The Book Thief isn’t the best example of adaptation, nor does it compare favorably to the best World War II dramas. It is, however, a mostly
charming film with a couple outstanding performances and one of the most hauntingly beautiful musical scores of the year.
Based on the novel of the same name, The Book Thief tells the story of Liesel, a young girl who is adopted by a German family after her
mother must give her up during the war.
Liesel is taken in by Hans and Rosa, a German couple opposed to the Nazi rule, but helpless against it.
We see the fear within Germany’s own borders during the time period through the eyes of Liesel, who struggles to comprehend the
situation that closes in around her and her new family.
Liesel loves books despite not knowing how to read, and the kindly Hans bonds with her after offering to teach her.
Although the film takes place during this turbulent era, The Book Thief is really about Liesel and the family, which also takes in and hides a
young Jewish man fleeing from the Nazis.
The film never becomes political, but shows how war and discrimination rips people apart. Just as Liesel begins to adapt to her new family,
it’s threatened all over again.
This shadow hangs above the entire film and nicely contrasts the film’s compassionate characters.
The Book Thief receives two outstanding performances from Geoffrey Rush as Hans and Sophie Nélisse as Liesel.
Rush is a greatly underappreciated actor, and his relationship with Liesel is the heart of the film. They share some very nice moments
whether teaching to read or having a snowball fight in their home’s basement. His sense of humor contrasts his stern wife, played by Emily
Watson, who does a fine job with the somewhat cliché ‘nagging wife’ character.
While it’s no surprise Rush is great, little Sophie Nélisse is a real revelation. She is completely endearing and more than holds her own,
even acting against a very talented cast. Liesel is neither precocious nor overly innocent, and feels very authentic. She steals books and
get into fights, but is always relatable.
Nélisse excellently portrays the fear running rampant through the community, especially considering they are harboring an enemy of the
state. It represents a threat to once again destroy her family and we fear along with her because we enjoy her and Hans’ relationship so
This is a really great performance from a relative newcomer, and Nélisse is definitely a talent to keep an eye on.
Another major contributor is far from a fresh-faced talent. The legendary John Williams provides a wonderful, emotional score that
brilliantly compliments and enhances the film. His music is filled with gorgeous themes and lush orchestration. Williams’ music is a
reminder that no matter how trendy the bass-pounding of Hans Zimmer and company may be, the classical style in the hands of a truly great
composer is timeless and evocative.
As much as The Book Thief has its heart in the right place, it does, unfortunately, fall prey to some issues in adaptation.
The unnecessary narrator is an all too common stumbling block in filmmaking. While there are more egregious offenders in terms of
bloated play-by-play commentary, The Book Thief features one that fails in terms of concept.
The film receives occasional narration from death. Yes, death. This bizarre addition is apparently taken from the novel, but really doesn’t
fit into the film. At best, it’s unnecessary, and at worst, it diffuses the emotional impact of some of the later sequences in the film.
Add in a fairly stock ending and The Book Thief doesn’t receive the satisfying conclusion it deserves.
Additionally, the story really doesn’t bring much new to the table. Among the many films regarding this time period, it just isn’t particularly
The Book Thief is certainly not an exceptional film, but has enough exceptional qualities to recommend. The lead performances are
outstanding and engaging. We come to love the characters in The Book Thief, and that counts for a lot.
This is a heartfelt, charming film that wins us over with its humanity, in spite of its flaws.
* * *
(out of four)
Directed by: Brian Percival
Written by: Markus Zusak and Michael Petroni
Starring: Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Sophie Nélisse
Music by: John Williams
Cinematography by: Florian Ballhaus
Released: November 27, 2013; 131 Minutes