First the literary awards.
Then the trailers.
That’s usually how it works.
Or at least, how it tries.
*** HERE IS A SMALL FACT ***
Your movie is going to die.
That is, if you don’t understand your story’s soul.
Weirdly enough, filmmakers don’t always consider souls. Tone, yes. And tone is integral. But particularly with hit books and so-called “modern classics,” production companies often seem fixated on simply hitting the proper, recognizable plot points and calling it a day.
Perhaps cinematographers just know their own medium so thoroughly it’s difficult for them to recognize the details of what makes another special. That’s fair. I can understand that. But the dynamic is in the details. So, so so many adaptations achieve only mediocrity because their screenwriters didn’t recognize the heart of the book. Just following a basic plotline—even an amazing, well-told plotline—is a start, but not enough.
*** WHY THE BOOK THIEF EMERGED AS A MODERN CLASSIC ***
- Not because it was a simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming tale.
- (It was a simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming tale.)
- Not because it took place in domestic Nazi Germany.
- (It did take place in domestic Nazi Germany.)
- Not because of its love affair with words
- (My Lord. The beauty.)
- Because it is narrated by Death.
- And only because it is narrated by Death.
The narrator of The Book Thief is, in the end, the book’s most unique point. That’s not to say the prose is poorly done, or that a story about a 1940’s German foster child learning to read and steal a bunch of things doesn’t catch the eye. It’s just…well, WWII books are a dime a dozen and every other Serious Writer these days tries to write Word Art (to a point where they often cloud their own themes).
Of course writers can still pen unique and compelling stories within these categories, but such stories are simply a much harder sell. Zusak’s book would still have been good without Death, but not great.
*** SOME MISSING ELEMENTS ***
Firstly, Death’s narration was largely absent from the film. When his voice did come into play, he simply told us what we could already see and said some of his book counterpart’s better-known lines.
Zusak’s Death talked to us as if we were strangers at a bar. His character, with dry macabre wit, recalls his fascination with one particularly woeful girl and the few encounters he had with her.
Quick reminder that an encounter with this book’s narrator is a literal brush with Death.
Death’s interjections gave an already decent story energetic doses of both levity and dark observation. Death seems a paradox: he’s Death, but he’s funny. He’s Death, but he doesn’t delight in taking life. He’s the Weary Reaper, a being who does his job while trying in vain to understand the souls he collects.
Without this unique point of view, The Book Thief film pales and becomes as memorable as loose leaf paper next to an embossed leather journal. The first thing that comes to mind when remembering it, while likely different for everyone (for me it’s French and German accents from British and Canadian actors, except everyone still says nein instead of no?), certainly isn’t its narrator.
In Zusak’s work, an omniscient, otherworldly narrator commentates on real-world events. Said narrator repeatedly spoils the ending of the story and still his mesmerized audiences hope for the outcome they’d prefer. Death knows our humanity prevents us from flatly accepting the bleak conclusion of Liesel’s Himmel Street days, but tells us the story anyway. One gets the notion Death’s of a rather curious sort. Asking questions rather than knowing all the answers. As if telling the story of one specific human might lead us to reveal our secrets. To Death.
*** A SMALL SUGGESTION ***
Do not attempt to recreate greatness when the original greatness was wholly dependent on an aspect you lack.
In this case, text.
Death’s presence is indispensable, but for obvious reasons Brian Percival couldn’t cast a physical actor to don a black cloak and insert him à la Lemony Snicket into the aftermath of the Himmel Street bombing. The tone wouldn’t call for it.
This is the sort of thing that probably only works in print. It was a tricky enough tightrope to walk in the first place!
We should also draw attention to the meta-ness of a book about book burning and book loving and book stealing. Zusak’s Liesel and her friend Max discuss the power of words countless times. Words that can transport people to new places. Words that can describe the outdoors to a Jew hiding in a basement. Words that conceal adolescent affection. And Adolf Hitler’s words.
Naturally, films use words too, and The Book Thief could have chosen to analyze that theme more. But it didn’t. And even if it had, the inherent problem of its not being a book would have affected the theme’s depth. Basically, The Book Thief film falls short in more ways than one (cushy, self-indulgent, rose-colored, and ugh, I will just never understand why they decided to tempt fate with those accents). But without discussing the power of language—challenging to do on a screen—or truly exploring Death’s character—impossible to translate visually—The Book Thief was doomed to be average before the filming ever began.
Sometimes a book’s got to be a book.
Image obtained from ew.com