Film Review: The Book Thief

During World War II, Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse) is forced to leave her mother and go and live with a foster family in Nazi Germany. She finds solace in stealing books, but she and her new family could be in danger when her foster father Hans (Geoffrey Rush) agrees to hide Max (Ben Schnetzer), a Jew, from the Nazis.

Conviction. It’s something that all films need to have in order to make the audience believe in the story and care in the characters. Half-arsed or abandoned ideas do nothing but make the viewer apathetic towards the whole thing and ultimately have little interest in the story or its characters. Unfortunately, The Book Thief lacks conviction in almost every area.

The Book Thief is an adaptation of the critically acclaimed novel by Australian author Markus Zusak, but it’s perhaps the book’s biggest USP that is the film’s most obvious lack of conviction – the fact that it’s narrated by Death.

This was a really unique and clever idea that worked brilliantly on paper, but has not translated to the screen well at all. We hear the voice of Death at the beginning of the film but doesn’t show up again until about two-thirds through and then again at the end. It feels like the filmmakers didn’t want to include it but felt they couldn’t leave it out.

There’s also an issue of not really addressing the subject matter. It’s true that the film is more of a character piece than anything else but do these characters ever really develop? Only Emily Watson’s Rosa really evolves as a character, whilst the World War II setting seems strangely sanitised. Rosa’s claim that Liesel is filthy when she arrives would be more believable if she wasn’t so utterly pristine. For a more effective take on the horrors of war from a child’s perspective, then The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas might be a better bet.

The Book Thief does have some admirable qualities, however. Both Sophie Nélisse and Geoffrey Rush are excellent as Liesel and Hans respectively, and the relationship between the two is genuinely heartwarming. Nélisse balances Liesel’s headstrong, almost stubborn, attitude with vulnerability, whilst superbly bringing a naivety to the character which makes it chilling to see her acting so blithely towards the Nazis for most of the film. Rush is also excellent, giving Hans a real affection for Liesel whilst also displaying an eccentricity that makes him a very likeable character.

There are also a couple of really interesting scenes that really stand out. At one point we see Liesel and her friends dressed in Nazi Youth uniforms singing a propaganda song in a choir. This juxtaposition of ideas is really effective and horrifying to see what is essentially brainwashing of children who don’t really know better.

The Book Thief really had the potential to be better than it was, but it was ultimately let down by its inability to follow through with its ideas. From the seemingly random voiceovers from Death to the bizarre language switching from German to English throughout, it never truly finds a real identity. It has interesting moments scattered here and there but is never consistent enough to make your truly invested in it.

Pros

  • Good performances from Sophie Nélisse and Geoffrey Rush
  • Nice period detail
  • Effective in places

Cons

  • Narration by Death hugely underused
  • Little character development
  • Random language switching

2 and a half pigeons

2.5/5 pigeons

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34 thoughts on “Film Review: The Book Thief

  1. CMrok93 says:

    I’m of the opinion that maybe it is just too hard to adapt this book at all. In ways, it’s too dark, in others, it’s too sentimental. And on top of all that, you have this random, totally inappropriate narration from whom is supposed to be “death”. So basically, yeah, it’s a bit of a mess. Good review.

    • Yeah I think you could be right, it’s such a difficult book to adapt. I think the narration from Death is a really interesting feature that works well in the book but just feels tacked on here. It’s a shame, I think this could have been a lot better. Thanks mate.

  2. Yeah, I think I’m going to skip seeing both this and “Divergent.” Tired of the same story formats in children’s/YA lit getting all the attention. (i.e., future action/dystopian thrillers and watered-down “humanity” stories about WWII).

  3. Monkeyboy says:

    Ah shame, I’ve heard off people I know that it’s not a bad movie. I was gonna read the book first anyway, but someone stole my copy. ;-)

  4. Can’t say as this looks particularly appealing! Geoffrey Rush is always reliable, however. Splendid stuff as always Chris.

  5. Excellent review. I caught this film recently and couldn’t for the life of me see what all the fuss was about. It was a tangled mess of a film that offered very little. Despite a strong central performance this for me was instantly forgettable.

  6. mistylayne says:

    I desperately want to read the book but will definitely skip the movie. Thanks for the heads up!

  7. The film didn’t have the impact it wanted to have, but Sophie Nelisse was good. I haven’t read the book, but maybe if they tweaked parts (like removing the Death narration (though it’s an interesting take), perhaps, to name a few) maybe it would achieve the heights it wanted to attain.

  8. Tom says:

    I could not agree with your review here any more my friend. There was definitely a lack of something to this adaptation and conviction was it. Well-said.

  9. jjames36 says:

    Good commentary. I agree with much of it, though I think I still liked the film just a touch more than you. Still, I agree with your larger message: this one isn’t great.

  10. ruth says:

    I like this a bit more than you Chris, but I do agree w/ what you said about lack of conviction, esp in something as important as the Holocaust. I do like the father/daughter relationship between Rush & Nélisse, but overall it just wasn’t a memorable film. I feel that the Max character is so underdeveloped which is a shame considering he’s integral to the story.

    • The father/daughter relationship is really nice and is central to the whole thing, so that does help it along a bit. And I totally agree with you about Max, I actually meant to mention that. Liesel is apparently really attached to him but we never really understand why.

  11. thycriticman says:

    I have heard such mixed things about this one. I never actually read the book and the premise is not gripping for me so if it is so meh, why should I give it a shot? I guess that if I am very bored at some-point…maybe…just maybe!!

  12. Nostra says:

    Not a movie I am planning to check out. The trailer did not look interesting to me…

  13. caragale says:

    What a shame! I was curious about this one, and I hoped to hear better things. I might still give it a try, but I won’t get my hopes up. I haven’t read the book–do you think people who haven’t would enjoy it more? Just curious. Nice review, Chris! :)

    • Thanks! I think there’s a good chance those who haven’t read the book will like it more as they have nothing to compare it to. But there are still some fundamental problems with it regardless. Still give it a whirl though if you fancy it as I have read some positive reviews of it too.

  14. Zoë says:

    Great review, though I must say I have not really been compelled to go and see this!

  15. Marc Winger says:

    Well, you certainly didn’t like the film! LOL It’s good to be in opposition. Good points, though.

  16. I was going to see this one but changed my mind after I heard a few reviews. Sounds like the film-makers didn’t really know how to use the narration device of death, yet that could have been really interesting and original. Nice review.

  17. alexraphael says:

    Mostly seen poor reviews of this. Shame when a film adaptation of a film fails to sparkle.

  18. Mark Hobin says:

    Apparently I am the only person who reads your blog and enjoyed this. LOL I thought this was an emotionally powerful film. Nice to see World War II presented from a different perspective, that is through a child’s eyes. Sophie Nélisse was extraordinary. Definitely a young actress to watch.

    A different point of view: http://fastfilmreviews.com/2013/12/01/the-book-thief/

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