When Book Versus Movie Gets Personal: The Book Thief
It’s been a debate for decades now: whether the book is better than the movie. I’ve been on both sides of the fence at one time or another. I’ve been a purist when it comes to the books. I’ve been a fan of book adaptations. I’ve even gone so far as to write an article on movies that have actually improved on the book. Now, however, I am completely torn.
About a year ago, I was involved in a small book club with a number of girls I had met during post-grad. We had been rooming together for the last two years, and I had just finished my last year with all of them. We decided to keep in touch over the summer. When one of the girls suggested a small book club for the four of us, we all agreed. Each of us would pick two books and we would get together every two weeks to discuss them. This would span over four months, from May to August. One girl picked The Giver, another picked A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. One of my choices was a book that I had found on a routine book shopping trip. I had seen it listed as a must-read novel, and I found that it sounded interesting. That novel was Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.
As the summer continued, we got to reading. We read and met, commenting on our perspectives, almost feeling like the cast of The Jane Austen Book Club. Finally, at the beginning of August, we decided to read The Book Thief. One of my friends bought a copy and commented on the length. The book was the biggest one in the selection, over five hundred pages. “We should have started with this one!” she joked.
We all read it. And when we got together to discuss it, we were quieter than usual. Conversation was stilted. Finally, I admitted to the group that I didn’t know what to say other than the fact that the book had not only made me cry, but had completely moved me. We then realized why the conversation was so stilted: we had all been so overwhelmed by the power of the book that none of us knew quite where to start.
The Book Thief is one of the few books in my life to impact me in such an incredible way. Its unconventional storytelling, the language, the imagery — I have never read another book like it. It is beauty and heartbreak, life and loss.
And so, as is the case with most books, Hollywood has gotten its hands on it and has made it into a movie. Fortunately, I’ve been here before. I’ve gotten caught up with news of the book’s adaptation. With The Hunger Games, it was impossible to avoid. I was overwhelmed with the casting of Peeta and Katniss, pictures finding me everywhere I went. I watched the trailer. I decided to see the movie. I caved. And, like most cases, I am rarely satisfied. The same thing happened with the Harry Potter books. In reading the books, I could visualize the characters, see the setting. The storyteller was the guide but I was seeing what I wanted. Once I saw the cast, heard the filmmakers and crew involved, it became a simple matter of time before I caved and saw the film. If anything, this is a testament to the power of promotion. Before I realize it, I have become invested in a film and seeing it becomes a natural reaction.
That is not the case this time.
I was blindsided by the news that The Book Thief was being made into a film, and even more so surprised that I didn’t know anyone involved. I had somehow managed to keep myself separate from everything involved with the production. I’ve only caught recent glimpses of pictures from the film. But because I haven’t been involved in every step, I don’t feel that connection or natural reaction to watch it.
That’s not to say that I’m without interest. The novel has a very particular narrative, one I would be curious to see played out on the big screen. But I hold the book in too high a place, too sacred a literary position, to see the movie. Changing media formats is an issue of give and take. What you lose in book form you gain in visuals, and vice versa. But not this time. Call me a purist, but this is one movie that I won’t be watching any time soon. If I want to revisit Leisel and her story, I’ll start rereading the book.