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The Book Thief: Buy the Book

by Aly Semigran November 8, 2013 6:30 am
<i>The Book Thief</i>: Buy the Book

"The book was better." It's what every book snob and/or passionate fan of a particular piece of literature that's been turned into a film will tell you. And you know, as much as it pains even the most fervent defenders of movies to say, nine out of ten times they're right. While director Brian Percival and writer Michael Petroni's glossy adaptation of Markus Zusak's beloved, award-winning YA novel The Book Thief is undoubtedly inferior to its original text, it does something important in the process. The movie not only wants to make you go back and read the book (or read it for the first time, which you most certainly should), but it makes you want to read just about everything out there and write to your heart's desire. In a story filled with messages, that one will likely echo the loudest.

The Book Thief tells the story of a sweet, scrappy young girl named Liesel (the talented-beyond-her-years Sophie Nélisse) who -- after witnessing the death of her little brother and being abandoned by her allegedly Communist-sympathizing mother -- goes to live with her foster parents the Hubermanns in Nazi-occupied Germany. Her "new" mother Rosa (a nuanced Emily Watson) is hard and stern, while her father Hans (the always-great Geoffrey Rush) is compassionate and caring and the two quickly forge a loving bond. (He lovingly refers to Liesel as "your majesty" and it's one of the many moments that will inevitably compare it to the similarly themed romantic-schmaltz-meets-tragedy Oscar-winner Life is Beautiful).

In addition to her father, Liesel connects with a rambunctious school mate with a passion for running named Rudy (Nico Liersch, another impressive child actor) and Max (a star-making turn by Ben Schnetzer), a young Jewish man on the run whose father saved Hans' life in the war and who shows up at their home looking for shelter. Hans and Rosa hide Max in their home, a secret that Liesel must keep from everyone.

Liesel's other secret is that her unquenchable love for reading (which has been ignited by both Hans and Max) has led her to getting her hands on books at any cost. While she initially begins stealing books from the mayor's home, the mayor's wife Ilsa (Barbara Auer, given the task of playing an important character in the book that is merely glazed over in the film) takes a liking to Liesel.

Though the life-threatening stakes could not be higher for young Liesel, her family and her friends during wartime, the movie often looks and feels far too beautiful and whimsical (you'll swear at times that you're watching Martin Scorsese's fanciful Hugo) for a story rooted in such tragedy and loss. That doesn't mean you won't shed a tear or many for these characters (trust me, you will) but the horrors that unfold and the gut-wrenching grief for this chapter in history is never fully realized or reached in this PG-13 telling.

In the end, the outstanding performances are what make the film version of The Book Thief truly worthwhile. Nélisse's turn as the curious, passionate, loving, wide-eyed and beautiful Liesel is an astonishingly good one that reminded me a lot of Ivana Baquero's turn as the similarly curious, passionate, loving, wide-eyed and beautiful Ofelia in Pan's Labyrinth (a film that ultimately found a more effective balance of finding heaven without ignoring hell). Rush is near-perfection in his role and it's a performance one that could easily earn him this year's slot for the Best Supporting Actor nomination for a beloved actor that elevates a flawed adaptation (see: Max Von Sydow for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close).

Make no mistake, The Book Thief is a touching story that is told from a unique perspective (it is, quite literally, narrated by death) and one that will likely resonate with viewers, despite its missteps. (It also has one of the most haunting final lines of any movie you'll see this year that should stick with you for some time). But unsurprisingly, and perhaps fittingly so, it's a tale of tragedy and the triumph of the human spirit that resounds so much more in the pages of the original book than it does on screen.

Get showtimes and tickets for this movie from Fandango.

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