Review of the Book Thief Movie

TheBookThiefThis is a children’s novel that talks about skies the colour of Jews. It deals with the horrors of war and the attendant waste of life, and how the human spirit endures through art and kindness. While not whoring out gore (I’m looking at you, Tarantino), it remains a stark, sad book much in the style of Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. It is a book in which Death tries to convince himself that humans are not entirely evil, not entirely worthless.

Why, then, did we get a movie that not only sanitises the Holocaust, but completely fails to elicit any authentic feeling, despite being taken from such superb source material?

The movie adaptation of The Book Thief is not outright awful. It passes the time, true, and as far as production values go, it is a gorgeous movie to look at. Geoffrey Rush is, as always, wonderful, especially as Hans, the affable father. Emily Watson is superb as the rumbling, thunderous Mamma Rosa. But the narrative voice (and the novel’s focaliser) of Death might have been better delivered by Winnie the Pooh. The voice lacked the ancient gravity such a role requires, and the narrative was disjointed and absent when it was most needed. Why not have Alan Rickman voice Death? It was a superb narrative structure for the book, but it worked only because of the snippets in the book. The movie could have done without it.

Never mind the uneven accents, the failure to draw the various threads together, or even the drippy sentimentalism when the book spares none – this movie was so safe. None of the performances were challenging (the great love between Rudy and Liesel never made it off the pages), the Nazis were mildly annoyed landlords and everything is wrapped up in a few fuzzy montages at the end. I haven’t seen such lazy filmmaking since Vanilla Ice’s first music video. How can a movie about Nazis, war, and the most horrific suffering be so very neat and tidy?

This is blatant Oscar bait without being Oscar-worthy. It takes superb source material, one of the most important books written for children in the last ten years, and turns it into a white bread cucumber sandwich with the crusts cut off. It is technicolor sentimentalism of the worst order, and has no place imitating a book of far superior depth and ambition.

In the age of superb book to movie adaptations (Catching Fire, The Shawshank Redemption, The Wolf of Wall Street, Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (not the American version) Harry Potter – The Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows etc), I refuse to believe that an adaptation has to be inferior. My favourite book of all time was adapted into my favourite movie of all time (which is Fight Club, as everyone knows) – the right director and the right scriptwriter can do wonders with books. To turn in such underachieving, dull work is an affront not only to the lovers of the book, but to moviegoers in general.

PS: There’s a terrible placement for Apple in the movie. It made me throw up in my mouth, a little.

the-book-thief

Review of “Two Brothers” by Ben Elton

two-brothers-by-ben-eltonTwo Brothers by Ben Elton

I don’t usually dip into historical fiction, as the writers often hide poor character-building behind supposed historical accuracy instead. Often the books are unreadable due to their saturation of research and lack of coherent plot or technical ability. But Two Brothers is not ruined by either of these things: instead it manages to capture madness rather than shoving it in the face of the reader.

Undoubtedly, any story with Nazis in it treads a fine line between being comically grotesque or insultingly dramatic. While the Nazi regime was undoubtedly hideous, boundless in depravity and as insane as it was ruthless, it is still possible for an author to trip over this into ridiculous territory. Every sane person knows the Nazis were evil. But it takes a talented author to shade in the madness at all of its levels rather than creating a caricature that strips it of its terror. And, too often, books rely on ‘here’s a Nazi thing, so terrible so terrible’ without taking the time to put the horror in context and give it the appropriate death.

Two Brothers follows the story of a family from Berlin 1920 right through to 2006 (but without being one of those tedious ‘the story of three generations, family, love, wark wark’ efforts). When Frieda gives birth to twins and one dies, she immediately adopts another son whose mother dies in childbirth. That the child is German is unimportant to this Jewish mother, and the first quarter of the book is filled with the loveliest of stories of the boys Otto and Paulus, as well as the charming father Wolfgang and beautiful, kind mother Frieda. One becomes grateful for this time setting up the characters and their personalities, because by the end of it I truly cared for this family, ruined by the Nazis. (This isn’t really a spoiler – it is a book about a Jewish family in Nazi Berlin, after all.)

I enjoyed this book particularly because it combined outstanding research with several levels of human pain – from petty teenage fighting to full-scale war, from unrequited love to suicide to being rounded up and taken away. The insanity of the regime, often forgotten amongst the industrial scale of its cruelty, is looked at in the Nazi schooling, the petty laws (so similar to Apartheid) and in two key events in German history: The Night of the Long Knives and The Night of Broken Glass.

There are thousands of books about the Nazis, and about the lives they ruined. I have read a few, key of them being Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels, Maus by Art Spiegelman and Night by Elie Wiesel. The good ones are the ones that balance horror with hope, which is hard to do with such heart-rending material. This book has stayed with me since I finished it, which doesn’t happen nearly as often as it should. I felt such anger towards the character of Dagmar, who is selfish and beautiful and doesn’t deserve the love of the wonderful Stengel twins. Poor Silke, who is kind and loyal and never gets rewarded for it. Frieda, the brave Jewish doctor who was filled with kindness and strength until the very end, and who I will remember through many books, and her musical, ruined husband Wolfgang, who goes through more than any one should have to endure. Through them, and those they meet, the true horror of the Nazi regime is delivered right into the reader’s heart. In the sixty-odd years since the Holocaust, that entire terrible time has become so caricatured, appropriated and simplified that sometimes we need a book that explains the extent of Nazi crime, the slow, fine grinding of Jewish lives into something approximating oblivion and the people caught up in it.

Read this because it is a wonderfully detailed, wide-ranging story of a family you will come to adore within an exquisitely, carefully detailed setting. It does not trivialise violence by putting it at the very front and centre, but keeps it constantly  menacingly in the background. I would give this to my children one day as part of their reading, to help them understand the nature of the Nazi regime, in all of its howling, murderous insanity.

Want to read what others think? Head on here:

The Independent.ie

Jenny Colgan at the Guardian.co.uk

Elena Seymenliyska for The Telegraph

Liked this? Try these:

Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels

Maus by Art Spiegelman

Night by Elie Wiesel

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank

Surviving the Angel of Death – Eva Mozes Kor and Lisa Rojany Buccieri

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

Sophie’s Choice by William Styron

Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis

If This is a Man by Primo Levi

The Bloomsbury Whitewash and other book cover issues

In a parallel argument to the ‘No Gays Please’ attitude to most YA texts, this week the Guardian discussed the whitewashing of book covers in order to prevent the cover harming the book sales.

But Larbalestier believes the issues of “whitewashing” of covers, ghettoising of books by people of colour, and low expectations for these books are industry-wide. In 2004, Ursula Le Guin asked why “even when [my characters] aren’t white in the text, they are white on the cover … I have fought many cover departments on this issue, and mostly lost. But please consider that ‘what sells’ or ‘doesn’t sell’ can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If black kids, Hispanics, Indians both Eastern and Western, don’t buy fantasy – which they mostly don’t – could it be because they never see themselves on the cover?”

– The Guardian.co.uk

Book covers can easily make or break a book’s sales. In South Africa, for example, putting Christmas themes of snowy trees, mistletoe and Santa will instantly kill that book’s chances here. Likewise, photo-realistic covers like these tend to do very well:

But covers like these usually flounder:

The reason people judge books by their covers is that they only have so much time to read and so much money to spend. It is quite sensible when you think about it. And a book’s jacket has to help it stand out amongst thousands of others, especially in the crime and romance sections. Jacket treatment is so important and yet the author has almost no say in it. Only mega-authors get a say in their book jackets, or re-treatments of their jackets for different countries. We usually get the UK jackets, which is more than a small mercy considering American jackets for books.

With that in mind, it comes as no surprise that Bloomsbury might be whitewashing their jackets, but that doesn’t excuse it. It is offensive to suggest that black people don’t buy enough books to be represented, and that white people won’t buy a book because it has a black person on it. Looking through my extensive collection of book jackets while creating this post, I realised how many have white people on them, especially ‘literary’ titles. But then again, its just white people writing about white people, and having a black character on the front cover where there isn’t one in the book is just tokenism. It is worth noting that this isn’t the entire industry doing the same thing; look at these titles:

So in this case, while I don’t doubt Bloomsbury was in the wrong, I don’t believe they’re the only ones to whitewash a cover. They should get credit for acting quickly when shown that their decision was misinformed. However, I don’t think its fair to see it as indicative of an entire industry. I do think there’s definitely room for more representative covers, especially in YA and fantasy titles. (Unless its Game of Thrones, in which case everyone is lily-white or an Oriental savage. Dull.) But at least there seems to be some representation. So, support authors who write characters who aren’t just white and tormented, because as readers we vote with our money and that’s ultimately what the publishers seek.

For further information and advice on book covers, head on over to “8 Mistakes That Will Absolutely Kill Your Book” at Huffington Post