As a writer, I’m always thrilled whenever I have the opportunity to chat with authors about their inspiration for writing. Needless to say, I was in awe after meeting “The Book Thief”’s bestselling author, Markus Zusak, during a recent roundtable blogger interview for 20th Century Fox’s latest film, “The Book Thief.” Adapted from Zusak’s cherished novel, this empowering feature directed by Brian Percival (“Downton Abbey”) stars Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush (“Shine”), two-time Oscar-nominee Emily Watson (“Breaking the Waves,” “Hilary and Jackie”), Ben Schnetzer (“Ben’s Plan”), newcomer Nico Liersch (“Kokowääh 2”) and Genie Award-winner Sophie Nélisse (“Monsieur Lazhar”) as the determined tween book stealer, Liesel Meminger. Highly-accomplished author Zusak came to love Young Adult books after reading S.E. Hinton’s “Rumble Fish” and “The Outsiders,” and was motivated to write in the ever-evolving genre.
However, Zusak credits his mother, a maid, and his father, a housepainter, as his true storytelling teachers. “There they were, telling me their stories of growing up,” Zusak recalls. Adding, “And, I realized they weren’t only telling me about their lives. They were teaching me how to write. Talk about you would never imagine that people in those professions would give you a career in literature, but that’s exactly how I grew up.”
Originally published in his native Australia in 2005, and worldwide in 2006, Zusak calls “The Book Thief” an “organic” summation of childhood tales from his parents about their youthful WWII experiences in war-torn Austria and Germany. He combined them with the concept of a “book-stealing” girl set in 1939 Nazi Germany.” Zusak explains, “You start to think of what Hitler did with words. He cultivated a nation without firing a gun. He did it all with words.” In Zusak’s novel, once Hans (Rush) teaches Liesel to read, she develops an unquenchable thirst for reading, and starts stealing books – one at-a-time. Eventually, she empowers the community with her vocabulary by sharing her stories during air raids in the bomb shelters.
Bringing those black-and-white pages to live technicolor called for putting together a magnificent cast, beginning with the role of the strong-willed book stealer, Liesel. I asked director Brian Percival how he chose French-Canadian tween actress Sophie Nélisse over the 1,000 others that auditioned. Percival says, “There was an immediate presence to her.” He explains, “She was very contemporary, and she was speaking in a French-Canadian accent, but there was something there about this soul that was special.”
Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush beams around his co-star Nélisse as if she’s actually his real-life foster daughter née prodigy. He says, “I’d be going, ‘Wow, she just nailed that like you wouldn’t believe.’ And then, she’d go, “Ooh, ooh.” Nélisse responds to Rush like a lifelong friend, as well as acting coach – following his every word. She says, “It was just so fun to work with him, and to see how he gets every detail of the scene. I’d be looking at the scene and go, “Okay, so that’s it.” And then, he’s going to go, “No, no, no. Why is my character doing this?”
Nélisse says while she learned a great deal from Percival, both award-winning actress Emily Watson, and Oscar winner Rush were the biggest influences on Nélisse. Rush, a studied thespian, seamlessly goes from film to theatrical stage productions, playing diverse roles like Lady Bracknell in a 2012 revival of the musical, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”
Filmmaker Percival worked earnestly to capture Zusak’s themes, along with screenwriter Michael Petroni’s (Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader) adaptation. Exposing the complexities of Hitler’s regime across picturesque Bavaria and the bomb-torn streets of Munich, included teaming up with Florian Ballhaus, an accomplished Director of Photography. He’s collaborated with Percival on three previous projects; “Hope Springs,” “Marley & Me,” and “The Devil Wears Prada.” Rounding out Percival’s talented team features multiple Oscar-winning composer John Williams (“Star Wars” films, “Superman”), who scored mesmerizing tracks that contrasts the sometimes dreadful scenes.
Of the polarities between acts, Percival explains, “The film is full of contrast. That was always my intention. But you see the innocence of those children. They’re singing something so proudly that they think is so beautiful. And then, you see – we’re given the brutality of the truth of what actually happened.”
You’ll find suspenseful, riveting, and heartbreaking scenes in “The Book Thief,” a remarkably shot and poignantly-acted feature. I highly recommend this endearing story of a young girl determined to better her world – one book-at-a-time!
Time: 2 hr 11 min
Now showing nationwide.
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