Many great books have been completely botched by Hollywood (I’m looking at you, “Breakfast of Champions”).
More frequent, though, are the great books that simply aren’t done full justice by their movie versions, adaptations such as the “The Book Thief.”
The film version of Markus Zusak’s wonderful international best-seller touches on most of the main points of the novel — but only touches, rarely getting below the surface and displaying the heart and complexity of the written word.
Directed by Brian Percival (“Downton Abbey”) — and narrated, as the book is, by a reasonably amiable Death — “The Book Thief” gives a glimpse at small town life in Nazi Germany, through the eyes of a young girl named Liesel.
Liesel (“Monsieur Lazhar’s” Sophie Nelisse) is given up by her communist mother and placed with a childless older couple, playful Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and surly Rosa (Emily Watson).
Mocked by school bullies because she cannot read, Liesel embraces literacy, acquiring books in any way she can — borrowing, stealing or rescuing them from book burnings. She also makes friends with the boy next door, helps care for a young Jew who takes refuge in the basement and takes shelter from Allied bombing raids.
Nelisse is adorable as Liesel and gives a solid performance, though she’s overshadowed by the excellent work of her adoptive parents. Rush is thoroughly charming as the doting Hans, while Watson is deliciously ornery, with a twinge of hidden warmth.
“The Book Thief” zooms through many of the key moments of World War II-era Germany, but it captures little of the heart from the novel.
The book was magical where the movie drags considerably, and Liesel herself doesn’t seem as extraordinary as she should be — special enough to earn the attention of Death himself.
Fans of the book will certainly recognize “The Book Thief,” but they probably won’t love it.
Rental Recommendation: Who knows what would have happened if Tom Cruise had successfully assassinated Hitler in “Valkyrie.” Grade: B.
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"The Book Thief"
Starring: Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Sophie Nelisse
Rated: PG-13 (for some violence and intense depiction of thematic material)
Running time: 131 minutes