Film Adaptations of Young Adult Literature: The Book Thief

by Markus Zusak

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2039

The Book

Author: Markus Zusak (b. 1975)

First published: 2005

The Film

Director: Brian Percival (b. 1962)

Screenplay by: Michael Petroni

Starring: Roger Allam, Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Nico Liersch, Ben Schnetzer


The Book Thief is both a coming-of-age story and a story of the Holocaust. Coming-of-age novels have long been a staple of young adult literature. The Book Thief adds an intelligent and caring female protagonist in the form of Liesel Meminger to this genre. The Book Thief is also one of the newest additions to the genre of Holocaust literature. This type of literature is not new to young adults, but it is only recently gaining in popularity because the subject matter had been previously perceived as very dark for a young adult audience.

One of the first Holocaust novels with an intended audience of teens was Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, published in 1989. Until that point, The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, published in 1947, had a Jewish teenage girl recounting her life while hiding from the Nazis during World War II. Night by Elie Wiesel, published in Yiddish in 1955 and translated into French three years later, was told from the point of view of an older Wiesel and his earlier life under Nazi rule. Any of these books could be pointed to as having teenage protagonists, but among them only Number the Stars was clearly intended for a young adult audience.

Themes of personal responsibility and identity figure prominently in Holocaust literature. A close look at both those who perpetuated the acts and those who stood silently by is also an inherent theme in this genre. Some of the literature includes accounts of those who tried to help the Jews, along with accounts of Jews who escaped. The tangled process of being divested of “German-ness” and thrust into “Jewish-ness” for the Jews of the Holocaust period is another recurring theme.

The Book Thief, published in 2005, combines several themes into one work. The theme of survivor guilt is explored through Max Vandenburg, the Jewish man who hides with the Hubermanns and feels guilty that he took the one chance to escape and left his mother behind. The guilt is compounded by his realization that he would do it again if given the opportunity. The theme of trust is explored through the experience of Liesel, the young Christian girl who joins the Hubermanns after her mother gives custody of her children to them as she hurries to escape the consequences of her political beliefs. Over the course of the novel, Liesel loses whatever innocence she still possesses when she comes to realize that it is the Nazis who are after her mother and who are responsible for her mother's absence from her life. The question of culpability in the face of wrongdoing is exemplified by Hans Hubermann, who, because of his act of kindness to Max, is forced to walk to his death at the Dachau concentration camp. Hans regrets his action, but not because it was the wrong thing to do. Rather, he regrets it because it will likely cause the downfall of his family.

In Holocaust literature, survival is the overriding consideration that drives everything else. That fact leaves the characters involved with agonizing decisions that do not lend themselves to many, if any, positive outcomes. This reality is expressed beautifully in both the film and novel versions of The Book Thief.

Film Analysis

Both the film and the novel versions of The Book Thief have Death as the narrator. In the book and the film, his is the first voice we hear. The novel begins with a prologue in which Death tells us that we are all going to die. He then describes the colors he sees as he goes about his work. In the film, there is only a brief sort of prologue as Death narrows in on the train where the first scene will take place. During this moment of moving through the sky and down to the train, Death introduces himself in the film as he does in the novel. In the film he tells us that once in a great while a living human catches his attention. He tells us that Liesel Meminger catches his attention, and that he cares.

The first scene in the novel and the first scene in the film centers on the death of Liesel's younger brother, Werner. In the film, Death walks us through the rail car and we see Liesel's eyes open wide as she realizes he has died. In the novel, Death gives the reader a look at Liesel's thoughts before and during her realization, as well as the actions of Liesel's mother.

Perspective is one of the most powerful filmic tools used throughout The Book Thief, with the camera angle regularly giving us Death's perspective on events as they unfold. From the first moments that we soar above the clouds, then drop down to follow the train, and finally walk through the car with Death, the viewer is aware that Death will lead the way, explaining as he goes.

The high angle shot is used throughout the film. It serves to keep Death in the viewer's consciousness even when Death is silent. It also makes it so that the viewer is never sure when Death is actively watching and when the action is taking place outside of Death's purview. When Liesel is found alive beneath the rubble of Himmel Street, for instance, the shot switches from the high angle at her discovery to a straight-on shot as the viewer experiences her disorientation and grief.

The high angle shot is also used when Liesel is fighting with one of her schoolmates who taunts her within a ring of taunting children after they learn that she cannot read. It is the switch from a conventional shot of Liesel within the ring to a high angle shot of Liesel fighting that reminds the viewer that Death has taken an interest in Liesel and will be observing her at times.

The panning shot is also used to good effect in this film, especially when Liesel is in the classroom. The sense that she is one of many students, as well as her intense discomfort at being summoned to the front of the room, are well portrayed through the use of this technique. The mood of the film is also true to that of the novel. Death sees the world as a snow globe. He doesn't focus on the horror of what he watches even as he makes reference to being aware of the horror. To him, humans are confusing and they don't make sense. He can't reconcile the ways in which they can be at both heroic and despicable. The viewer sees the action in the film through Death's eyes, and when it all seems a bit too neat, a bit too white, it is clear these are not human eyes.

The film follows the novel in the most important ways. It tells the tale of Liesel, her friendship with Rudy Steiner, the love she feels for Hans Hubermann, and the way his spirit lights the room for her. It also reveals Rosa Hubermann to be warmer than the novel does, although she is not a totally cold person in the novel. Liesel's love of Werner and her desperate attempt to hold on to him by holding onto the book that dropped at the grave is also clear in the film. Her love of books and words is marvelously captured in the scene when the mayor's wife takes her into the library and Liesel is surrounded by more books than she has ever seen. As she runs her fingers across the spines of the books, her excitement is portrayed fully in the film.

One major difference between the novel and the film is that the film portrays the relationship between Max and Liesel as a brother and sister relationship. In the novel it is less clear, leaving the reader to wonder how exactly Liesel feels about Max. He shares far more of himself in the novel, too, even leaving a book with his thoughts and drawings behind for her. When she sees him in the street on the way to Dachau—a scene that is not in the movie—she recites what he has written as a way to affirm to him that he does still matter as a human being.

Another difference between the novel and the film is that in the novel, Rudy does not learn of Max's existence until after the danger is past. In the film, he guesses early on that something is going on and Liesel is forced to trust him, bringing them closer in the film and changing their relationship slightly from what it is in the novel. Rudy's personality, however, is the same in both the novel and the film; he is a churlish and charming boy with an eye for Liesel and the wish above all else for a kiss. He will do anything for her, be it helping her through the window to steal a book or jumping into a frigid river to retrieve a book that is being swept along. He will never understand how it is that she can enter a house with a full pantry and emerge with nothing more than a book, but his loyalty to her is staunch from the moment he lays eyes on her.


The critics generally felt that the film version of The Book Thief was a bit too safe in the way it handled the setting and characterization of Nazi Germany. However, with a PG-13 rating, it was not possible to portray much of the horrible truth of the time. The scene of the prisoners walking to their deaths at Dachau, as well as the moment when Hans Hubermann stands up for his Jewish neighbor only to be left in a panic about what it will mean to his family, is well done and effective. It vividly expresses the danger everyday people found themselves in, whether or not they considered themselves political or involved.

Considered an adult novel when first published in Australia, The Book Thief quickly gained a young adult audience in the United States. It received a 2006 Printz Honor, which is awarded annually by the American Library Association for the best book for teenagers. Reviews for the book were far more positive than those for the film.

Markus Zusak, author of The Book Thief, was not involved in writing the screenplay. In interviews, he has said that he considers the novel and the movie two different works. The novel included far more than could be incorporated into the movie. He expressed his view that each needed to be appreciated for its own merit.

About the suitability of The Book Thief for a young adult audience, John Green writes in his review for the New York Times that “it's the kind of book that can be life-changing, because without ever denying the essential amorality and randomness of the natural order, The Book Thief offers us a believable, hard-won hope. … The hope we see in Liesel is unassailable, the kind you can hang onto in the midst of poverty and war and violence.”

Further Reading

  • Harvey, Dennis. “Film Review: ‘The Book Thief.’” Variety. Variety Media, 4 Oct 2013. Web. 10 May 2015. <>.
  • Kaplan, Jeffrey S. “The Changing Face of Young Adult Literature.” Teaching Young Adult Literature Today: Insights, Considerations, and Perspectives for the Classroom Teacher. Ed. Judith A. Hayn and Jeffrey S. Kaplan. Lanham: Rowman, 2012. 19–40. Print.
  • Pearce, Sharyn, Vivienne Muller, and Lesley Hawkes. Popular Appeal: Books and Films in Contemporary Youth Culture. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2013. Print.


  • “‘Book Thief’ Hits Two Million in US Sales.” Publishers Weekly. PWxyz, 15 Dec. 2011. Web. 10 May 2015. <>.
  • Green, John. “Fighting for Their Lives.” New York Times. New York Times, 14 May, 2006. Web. 10 May 2015. <>.
  • Vineyard, Jennifer. “Geoffrey Rush on The Book Thief, Magic Tricks, and Nazi Movies.” Vulture. New York Media, 5 Nov. 2013. Web. 10 May 2015. <>.

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