debate as to whether the film manages to achieve the pathos that lies at the end of a 500-page book. It’s indicative of a problem with the film as a whole – rather than choosing a specific strand, it simply chops up and condenses the novel’s events, using its two-hour running time to provide glimpses of a story rather than telling a whole one. The knock-on effect is a surface affection for the characters that lacks any deep emotional connection, rendering its ending as a gentle tug on the heartstrings instead of the book’s blisteringly powerful gut-punch. Sorry Markus.
In the end, the problem with The Book Thief‘s adaptation is that it’s just not a very good film. Though the book’s individual style might not appeal to all, it’s nevertheless very obviously well-written; but the film struggles to match its vigour and life, instead producing something that goes through the motions of a much better story. A shadow of the book that never tries to make the story its own, The Book Thief doesn’t so much run as plod, very slowly, towards the finish line.