I don't claim to have extensive knowledge in the field of literature, but Markus Zusak's novel, The Book Thief, is one the finest books I've ever read. It's darkly humorous, whilst being legitimately heart-breaking. But frankly, it didn't need a film adaption. Despite this, we have the 2013 film adaption of this modern classic. Inevitably, it doesn't come even close to matching the sheer perfection of Zusak's novel, but the film is surprisingly engaging, if deeply flawed.
Starting in the year 1938, The Book Thief is about Liesel Meminger; a young girl, who is adopted by a middle-aged German couple. Liesel's brother is adopted by them as well, though he dies during the train ride over. Shortly after Liesel's adoption, the family takes in a Jew named Max Vandenburg to hide him from the Nazis. In the mean time, Liesel learns to read and discovers the power of the written word.
The Book Thief is a very difficult book to adapt to film. The book has a slow pace and a meandering plot, which one can get away with in a book (especially because the writing itself is so beautiful, and the narrative is so ingenious), but in a film, this can become dull.
Also, the film has the impossible task of incorporating the most unique aspect of the source novel, and that is the narrator. The book is narrated by Death, which is, of course, a brilliant concept. But this idea is very difficult to convert into the film. Death doesn't speak much during the film, and when he does, it feels a bit jarring, and absolutely unnecessary. Death (as a character) has such a small part in this film, it's clear that he is only here to satisfy fans of the novel. As a result of his limited screentime, his character is much more watered down (most notable is his obsession with colors, which is completely gone in the film), making him seem more like an odd footnote than an integral part of the story.
The Book Thief is flawed; there is no getting around that. But at the same time, it's utterly fascinating. The characters are still as lovable as they were in the novel. And there are some very pretty visuals. In fact, had this film had the awards traction it had been hoping for, this certainly would have earned nominations for Costume Design, and maybe even cinematography. This film really does transport you to Nazi Germany in the same way the Hobbit films transports one to Middle-Earth (though not quite to that scale).
The novel upon which the film is based is roughly 550 pages in length, and in order to keep the film from obtaining an obscene run time (it clocks in at just over 2 hours), much of the subplots, and some of themes, have been dropped. But The Book Thief is truly at its best when the spirit of the novel manages to break though the many changes and alterations.
One theme and tone that The Book Thief consistently attains is innocence. This story is more or less told through the eyes of a child (meaning Liesel), and her interactions with a friendly neighbor boy named Rudy Steiner are cute without being cloying. Her relationship with the Jew that she helps hide is also very sweet. And her relationship with her foster father, Hans Hubermann, is very warm and endearing.
I really do hate to continue to bring up the flaws of this film, but there are several that need mentioning. The editing is a pinch choppy at times, and this is even more notable towards the end of the film where there is clear "Return of the King Syndrome," with false ending after false ending. And there are many times when the film is extremely sentimental (though there are definitely some earned emotions throughout). Also, there are many moments in the film that aren't explained well, which will absolutely confuse those that have not read the novel.
The acting is surprisingly great. Geoffrey Rush is excellent as Hans Hubermann, and Emily Watson perfectly combines irritable-ness and genuine sweetness in her role as Rosa Hubermann. Ben Scnetzer as Max Vandenberg delivers a sweet performance, and Nico Liersch as Rudy Steiner is another child actor that defies the child acting stereotype. The only hiccup comes from the lead performance, Sophie Nelisse as Liesel Meminger, delivering a performance that's adequate, but sometimes stiff, especially when reciting dialogue.
The score is composed by John Williams (the first non-Spielberg effort he has scored since 2005). The score is a bit understated, but there are several moments of unmistakable beauty. Even when the film doesn't always get the themes of the book right, the score always rings true.
The Book Thief is basically an art film for the mainstream. It's just different enough from most mainstream films of similar ilk to trick audiences into thinking they're seeing something truly spectacular, while providing something legitimately solid. Cynical moviegoers will have a field day with this film, but forgiving fans of the book, and perhaps a handful of patient newcomers will find The Book Thief to be mostly satisfying, it deeply problematic. At its peak, The Book Thief is masterful. At its worst, it's overly sentimental. But it's never less than watchable.