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The Book Thief’ fails to capture its source material

From let, Sophie Nélisse, Emily Watson and Geoffrey Rush star in The Book Thief.

Two and a half stars

The Book Thief Sophie Nélisse, Emily Watson, Geoffrey Rush. Directed by Brian Percival. Rated PG-13. Now playing.

The Book Thief feels very much as if it stole a book itself: the best-selling 2005 source novel, written by Australian author Markus Zusak. Like many literary adaptations, this one skims hurriedly over the surface of a sprawling narrative, attempting to make up for the lack of complexity or nuance by serving up grandiose emotional cues. The adventures of Liesel (Sophie Nélisse), a 9-year-old girl who’s deposited with a married couple (Emily Watson and Geoffrey Rush) when her Communist mother flees the Nazis, involve war, death (Death actually narrates the story, in fact), illiteracy, a semi-wicked stepmother (okay, foster mother) and the sheltering of a Jewish refugee (Ben Schnetzer); while a 550-page novel has room to deftly juggle so many harrowing elements, a two-hour movie simply does not.

Director Brian Percival, who’s previously worked mostly in British television, treats each strand of the plot as if it were an item on a checklist, relying heavily on one of John Williams’ most overbearing, saccharine scores to goose the viewer into feeling something. For fans of the book, seeing a condensed dramatization might be a worthwhile supplement to a treasured experience, but anyone coming to the material cold will be left that way.


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