I read The Book Thief about two years ago and once I had arranged to go and see it in the cinema this week with a friend, I debated about rereading it – would I enjoy the film more if I only remembered the main events? ?Scrap that, I thought, and I reread it last weekend. It was every bit as good as the first time I read it. Liesel, the 10 year old foster child of Hans and Rosa, is just as determined and as lovable as I remembered. Losing her brother on the long journey and her communist mother to one of the concentration camps, she detests Hitler. Stealing her first book at her brother’s graveside, she becomes a lover of books. That begins the habit of snatching a book whenever she can, her second one at a night where books are burned at a huge bonfire.
There are differences between the film and the book, as you might expect. But there are plenty of similarities – readers and viewers will love Hans for his humour, his selflessness and his kindness, they will respect Rosa for her kindness under her harsh exterior and they will have a deep fondness for the blonde Rudy who is often asking Liesel for a kiss. The Book Thief does attempt to answer those often-asked questions – did ordinary Germans know what was happening to Jews and did they do anything to stop it? Their town had many houses smashed as their Jewish owners were hauled off, Jews were marched through the town on the way to the nearby concentration camp and the Germans had to stand and watch. The reaction they would receive is very evident in the beating received by Hans and the Jew he offered bread to, Hans’ resulting conscription and the chase the soldiers gave Rudy and Liesel after they left bread on the road for the oncoming Jews. However, the film differs, we see one march through the town but Hans’ punishment comes after he objects when a ‘good German’ is hauled away – apparently a different spelling on the man’s birth certificate reveals his Jewish heritage. Why the difference in the film? It means viewers don’t see the real harshness of the regime, the extent of the torture or the starvation. Hans speaks up for a man he knows, not some complete unknown stranger and thereby the film underplays his own feelings about the war. I read somewhere (2 years ago) that the bread giving scene was inspired by a true story – A German townsman did offer bread to a starving Jew as he marched by and was beaten as a result. ?The real horrors of war are not present in the film but there was enough to convince.
The character as Max wasn’t as developed in the film as the book. The film glosses over the time he spent starving in a dark garret in hiding, his desperation to survive, the risk he took travelling to the Hubermann, the risk they took in hiding him. ?Max and Liesel share a love for writing and reading which brings them closer together as does the fact that Hitler was responsible for the deaths of both their families but it goes deeper in the book.
Another significant difference is that in the film, Rudy realises that Liesel and are family are hiding someone. The fact that he promises to keep it a secret and does so, emphasises the bond between the two children and shows too, in his own way, his rebellion against the Nazis. ?He does his best to protest Liesel as she searches frantically for Max amongst the men marching to the concentration camp and it is clear he knows the risks.
The narration by Death was less powerful in the film too whereas in the book, Death’s presence was frequent and vivid, hinting heavily at deaths that were to come – a harbinger of Doom but yet in a strangely gentle way.
Some reviews have been harsh on the film, I was surprised to see the Sunday Times gave it one star only – many critics see it as sugar coating the war, making it too colourful. I enjoyed it though, yes, it could have been grittier but while the book included details of the harshness, Hans’ accordian and Liesel’s stories always shone through too. ?A film will never be as good as a book – and I don’t think we can expect it to. Isn’t it wonderful that the written word and one’s imagination can surpass any film, no matter how wonderful the special effects or the actors. Geoffery Rush as Hans, Emily Watson as Rosa and Sophie as Liesel were superb.
I also want to read The Undertaking by Audrey McGee – it’s on my ‘to buy’ list.