The Book Thief

Directed By: Brian Percival

Starring: Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, and Ben Schnetzer

I've said this before, and I'll say it again.  Independent filmmakers need to stop making World War II movies.  In the last year or so, we've had Lore, Emperor, and Simon and the Oaks.  Now, we have The Book Thief, another film that takes us back to the so-called greatest generation and the dark days marked by the Holocaust.  While I certainly respect the history, it's been done a thousand times too many on the big screen.  There's absolutely no value in rehashing it again and again and again.  Let's do something different.  There are plenty of other moments in history!

After the passing of her brother, Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse) moves in with her new foster parents Hans and Rosa Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson).  Naturally, things are tense at first, but she begins warming to them eventually.  When Hans is putting Liesel to bed one night, he notices that she's clinching to a dark book about how to dig graves.  He questions her about where she got the book and then actually begins reading it with her at night.  This continues, and reading becomes a central form of bonding for Liesel and her papa.  Hans even sets up a dictionary wall in their basement where Liesel can come and write down the words she's learned from reading.  Meanwhile, Hans and Rosa give sanctuary to Jew Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer), the son of an old friend who once saved Hans's life.  With the Holocaust in full swing and the Second Great War looming, this is risky business for all involved.

I can't say that I've ever read Markus Zusak's novel The Book Thief, but I can say that I won't be doing so after seeing the movie.  Brian Percival's adaptation of The Book Thief is a boring imagining of Liesel Meminger's struggles in Nazi Germany.  The film plays on the charms of its cast members with performances that lack depth.  It tugs the typical emotional heart strings to give viewers a warm and fuzzy feeling or a cold, dark one at the prescribed moment.  Last but not least, it's another WWII-themed movie and never lets us forget it.  The Book Thief is ultimately just another unnecessary adaptation of literature to the big screen.

A key part of the book is that the events in Liesel's life are narrated by Death himself.  It's a novel concept that clearly worked on paper.  It doesn't work so well on the big screen, however.  Voiced by Roger Allam (The Iron Lady, The Angels' Share), Death is a giddy chauffeur often happy to divulge the defining qualities of each soul he's encountered as it passes onto the next life.  With the backdrop of war, the Holocaust, and an overabundance of swastikas, Death's upbeat narration is a bizarre part of the film that makes things a bit tonally awkward.  Whether or not the film prominently features children, it's a war drama.  This sort of narration just doesn't fit.

It's clear that I have my misgivings about The Book Thief, and it's not just because it's another World War II movie.  This adaptation has plenty of other problems with barely decent performances, forced emotions, and tonal imbalances.  Brian Percival just doesn't get it right.  The Book Thief gets a 0.09% rating.  Have a few whiskey sours with this one.