Tag Archives: rotten tomatoes

The Book Thief (2013)

book-thief

 

More and more often, as books are being adapted into movies for the big screen, I find myself reading the books before I see the film, a habit that I had as a child but dropped as I grew older. When I read Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief for the first time, I was completely absorbed; the writing was beautiful, the characters were fantastic, and the combination of setting and plot was heartbreaking. The end of the book destroyed me emotionally like no book has done in quite a long time…needless, to say, I had high hopes for the film adaptation. Could they successfully adapt such an incredible book into an at least decent film? The critical rating over on RottenTomatoes.com had me worried, but, rest assured, I can personally attest to the fact that this film is much better than the critics would have you believe.

The Book Thief begins in 1938 and tells the story of Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse), who, at the start of the film, is on a train to Molching, Germany with her younger brother and mother so that she may be fostered into the care of Hans and Rosa Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson, respectively) after the departure of her father. On the journey to Molching, however, her brother dies, and, at his funeral, Liesel finds a book, stealing it as a reminder of her brother, in spite of her inability to read. When she arrives at the Hubermanns’ house and her mother leaves, Hans begins to teach Liesel how to read, and she befriends a neighbor, Rudy Steiner (Nico Liersch). The Hubermanns lives change forever when a Jew, Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer), arrives on their doorstep, seeking protection based on a promise made by Hans to his deceased father. The rest of the film tells of the growing friendship between Max and Liesel, Liesel’s increasing thirst for reading, and the survival of a poor non-Nazi family living in the middle of Nazi Germany during World War II.

The first thing I should say is that, though this is far from being perfect, it’s a decent adaptation of Zusak’s original book; I literally saw the film on the same day I finished reading the book for the first time, so everything was fresh on my mind, and there weren’t any changes made that really upset me. The film’s greatest strength in translating from the book is its casting. Sophie Nélisse is brilliant as Liesel, bringing to the role the appropriate naivety and innocence to a girl of her age during this time, but she also brings out the fierceness and determination of the character, ensuring that she holds her own against an actor as established as Geoffrey Rush. Speaking of Mr. Rush, he settles into the role of Hans “Papa” Hubermann so effortlessly that you’ll want him to be your Papa from the moment he first speaks. He successfully communicates all the different personalities shown by Hans in the book, from the kind gentleness he shows Liesel when she first arrives, to the determination exuded upon the arrival of Max, and the remorse shown upon revealing what danger he has put his family in by standing up to the Nazis. Emily Watson as Rosa “Mama” Hubermann makes the character as mysteriously multi-faceted as she appears in the book as well, with her outwardly rough, coarse behavior making her rare moments of vulnerability and intimacy all the more poignant and emotional. Though these three are the shining stars in this film, honorable mention goes to Ben Schnetzer as Max and Nico Liersch as Rudy, both of whom give excellent performances too.

The critical consensus at RottenTomatoes states that the film plays it too safe with its Nazi Germany setting, which I actually agree with. I generally do my best to not judge a book-to-film adaptation based on its quality/accuracy in regards to the book, but this particular adaptation, despite being a great film overall, is definitely a bit too watered-down. Many of the darker aspects of the book, such as Rudy and Liesel stealing, Liesel’s relationship to the mayor’s wife, Rudy’s rebellion against the Hitler Youth program, and the Jews being marched through town to the Dachau concentration camp, are either barely touched on or simply skipped over, providing the film with what I would personally consider to be missed opportunities. For example, the Jews are actually marched through town once in the film, but it is never explicitly stated what the purpose or final destination is; yes, it is implied and should not be difficult to figure out given the context, but the scene is so brief and only happens once, so it is difficult to take away any real emotion from the scene as presented in the film. In contrast, though, there is one particular scene that stands out to me as being particularly powerful. Liesel is standing and singing with the choir at her school, and the music sounds lovely in their high, sweet voices. However, captions across the bottom of the screen reveal the anti-Jewish lyrics being sung, and the camera cuts to scenes of Nazis raiding Jewish homes and taking the families away. It’s a sobering scene, with the juxtaposition of the innocence of children and the realities of Nazism.

Another complaint I have about the film is that I worry that some aspects weren’t explained well enough for non-readers to understand, namely the inclusion of Death as Narrator, as he is in the book. The book is told entirely from his perspective, which is why it works so well; I mean, who better to tell a story that takes place in Germany during World War II than Death himself? But it doesn’t work so well in the movie because Death’s narration only interrupts the story two or three times throughout the course of the film, and I mean exactly that – interrupts. If the film had involved him more throughout, it might not have been as awkward, but, unfortunately, that is not the case. Despite the awkwardness, I liked Death’s voice (Roger Allam), a notion that gives me goosebumps – how profound that the voice of Death be pleasing to listen to?

The best translation from book to screen would definitely have to be the final fifteen minutes or so of the film. I won’t reveal any spoilers, but it’s safe to say that you would be wise to bring a box of tissues. The incredibly emotional ending from the book is kept intact in all the ways that matter, bringing the film to a satisfying and poignant close.

I learned at an early age that you can’t walk into a film adaptation of a book you love and expect the same experience – each is its own art form and therefore must be absorbed differently, without comparison to the other. However, you do have to at least consider how good an adaptation it is, which is why I talk so much about how the film compares to the book here. In any case, though it may seem like I didn’t like the film because it wasn’t as good as the book, I really did enjoy this film for what it was. On the whole, it is a pretty good adaptation, albeit a bit watered down one, but when aren’t film adaptations of books watered down in some regard? The important thing here is that the film’s heart is where it needs to be; the characters are genuine, there are many wonderfully touching moments, the characters are cast and portrayed well, and the instrumental score by John Williams is phenomenal…even at the ripe old age of 81, he continues to prove why he’s one of the best in the business. The Book Thief is good, solid filmmaking and has my full recommendation.

-Chad

Rating: 4 (out of 5)

MPAA: PG-13 – for some violence and intense depiction of thematic material

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

In the week preceding the release of Peter Jackson’s first film based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, I avoided reading reviews or checking its Tomatometer over at RottenTomatoes.com, focusing instead on reading the book for the first time (my review here). In the book, we are introduced to a magical world of hobbits and wizards and goblins and dwarves, a world that was captured beautifully on the big screen in Jackson’s film trilogy based on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. To say that Jackson and his team had a lot to live up to is a bit of an understatement. While it isn’t as good a film as we might have hoped, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey still manages to do Tolkien’s original novel justice.

The story is first presented from the point of view of the older Bilbo Baggins, played by Ian Holm, who is in turn writing the story down for Frodo, played by Elijah Wood, on the same day that The Fellowship of the Ring began. Of course, this was just the filmmakers’ subtle nod to the previous films, but it stands mostly independent of its predecessors. The advantage of the film to the book is that tales that were mentioned only in passing, such as Gandalf’s adventures away from the company, can be expanded and intertwined with the journey of Bilbo, Thorin, and the rest of the dwarves. Radagast the Brown, a wizard who was mentioned only once in the book, plays a larger role in the film, fitting in to a subplot that sets up the rise of Sauron for the story told in The Lord of the Rings. Through this subplot, we are re-introduced to Saruman the White – and it seemed to me that the filmmakers were hinting at Saruman’s corruption by Sauron, but that may be me looking too much into it.

Much of this film is definitely exposition and explanation, which could not be avoided in order to properly introduce the audience to the task at hand; even so, the amount of time telling of the past rather than exploring the present is a bit frustrating at times. There are two extensive flashback scenes where we are told the stories of Smaug’s overtaking of Erebor and how Thorin cut off the arm of the pale orc, Azog. This second flashback is significantly different in the book; while Azog is certainly mentioned, he is not alive for the events of The Hobbit. I was curious to know why this would have been changed, but the story arc that it creates for Thorin allows for something that was in the book, the dwarves’ growing respect for Bilbo, to be better explained onscreen, since the film doesn’t have a narrator like the book does telling us what is happening in the characters’ heads. Speaking of the dwarves, it is difficult to keep up with who is who in the film because of our lack of time spent with each character. This isn’t too big of a deal since Thorin is really the most important of them, but it would have been nice to be a bit more familiar with each dwarf.

My biggest complaint about this film is the special effects; they seemed cartoon-y and cheap. Azog, Gollum, the orcs, and the wargs are all heavily affected by this issue, and it literally made me cringe while watching. Perhaps part of the this can be blamed on the heavy use of CGI to create the orcs (versus the relatively CGI-free orcs in The Lord of the Rings), but I saw the film in IMAX 3D at 48fps, so I’m hoping that I can blame the poor special effects quality on the higher frame rate. Aside from the special effects, the higher frame rate didn’t bother me at all…it certainly took some getting used to, but the overall effect was a nice crispness that, while I can understand others’ disdain for it, I felt brought me further into Middle-earth.

While Richard Armitage does a great job of embodying the nobility and perseverance of Thorin Oakenshield and Ian McKellen makes a splendid return as Gandalf the Grey, not enough praise can be heaped on Martin Freeman’s portrayal of Bilbo Baggins. He perfectly captures the wit, the reluctance, and the overall spirit of the hobbit created by Tolkien; there were plenty of moments in the film where all of my smiles and laughter were solely inspired by what he was doing onscreen, whether it was him reacting to dwarves invading his hobbit hole or his negotiating with Gollum or any other number of things.

I walked into the theater for this film knowing that it probably wouldn’t be as good as Peter Jackson’s first venture into Tolkien’s Middle-earth, but I still had high expectations, especially after reading the original book. My expectations weren’t completely met, but I still enjoyed this film a great deal – minus the issues with the special effects. The other parts of the film that I didn’t particularly care for can be attributed to the fact that it’s meant to set up the rest of the story, which will be explored in the following two films. Despite its shortcomings, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is fine storytelling, and I now have no doubt that there is plenty of material to create three quality films – which had been a doubt of mine before. I would personally recommend seeing it in 24fps if you can (3D or not doesn’t matter), but, either way, be prepared for quite an adventure!

***EDIT***

After viewing this film for a second time in 2D at the usual frame rate (24fps), I am happy to announce that my issues with the CGI were (mostly) resolved with the lower frame rate, and I have accordingly raised my original rating from a 3.5 to a 4. Whether you see it in 3D or 2D, IMAX or not, I would personally recommend you view The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and its sequels in the standard (non-HFR) frame rate.

-Chad

Rating: 4 (out of 5)

MPAA: PG-13 – for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images

P.S. – Read my review of this film’s score, composed by Howard Shore, here!