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Matt Adcock’s film review: The Book Thief is a stodgy slog, go to the source instead

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“One small fact: you are going to die. Despite every effort, no one lives forever. Sorry to be such a spoiler. My advice is when the time comes, don’t panic. It doesn’t seem to help.”

Those are the opening words of Death (yes, as in The Grim Reaper) as it is he who narrates the unhappy tale of The Book Thief in this big screen adaptation of the heartbreaking and much-loved novel by Markus Zusak.

Meet poor young Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse), being taken by her mother to be handed over to adoptive parents due to the crackdown on communists by Hitler’s rising regime.

Tragedy strikes when her younger brother dies during the grim journey.

It is at his pauper’s burial that Liesel finds a book dropped by his graveside called The Gravediggers Handbook.

This cheery tome is the book with which she learns to read when foster parents Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson) Hubermann discover that she is illiterate.

This is a story of death, fear and loss at one of humanity’s darkest hours, seen through the lens of one young girl’s experience.

The novel is a gripping exposition of a hopeless situation that somehow stirs the emotions and resonates in a timeless fashion.

Alas, the movie is a hollow shell that lacks the heart of the book, and leaves you wondering why a film so long and slowly paced still feels rushed and lacking in any lasting emotional impact.

Of Liesel’s small German town inhabitants, her only friends are schoolmate/neighbour Rudy Steiner (Nico Liersch) who wants to be legendary Olympic athlete Jesse Owens and Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer), a Jew who the Hubermanns decide to shelter – Max is the son of the man who saved Hans’ life in the First World War.

Much of the film centres on the ‘will he/won’t he survive’ dilemma of Max, who puts the Hubermanns in danger and then gets ill from having to hide away in the damp cellar below the house.

I wanted to care more than I did – I really loved the book – but somehow the scenes of Liesel trying to help Max recover by reading to him just didn’t capture any of the poignancy that Zusak rustled up.

The Book Thief deserved to be a better movie than this. However, the message that reading can save you should be taken to heart and treated as a call to action – just read the novel instead!

 

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