It’s a tricky task, adapting a beloved book to fit the silver screen, and before director Brian Percival’s version of “The Book Thief” took to the theaters it was a bestselling novel by writer Markus Zusak. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in my skepticism or my fear that Percival would stumble and fall in his attempt at recreating the popular story, if you will. Thankfully, as it turns out, Percival stuck the landing.
For those of you who haven’t read the book, a brief synopsis: “The Book Thief,” narrated by Death (Roger Allam), chronicles the story of young Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nelisse) as she grows up in a foster home under Nazi rule. When a Jewish fugitive, Max (Ben Schnetzer), takes up residence in Liesel’s basement, she begins to discover the horrors of Nazi values and rebels against the strict society by smuggling forbidden books into her home for her and Max to read. As World War II becomes increasingly intense, so does the danger faced Liesel and her community.
The most striking thing about Percival’s cinematic retelling of the story is the sheer caliber of the acting. Sophie Nelisse as Liesel is a clear standout, captivating the audience with her every move. Nelisse’s character is largely mute when she arrives at her new home, a challenge for even the most mature of actors, but the 13-year-old actress somehow manages to communicate more with a single blink than many actors can with pages of lines. Nico Liersch also stands out as Rudy, Liesel’s blond-haired, charismatic best friend, capturing an undeniable magnetism that draws both characters and audience members to him. The adult actors are not to be forgotten, and Ben Schnetzer, as well as Liesel’s foster parents (played by Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson), are all charming.
For the most part, Percival stays true to the book, something relatively simple that seems to be surprisingly challenging for an alarming number of directors. His dedication to Zusak’s original storyline serves the movie well, and Percival’s rendition keeps right in line with the combination of the bleakness of World War II Germany as well as the bittersweet, ceaseless optimism of young Lisesel, despite the misfortunes the universe throws in her way.
Despite this, the movie falls flat in its attempt to maintain the book’s unique twist of choosing Death as the narrator. In Zusak’s novel, Liesel’s story is interspersed with tidbits of wisdom, short anecdotes, and friendly pieces of advice from Death himself, and his constant presence and distinctive tone made him appear as a true character in the story rather than simply a narrator. However, in Percival’s movie, over half an hour can go by without a single word from Death (in this case portrayed as a voice-over). Although I respect Percival for trying to stay true to such a unique aspect of the original story, his integration of Death was somewhat jarring, and it often takes a second or two to remember just who the voice-over belonged to, pulling viewers out of Liesel’s story.
In the end, Percival succeeded in adapting a young adult novel into a young adult movie. People may criticize “The Book Thief” for its rather tame treatment of the horrors of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany, but in the end, that’s not what the story is about. “The Book Thief” isn’t supposed to be a depressing tale of the horrors of humanity, but instead tells the story of an idealistic, creative girl and the important people who touch her life, something Percival succeeds seemingly effortlessly in bringing to the silver screen.