All Things Entertaining and Cultural
As much as one can’t help perpetuating the practice, books and movies, even of works bearing the same title and telling the same story, should not be compared.
Books are the province of words and a blend of the author’s and the reader’s imagination. They have flexibility to expand, explain, and meander into tangents and sidetracks. Movies are pictorial and demand a narrative economy. They are imagined and, one hopes, realized by their directors. The twain really don’t meet neatly.
I bring this up because the movie of the best-selling novel “The Book Thief” mirrors the problem I found while reading Markus Zusak’s book. I fear and apologize that, for once, comparison between the written and visual form cannot be avoided.
Both Percival’s film, with a script by Michael Petroni, and Zusak’s text tell a strong, compelling story. Civilian life in Germany during World War II is rarely explored in American or British movies or literature, and the title character’s situation, observations, behavior, and fate remain of constant interest in spite of the sentimentality with which Percival and Zusak contrive to portray them.
“Contrive” is the key word here. All authors invent and manipulate their plots. All plan coincidences, surprises, ironies, conflicts, tensions, etc. That’s the essence of storytelling. In their separate media, Percival and Zusak go beyond contrivance. Both of their works have a self-conscious tinge to them. You can see both the director and author working his audience and can detect how proud each is of his too transparent craft or, to give it its right name, gimmickry.
Though they tell their stories in different way, the book and the movie of “The Book Thief” turn out to share an identical flaw, the heavy-handedness of the storyteller in presenting a tale that has intrinsic narrative movement and doesn’t need the pushing and forcing and preciousness Percival and Zusak impose on it.
You can practically see Zusak preening through the pages of “The Book Thief,” with its lists, questions, pictures, captions, boldface type, and ostentatiously composed prose. (Because Zusak’s narrator is Death, I flippantly and, yes, too preciously, referred to his style as Death-full prose.) The book drips self-satisfaction. While Zusak created a story that engrosses and a lead character for whom you come to care, he never gives up pointing to the moves he’s making as a writer, to his bid to forge a new style uniquely his. His literary fatuousness may not get in the way of plotting his tale, but it made reading it less enjoyable and undercut the emotion and poignancy for which Zusak was also striving. Wit is only wit when it crops up incidentally without trumpeting its presence.
While Zusak aims to amaze and woos you towards being sympathetic to his flaws, Percival wants to guide and shape your reaction to what he shows on the screen. His approach borders on the insulting. The director doesn’t seem to trust his audience to glean the full importance of some events and tends to overplay and overestablish scenes that have inherent impact and need no special emphasis or manipulative framing. An example is the book burning to which the Nazi mayor (burgomeister) mandatorily summons the people of Molching, a fictional town in the suburbs of Munich.
Such an occasion is an atrocity the theatergoer is bound to respond to with revulsion and contempt. Given it’s a Nazi gathering, you know it goes beyond a bonfire of the vanities to involve censorship, purging libraries of works by Jewish, black, and other authors not deemed Aryan, and anti-intellectual. You also know people attend by compulsion rather than choice and that Third Reich trappings like Swastika flags and Hitler youth bursting in song will accompany the proceedings. All of these elements can be established simply, at a glance, with individual audience reaction taking a natural course. All of the elements have the power to move and remind how insidious life was under the Nazis, but Percival seals his scenes hermetically in a contained package, as if making a pronouncement that “this is important, and you must pay attention.” The scenes that should flow as if they were a regular event of a repressive, totalitarian period, seem as manipulatively staged as the Nazi rally. We know incidents like the book burning happened, and we understand their horror, but by sucking the air out of this sequence, Percival compromises the feeling of reality and turns a passage from one that should have been affecting to one that is sterile and inert.
Percival is not content with a benign but effective method of storytelling, with letting a simple, self-explanatory picture say its proverbial 1,000 words. He lingers on scenes, delays action, and makes the sequence portentous in ways that seem an attempt to dictate the audience’s feelings, as if they needed such coaxing, and accentuate the power the scene already has. The problem is he makes everything too heavy, too smarmy so you are aware of the director’s tricks and his tendency to spoonfeed the obvious, or immediate, with a trowel. He editorially comments where no comment is necessary. Zusak, at least, is playful in his showiness. He invites his reader to enjoy his jokes, even if they’re labored, and be amused by his narrator, Death’s, irony and self-effacing tone. Percival just overplays and overintensifies his hand. He turns what could be poignant into melodrama.
Neither storyteller, Zusak, the creator, or Percival, the interpreter, is clumsy enough to obliterate the appeal of “The Book Thief’s” basic story or Zusak’s themes of individual humanity vs. unnatural oppression and the ordeals with which he must cope until we are claimed by Death.
A young girl is always a good choice for a heroine. Unless she is a brat of the most intolerable temperament, a girl child will invariably engender warmth and elicit good wishes for her safety and welfare.
Zusak, though not Percival or Petroni, tells us Liesel, the girl who is the focal figure in “The Book Thief,” is so appealing, he both attracts and distracts Death as he goes on his daily rounds, including ending the lives of people close to Liesel. He chastises himself for his interest in Liesel, to whom he usually refers as the book thief because she steals a volume that turns out to be a gravedigger’s instruction book from her brother’s burial site. Liesel will also take a book from the Nazi book burning and make a habit of borrowing books from the home of the Molching burgomeister without anyone’s knowledge or permission.
Liesel is an orphan by Nazi intrusion into her life. Her father is deceased, and her mother is a Communist who is deported immediately after she successfully deposits Liesel at an adoption office that will assign her good German parents who will be paid for their foster care. Rosa, the woman to whom Liesel is entrusted, is disappointed because she was expecting two children and considers it foul luck that Liesel’s brother died en route to her care.
As played by Sophie Nelisse. Liesel is wide-eyed and precocious. Though she arrives at Molching an illiterate, unable to read the gravedigger’s manual she took as a keepsake from her brother’s grave, she, via Nelisse, shows obvious intelligence and powers of observation. She quickly proves she likes competition and can take care of herself in a fight. She also shows she is resourceful and adept at hiding her feelings when it is wise or advantageous to do so. She is an engaging girl, and Nelisse keeps her likeable, quick to react, and above the common herd.
When Liesel is greeted in Molching, Rosa, a sharp-tongued, non-nonsense woman played with precision, dignity, and ironic charm by the remarkable Emily Watson, notes how filthy she is. Percival falters in this scene because Nelisse looks pristine and spotless. You don’t see the hunger, deprivation, and squalor Zusak describes. And you wonder about Rosa’s comment given the movie shows no evidence of Liesel being even slightly grimy from the travels.
The arrival scene won’t be the last time Percival doesn’t match the picture with what a character says. In addition to raising Liesel, Rosa and her husband, Hans, acquire another boarder, a young Jewish man, Max, who has been given a pass to flee his hometown, in which the Nazis are rounding up Jews for transport to death camps. Max realizes he remains in danger and seeks refuge with his father’s friend from World War I days, Hans, a fellow musician who is in possession of Max’s father’s accordion. When Max knocks on the door to seek shelter and a hiding place, Rosa mentions how sick and terrible he looks. Ben Schnetzer, the actor who plays, actually looks worn but healthy in his first scene. It is later that he appears sickly and possibly near death. Percival can’t get his communication straight.
The denunciation and deportation of Liesel’s mother, the adaptation to a new home with new parents who are to be called Mama and Papa, life in repressive Nazi town, the need to keep Max’s presence a secret, and the intrigue of continually breaking into the burgomeister’s study to take books should endow “The Book Thief” with a lot of depth and tension.
They do not. The conditions of Liesel’s life, when not overemphasized in one of Percival’s attempts to force emotion, are handled matter-of-factly. They are details that figure into a young girl’s survival, and we note them, but they never become poignant or give us deep concern about the characters in “The Book Thief.” As fraught with danger as Liesel’s situation is, “The Book Thief” never makes you nervous or fearful about her welfare. A lot happens, and a lot underscores the danger and tenuousness of living in the Third Reich, but it happens benignly, and the audience’s reaction is more one of somewhat heightened tension when a threat to peace or safety occurs rather than squirm-causing discomfort or real worry about how all will turn out.
Plot lines never get beyond interesting. There are a few times when “The Book Thief” touches the heart, one involving the death of a favorite character, the other involving a reunion, a scene that Percival, for once, shoots deftly and affectingly, but watching “The Book Thief” involves following a good tale more than taking an emotional ride through a well-chronicled but always horrifying episode in human history.
Sophie Nelisse is a charismatic Liesel. She is little girl enough in both her need to be cared for and in her energetic, at times rebellious spirit. You see Liesel’s world through her eyes, and Nelisse’s eyes are always expressive and informative.
Geoffrey Rush gives stolidity and honor to the kindly Hans, Liesel’s adoptive father who softens his wife’s sharpness and is always loving and diplomatically wise. Hans is such a sweet, capable man, it is hard for an actor who play his virtues and the gentle ways he deals with his wife’s temper and harsh words. Rush opts for simple humanity, and his choice works.
Emily Watson has the opposite challenge. She plays a woman who make her neighbors question how anyone can live with her. Watson maintains Rosa’s sternness while letting us see the reasons behind her hardness as well as the humanity hidden under many layers of tough practicality. It is through Watson’s excellent performance that you see why Hans is attracted to her and why they make a good pair.
Watson’s acting is good and detailed enough to earn her a possible Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress. The Academy nod may be longshot, but Watson would be deserving if Oscar came to call.
Handsome Ben Schnetzer is a serviceable Max. Hans inspires Liesel to read and works with her to improve her skills, and it is Liesel’s feeling that reading to Max will lead to his physical recovery and keep him alive that motivates her to take from the burgomeister’s library and become an expressive, comprehending reader. Schnetzer plays the part well while never distinguishing himself.
Nico Liersch is darling as Liesel’s school friend, playmate, companion, and admirer, Rudy. Carina Wiese gives a varied performance and always seems genuine as his mother. Barbara Auer is properly mysterious and generous as the burgomeister’s wife.
“The Book Thief” will keep you occupied and interested without enthralling or impressing. Nelisse, Watson, and Rush are attractive lead characters. The plot has variation and the requisite highs and lows. The story, alas, is better than the storytelling, and Brian Percival doesn’t quite find the pace or tone to make his movie special or important.