In 2013, The Book Thief movie came out, but I barely remember the first time I watched it. However, since I adore the novel (here’s my review) I wanted to watch the film again and do an analysis/comparison of the two!
I’ll ramble, then I’ll score both versions. The categories I’ve chosen are: plot, characters, setting (which means set design/costuming—anything that visually brings us into the world—or worldbuilding, depending on which medium), writing, and overall watch/readability. Of course, this is purely my opinion. You’ll have different feelings and ratings, I’m sure.
There will be SPOILERS for both film and novel.
Firstly, the casting is excellent; Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson do an admirable job as Hans and Rosa Hubermann, and Sophie Nelisse is a pretty impressive actor who has to carry the entire film on her shoulders as Liesel. Everyone looks pretty much exactly as I pictured (other than Liesel and Rudy being aged up, starting out the film as twelve-ish rather than nine/ten). The same goes for the costumes and set design. Himmel Street looks right, and the overall look is clearly that of wartime Germany.
The film follows the general plot of the novel, though the narrative is sped up to fit the new format, which is to be expected. That, I do not have a problem with. The novel contains a lot, so there had to be some compressing to fit the two hour time frame. However, some of the changes or omissions the filmmakers made were… frustrating.
The first difference I noticed was the Rudy-as-Jesse-Owens scene. In the novel, he paints his body with tar and runs, imagining he has the talent of the famous Olympian. In the film, he has only a few streaks of tar on his body; it looks more like he fell in the dirt than deliberately painted himself. While this is probably for the best—to put it mildly, blackface is bad—it undercut some of the point of the scene to me. Rudy is a child, and only seeks to emulate someone he admires. He does not understand racism yet, and thus would not understand why wanting to be like a black man might be perceived as a problem in 1930s Germany. In the novel, I liked this scene because it showed that Rudy—and children in general—are not born innately racist. So while I get why the director decided to not have Rudy in full blackface, I miss the emotions I got from this scene in the book.
Another complaint I have is several scenes with Hans. This character is beloved by many (for example, yours truly), but this film seems hesitant to make him anything but the most heroic, kindest man in the world. But this means they eliminate the moment where Hans, terrified for his family’s safety if they appear displeased with the Nazi government, forces Liesel to say “heil Hitler.” And the scene in which Hans warns Liesel to tell no one about hiding Max is almost much less impactful; he only begs her to keep a secret, rather than desperately resorting to scare tactics. In the novel, he hates that he has to frighten her, but knows that anything short of that is too much of a risk. On the other hand, the film seems so afraid to make him appear even a bit like a bad guy, thus weakening what Zusak did with his character. Sigh.
Speaking of what was done with characters—Max. He had much less personality in the film. We do not see him say one of my favorite lines: “when death captures me, he will feel my fist on his face,” or see him keeping fit while in hiding, imagining himself boxing with Hitler. He is less a fighter, in the film, and that is disappointing. His resilience and determination were some of my favorite aspects of his personality in the novel.
The scene I think I am most bitter about not having in the film, though, is the bread-giving scenes. When Max has left the Hubermann household, Liesel looks for him each time there is a “parade” of Jewish people through the town. During one of these, Hans gives a man a piece of bread and gets beaten for it. Later, after Hans has gone to war, Liesel and Rudy do the same. Such a simple action carries substantial risk, but they do so anyway. It’s a powerful moment in the book, and I missed it in the film.
Now to speak more broadly, I did not like the narrator. He is supposed to be Death, and that does come across, but to me, he sounded bored. He talks rather slowly and does not possess the unexpected charisma and personality he has in the book. I loved him in the book, but really was bothered by him in the film.
The pacing of a lot of this film was too slow. Many scenes take too long, or the emotions seem somehow muted. More than once I found myself wishing we could move on to some other scene already. And when we reach the climax—the bombing of Himmel Street—everything feels anticlimactic. Between the lackluster narration and a strange sense of numbness (which should feel like shock and horror, not lack of feeling), I did not feel nearly as emotional as I should have. Even when the film had Rudy die in Liesel’s arms (an unnecessary change, in my opinion; we already knew they loved each other) I was not as sad as in the book.
Overall, every scene I enjoyed in the film, I preferred in the book. While this film does try and does succeed in a few areas, it simply cannot convey the power and beauty of Zusak’s writing. It’s not the medium for it; this story really just belongs on the page.
Setting (set design/costuming) 8/10
Setting (worldbuilding) 10/10
Verdict: The Book Thief (novel by Markus Zusak) > The Book Thief (the film)