“It’s just a small story really, about, among other things: a girl. Some words. An accordionist. Some fanatical Germans. A Jewish fist fighter. And quite a lot of thievery,” modestly proffers the voice of Death in The Book Thief, Markus Zusak’s bestselling historical epic. Its thematic breadth and focus on mortality notwithstanding, the novel is also an intimate portrayal of one child’s coming of age under harrowing circumstances – and it’s a book about loving books. Given the story’s book-centric plot, translating it to another medium – the screen – is a tall order. Director Brian Percival took on the challenge, developing the film from a screenplay written by Michael Petroni. The film, which Twentieth Century Fox is releasing on November 15, stars Sophie Nélisse, Emily Watson, Geoffrey Rush, and Ben Schnetzer.
While Death plays an omniscient role in the book, speaking in an eloquent and almost gentlemanly tone, the center of the character-focused story is Liesel Meminger (Nélisse), who is reeling from the death of her brother and from being given up by her impoverished mother as she adapts to life in a new home in Molching, Germany, in 1939. She arrives with one treasured object, a copy of The Gravedigger’s Handbook, a book that she confiscates from her brother’s gravesite. With the assistance of her kind and nurturing foster father, Hans Hubermann (played by Rush), Liesel learns to read, developing a voracious need for reading material that even leads her to pluck a smoldering book from a Nazi book burning. When the Hubermanns take in a young Jewish man named Max (played by Schnetzer), Liesel develops a connection with their clandestine resident, while also developing a growing awareness of human suffering, the importance of words, and the brutality of the Nazi regime.
The Book Thief was first published in 2005 in Zusak’s native Australia, and internationally in 2006; it has since been translated into more than 30 languages, has sold eight million copies around the world, and has seen significant crossover readership. The book was originally published for adults in Australia, while the American edition was marketed toward a YA audience. In the U.S., Knopf released a tie-in edition of the book this month, featuring art from the film.
A Work in Translation
Early on, producers Karen Rosenfelt and Ken Blancato were captivated by the book, seeing its cinematic potential. “I couldn’t put it down,” Rosenfelt said in a release. “It was so life-affirming. I was struck by how Markus brought Liesel to life, and by her fortitude, strength, abilities, and hunger to read and understand the power of words.” Michael Petroni (The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader) was hired to craft the screenplay. Already a fan of the novel, Petroni faced the task of condensing its 580 pages into a streamlined story that could be communicated effectively on screen. “The greatest challenge was choosing what to eliminate. It is a virtual treasure trove of wonderfully touching scenes, which is what drew me to the material in the first place,” Petroni said in the release. He also noted how the book is not written in chronological order: “My first job was to unravel it chronologically and restructure scenes to have the most dramatic impact for a movie.”
During an interview with PW, director Brian Percival spoke about his first encounter with Zusak’s story, the search to find an actress to play Liesel, and the task of honoring the book’s integrity on screen. Percival reports first becoming familiar with The Book Thief through Petroni’s screenplay adaptation, which was sent to him in an e-mail. He was immediately entranced: “I read the first page and I said, ‘Oh my lord.’ ” By the time Percival completed Zusak’s novel, he had decided that, “If I don’t do anything else in my life, I’ve got to make this film.” Meeting Zusak led to an in-depth and ongoing dialogue about the novel, its themes, characters, and what a film adaptation of the book would look like. The filmmaker and author also discussed casting choices. While the roles of Hans and his wife, Rosa, had already been discussed among the filmmakers, finding the movie’s Liesel would be a more far-reaching pursuit.
Casting for the part of Liesel took place in Europe, the United States, and in Australia. “We needed somebody who one moment you want to put your arms around and try to protect from the difficult world she’s living in, but at the same time you can expect a kick in the groin for doing it,” Percival said in Fox’s release.
It was Zusak who, after seeing Nélisse’s performance in the 2011 Canadian film Monsieur Lazhar, suggested that the actress might perfectly embody the character of Liesel. The filmmakers, it turned out, had already reached out to her. Also a gymnast with ambitions to compete at the 2016 Olympics, Nelisse wasn’t certain that she would be able to play the role, but an injury – coupled with her growing affection for the story and for Liesel’s character – led her to embark on the project. Zusak remained involved with the filmmaking process, frequently meeting with Percival to discuss his bigger directorial choices. Saying that Zusak was “always in our thoughts” as the filming was underway, Percival emphasized how his role as director was to “faithfully represent his work on screen.... I really didn’t want to let him down.”
Choices and Challenges
One of the most critical choices that Percival would make concerned the role that Death would play in the film. While in the book Death’s voice is ubiquitous, Percival did not want Liesel’s story to be overshadowed by a voice-over narration or the physical presence of a Death character. “I didn’t want to have Death narrating throughout the entire film,” he said, because of concerns that “it would take viewers out of the film and it might have lessened the connection with the characters.” Visually, wide-angle, high camera shots served as a means to “reinforce the idea of a third party watching the story,” allowing Death to be present as a character while also not “taking the audience outside the narrative.” Finding just the right actor to be the voice of Death, speaking only intermittently throughout the film, was a struggle: “We just knew that Death had to be warm, witty, wry, and have the welcoming but knowledgeable nature of someone we would trust and be drawn to,” Percival said in the press release. Eventually, the English actor Roger Allam was cast.
Percival believes that the film, like its source material, will have wide audience appeal. While he’d expected that the strong lead heroine might especially resonate with female moviegoers, he was struck by how, at screenings, young males have also been moved by the story. Percival also consciously kept the film’s violence to a minimum: “It was important to me to reach as many people as possible,” he told PW. The director also expressed how, in his opinion, the film did not need “graphic representation” of violence to have a powerful impact. And while the story of The Book Thief is, literally, dictated by Death, Percival noted that the resounding message is not a dire one. Throughout the filmmaking process, Percival often reflected on the role of death – both as a character and as a future awaiting us all. As he told PW, “I feel that when people finish reading [The Book Thief] and put down the book, they are not quite as scared of death as when they picked it up.”