It seems that I’m making a bit of a habit of not choosing between the book and the film*. But I can’t help it if ‘they’ keep making film versions of my favourite books.
I cried for about two hours as I watched The Book Thief. So obviously, it was very, very good. They got the characters right. The actors didn’t overplay the German accents. The setting was largely how I imagined it. Only two things annoyed me, and they were so minor that I’m obviously being picky (but I bet you still want to know what they were**).
The reason I’m allowing a total cop-out on a critique of the film is simply because I went to a screening that included question-and-answer time with author Markus Zusak. And I think it’s far more interesting to report on his thoughts about the book and the movie than mine.
Of the Book
Zusak began by stating that he was completely unprepared for the success of the book. He honestly thought that no one would read it *insert audience laughter. Because The New York Times Best Seller list for over 230 weeks and eleventy gazillion copies sold*
When questioned further about why he thought no one would read it, Zusak simply said that he tried to imagine people recommending it to friends –
“It’s set in Nazi Germany, it’s narrated by Death, it’s over 500 pages long and pretty much everyone dies.”
I guess, when you put it like that…
Zusak talked a lot about his inspiration for the book (particularly his own family history) and his writing process –
“People think you have to have a great imagination to be a writer but actually you just have to have a lot of problems.”
The ‘problems’ he was referring to were those on the page. Create a problem, then create a solution. He followed it up with “Don’t let your parents get involved.” That said, Zusak’s parents were obviously an important part of The Book Thief and he spoke fondly of them. I did like the fact that when his dad finished reading the German translation of the book, he said “It’s not so much that it was shit in English, it’s just that it was so much better in German.”
Of the Movie
The Book Thief was published with little fanfare. Soon after, someone offered to buy the movie rights. Zusak and his wife had just bought a couch*** that was probably more than they could afford. So Zusak sold the movie rights. A week or two later, the book went officially bananas.
Yes, he could have sold the movie rights for more but Zusak has no regrets – it was about handing it over to the right people.
Zusak had nothing to do with the movie script and emphasised that he was happy to leave the movie-people to do their thing. While the process of getting The Book Thief from print to the screen was interesting, he likes being an author –
“My set costs nothing. My actors cost nothing. And I’m the director.”
Incredibly, he didn’t see the film until it was finished (I admire his restraint – I would have been poking my nose in at every opportunity). When he finally saw the film he had a moment when he thought “This isn’t even mine…. Which is a good thing.”
When asked if there was anything he would change about the movie he said no, but mentioned that there were two parts of the book that he wished could have been included – Max’s imaginary boxing match with Hitler and the moment when Liesel finds Rudy dead (in the book she says “Wake up Jesse Owens”, but not so in the film).
So What’s Next?
Zusak is working on another book. It’s taking him much longer to write than The Book Thief did. The weight of expectations? Perhaps, but he stressed that doubting his work was a good thing – “Unless it’s hard, don’t trust it.”
To finish, Zusak was asked about his favourite movies. He replied that he was currently enjoying What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and Chariots of Fire.
** At the very end there is an Apple product placement that was appalling in its obviousness. Secondly, I didn’t love the narrator’s voice – at first I thought it was Geoffrey Rush and then I realised that wouldn’t make sense. It wasn’t Rush but regardless, the voice didn’t work as Death for me. Like I said, I’m being picky.
*** A friend of Zusak’s, and fellow author Andy Griffiths, said after the couch/movie rights moment, “Oh well, if no one likes the movie, I hope you liked that fucking couch.” Notably, I have probably contributed to a few couches at Andy Griffiths’s house (he writes for kids – mine love his stuff). Secondly, Zusak has since replaced the couch.