Thursday, 27 February 2014

The Book Thief book vs film

With a book as beloved as Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, an adaptation was always going to be a challenge. The story, narrated by death himself, follows a young girl as she arrives in a small town in Germany to live with her new foster parents – as WW2 looms.

The casting, first of all, is sublime, with Geoffrey Rush in particular on hand to warm and break your heart in equal measure. Hans is an adorable, loving father to Liesel but he is also incredibly brave and compassionate - traits which often lead him into trouble. Rush personifies this duality flawlessly, showing both the softer and more courageous elements to the character. Emily Watson does a brilliant job of showing the really harsh side to mother Rosa along with the caring, big-hearted side not everyone gets to see. She shouts and scowls a lot but there is love there too.

Young Sophie Nélisse shines as Liesel, showing the maturity the role requires, much like Liesel herself. You feel her pain and her joy and her struggle to stay close to people when she has been abandoned by those she holds dearest in the world. Nélisse captures this maturity alongside the innocence of youth and the desperation for human connection – all traits which make Liesel such a compelling character.

Though the story is undoubtedly Liesel’s, there is time to look further afield, at Kristallnacht, the climate of fear and supremacy, and the propaganda. Knowing the extent of the atrocities of the Holocaust only makes these scenes all the more tragic and real and there is something so horrifying about seeing it through the eyes not just of Liesel but of her school friends. While some struggle to come to terms with the society in which they live, hiding their true feelings for fear of inviting danger, others relish it and become genuinely terrifying. Perhaps to cope with the 12A certificate, much of the horror itself is left out, with the concentration camps ignored and not much seen of the Jews being marched through the town. The film largely hides away from the atrocities of war, only facing it when it lands on its doorstep – much like the characters themselves.
The overwhelming theme of words and their power is there in the film much like it is in the book, from Liesel’s struggle to learn to read to Max’s thoughts on books and writing. Words are everywhere, from the books Liesel reads with her papa, to the speeches made at rallies. They are powerful and important and hard to ignore. Words are life, Liesel, after all.

The biggest difference between book and film seems to be the general order of things. What is explained early on in the book is left to shock you later in the film. Though much of the story is cut to fit into the film's running time, some elements of it are developed further in the film, leaving certain revelations more obvious for viewers - the relationships between Liesel and Rudy, and Liesel and Ilsa, especially. The cuts, overall, make sense, but the additions add little. There is a sense that things are being spelled out for viewers rather than having things left to find out on their own. One scene in particular simply was not necessary. There was the feeling that it was trying to force the audience to cry – which is ridiculous for a film which already has such emotional subject matter.

The real challenge here was to convert the tone of the novel onto the big screen, to make it joyous, heartbreaking and beautiful all at the same time. Overall, The Book Thief film manages to capture the heartache and humour of the Zusak novel but loses much of the magic and poetic beauty of the original. The narration, the part of the book which gave The Book Thief its magic, is only really there for the opening and closing sequences of the film. Without it, the film lacks that magic that the book manages. It’s possible that the film makers realised they would not be able to match the original in this aspect and so opted to make the focus more on Liesel's story. To be honest, I'm not sure any voice could have made the narrator work as well as it did in the book. Not even Morgan Freeman!
When viewed as an adaptation, there are holes. The overall lack of narration and absence of the beautiful images from the book are sorely missed. However, as a standalone film, it is truly beautiful to watch with a breathtaking cast and stunning shots throughout. Heaven Street really does come to life on the big screen.

I only wonder how much of the emotion I felt was thanks to the film and not thanks to the memories of the book the film triggered.

Film – 3.5/5
Book – 5/5

Did the adaptation work for you? Share your thoughts on either the book or film on Twitter using #bookvsfilmclub and join the debate.

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