The new “Hunger Games” movie isn’t the only adaptation of a monster young-adult bestseller in theaters at the moment. Buried deep in its box-office shadow is “The Book Thief,” whose source novel by Markus Zusak is enormously popular. The film version is beautifully shot, slow-paced without succumbing to boredom, and features some fine acting, particularly from the absolutely hypnotic Geoffrey Rush. But I couldn’t escape the feeling I had already seen this movie before, because it’s a Frankenstein monster stitched together from both horrifying and heart-warming cliches.
Rush plays a kindly sign painter in a storybook German village who takes in a young orphaned girl named Liesel, who becomes the “book thief” of the title when her adoptive Papa teacher her how to read, and she starts slipping into the local burgermeister’s fabulous library to pilfer reading material. The books aren’t just for her, because her foster parents are also harboring a Jewish refugee in the basement. When he falls deathly ill, Liesel nurses him by reading him stories. She also does that to keep the townspeoples’ spirits up when they’re herded into basement bomb shelters, something that happens with remarkable frequency.
Nazi villainy infects the sweet little town like a cancer. There are quietly horrifying scenes in which Liesel and the other local children are stuffed into Hitler Youth uniforms and made to recite hideous anthems. Of course, there’s a book burning scene. Of course, the Nazis come close to finding the Jewish man hiding in the basement. Of course, Papa’s shrewish wife isn’t as cold-hearted as she appears. Of course, there’s a nasty local bully who fits right into the Third Reich mentality, and threatens to report our young heroes for their suspicious activities…
I hate to come down on “The Book Thief” too hard for rampaging through the superstore of World War II cliches, because there’s a lot to like, including impressive performances from the young cast… but anyone who has seen other movies in this genre will be 10 minutes ahead of this plot every step of the way, until the rather bizarre ending. Speaking of bizarre, for some reason the story is narrated by Death Himself, which certainly casts a shadow over the proceedings, and adds an uneasy dash of the supernatural to the story – perhaps an intentional device to make the plot into a fairy tale, the kind of story Liesel might enjoy reading, if she were not the main character. Worth seeing for fans of the book and/or Geoffrey Rush.