‘The Book Thief’ Should Be Great, But It Doesn’t Quite Get There

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Today’s the day that the adaptation of Markus Zusak’s incredible novel The Book Thief hits theaters. I adored this book, and I was really thrilled for the movie. I also had no idea how they would make it work, and I’m still not entirely convinced that it did.

How do you capture for the big screen a story that’s told by Death himself? How do you bring Liesel Meminger to life? There is so much to love about her on the page, from her tragic first meeting with Death to the way she teases Rudy Steiner. She is full of life, and loss. And Death sees it all.

Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse) is ten when we first meet her, traveling with her desperate mother and sick younger brother. Their mother is giving them to a couple, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, because the Nazis have come to power and she can no longer take care of them. Liesel’s brother dies on the journey, and she steals a book from the gravedigger while her brother is buried in the snow. She is left to face her new life alone. Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush) becomes her “Papa,” and he is a lovely man. But Rosa (Emily Watson) is cantankerous, and it’s harder for the little girl and the cranky woman to warm to each other. There is little to eat, and Liesel is haunted by nightmares of her family. We see that Liesel’s book, The Grave Dgger’s Handbook, is such a treasure because she can’t read it. She wants to know what it says.

Rudy is a bright spot in Liesel’s world, a neighborhood boy who instantly takes to her, following her around and asking for kisses. They become best friends, and their little German neighborhood tries to go about their lives while the war unfolds around them, and while neighbors are taken away violently in the night. Rosa and Liesel develop their own coarse bond. But Liesel still asks where her mother is. Papa teaches Liesel to read, and she finds secret ways to obtain more books–including the library of the mayor’s wife. The more she reads, the less Nazi Germany makes sense to her.

Then Max (Ben Schnetzer) shows up at their door. He is a Jew, and he is on the run. His father fought with Hans in the last war and gave his life so Hans could live. Hans is ready to repay the debt, and Max moves into their basement. The war has come home to them, and it brings a new level of tension and humanity to their house. And from Max’s arrival the story builds momentum to its famous tragic and ultimately beautiful ending, which I won’t spoil here.

This is where the film kind of lost me.

The cast is perfection. All the performances are right, and Sophie Nélisse is just otherworldly. You can’t take your eyes off of her. Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson are just right as Hans and Rosa, and the chemistry between Rush and Nélisse in particular is wonderful. Ben Schnetzer is Max. The actors did everything they needed to do to make this film great.

And it looks great. The funeral scene for Liesel’s brother makes you feel like a blanket of snow is the only appropriate weather for a funeral. The walls of Himmel Street rise high, closing in Liesel’s neighborhood like it’s the center of the universe. Which it is here. I was with director Brian Percival while he established the lives in this village and shared the small moments of humor and warmth that run deep in the book. I was with him when Max showed up at the door and the Hubermanns made the only possible human choice to protect him. I wanted to be with him all the way to that ending, and then…

I’ve been watching a lot of The Voice lately, enough that when singers hit a note that falls flat I can hear what the coaches are talking about. I can hear how it sends a song that was aiming for epic right off the rails into meh. That’s kind of what happens here. Percival is swinging for the fences, and all the actors give it everything they’ve got. But at some point the movie feels like it’s speeding up just to get to where it needs to be. It doesn’t take its time to build and take root in you; it’s like they had a set number of minutes to tell the story. And the clock was ticking. I wish this film really took its time to catch its breath and hit that note.

If you’ve read the book you may remember how the events that build and play out on Himmel Street destroyed you; that’s certainly how I felt. To watch those events play out in 2D is not the same, and I don’t just mean the big flat screen in front of your face. Emotionally, that ending that turned this book into an instant classic is in 2D here. It falls flat, and that was such a disappointment. I really wanted this movie to be great, and in the end it was just pretty good.

GeekMom attended a promotional screening for review purposes.

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