Based on the 2005 best-selling young adult novel by Markus Zusak, The Book Thief is the latest film to introduce children to the atrocities of World War II and Nazi Germany. Through the eyes of a pretty little blond girl, we see families struggling in a war-torn society, the near-nightly fright of air raids and bomb shelters, and mass book burnings.
The film opens with Liesel Meminger, the thief of the title, being dropped off at the home of a middle-aged couple in a town outside Munich. With her mother presumed dead, and Germany marching to war, Liesel is vulnerable. While her new foster mother Rosa (Emily Watson) frets that Liesel's brother died along the journey, therefore cutting their stipend in half, her foster father Hans (Geoffrey Rush) quickly takes a liking to the shy girl.
Due to murky circumstances, Liesel is illiterate, and as a result, she is subjected to taunts and jeers from her classmates. One day, Hans discovers the child flipping through the only book in her possession, The Grave-Diggers Handbook, which she'd picked off the ground at the gravesite of her little brother as a sentimental keepsake. Hans quickly begins teaching the girl how to read from the book.
Liesel's life settles into a comfortable rhythm of playing with Rudy, the boy next door who proclaims his love for her, even as she grieves for her brother and mother. The family's life is thrown off course one night when Max, the son of the Jewish man who saved Hans' life during World War I, staggers into their home. Barely alive and on the run, he begs for their help.
The filmmakers behind this project should be commended for their efforts to force middle-class children to understand that life hasn't always been about the latest iPhone or playing the choking game on Friday nights. While director Brian Percival (television's Downton Abbey, The Old Curiosity Shop) doesn't embarrass himself in this, his major-release debut, he isn't terribly concerned about bringing anything innovative, either. While all of the actors do fine work, with Rush putting in a memorable turn, the film suffers from too-obvious scenes and moralizing.
For instance, Rudy is shown being chastised by his father about proclaiming loudly his love of American runner Jesse Owens; why the need for a subsequent scene featuring Rudy being bullied at school for the sentiment, as well? And there's the decision to narrate the film by the voice of Death (Roger Allam), leading us to wonder if we are supposed to be surprised that people are going to die in a film set during war.
The Book Thief is a nice-enough entry into the world of human tragedy for middle-school aged children, but any parents tagging along should be warned that there is nothing new to see here. Still, on the positive side, at least with this film—the latest in a long line of young adult adaptations—the studio isn't banking on a franchise.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Paupers and princesses."