From Karen Rosenfelt, producer of blockbuster young adult movies such as the Twilight saga, Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, Alvin and the Chipmunks and The Devil Wears Prada bring another potential hit among the young and the young at heart in the upcoming endearing movie The Book Thief, starring Sophie Nelisse with acclaimed award-winning actors Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson.
Based on the beloved bestselling novel, The Book Thief tells the inspiring story of a spirited and courageous young girl named Liesel, who transforms the lives of everyone around her when she is sent to live with a foster family in World War II Germany. For Liesel, the power of words and of imagination becomes a means of escape – and even joy – from the tumultuous events enveloping her and everyone she knows and loves. She is The Book Thief’s heart and soul. Indeed, it is heart and soul – as well as triumph and perseverance—that drive the film, which is rich in themes and characters that will resonate for every generation. A moving and poignant portrait of the resiliency of the human spirit, this life-affirming tale contrasts innocence (as embodied by Liesel) with the pervasive tyranny that marked the times and her homeland.
It’s the culmination of a journey that began in a coffee shop, with producer Karen Rosenfelt. Having shepherded the blockbusting Twilight and Percy Jackson franchises to the big screen, her interest in The Book Thief was piqued by an article she’d read in the Wall Street Journal. “It sounded immediately interesting,” says Rosenfelt.
She sought out the book, and charged through it in a single weekend. Within weeks, she had brought the book to Fox and the project had been optioned. “It was then a seven year journey to get to where we are today,” she reflects. “We wanted to be very careful because it was such a special book. We only had one writer and one director on board during the entire process.”
Finding the right director to do justice to the material was crucial. Brian Percival’s work will be familiar to any of the millions of viewers worldwide hooked on the period television drama Downton Abbey. Percival says he was attracted to The Book Thief because it didn’t reflect every other film about this period in history. “We didn’t want to set out to make another Holocaust story,” he insists. “This is about a young girl growing up and it’s about our human experience. One of the most heartwarming things I felt while reading it was this overwhelming sense of the human spirit and just what that can overcome.”
It also, he suggests, provides a new perspective on death. “Because death is portrayed in a rye, slightly humorous way, and it’s not the terrifying vision of almost-hell that we’re sometimes given, a lot of people have approached Markus after reading the book to say, ‘I’m no longer quite so scared of Death as I was before.’”
With the film focusing ever more centrally on the titular Book Thief, it was essential that the filmmakers found the right young actress to play Liesel. In the end, the suggestion came from the man that had created the character in the first place, Markus Zusak. “I’d seen Sophie Nélisse in the film Monsieur Lazhar,” he remembers, “and I remember saying to my wife, ‘Hey, that’s Liesel.’ You look at Sophie and you can’t imagine anyone else playing the character.” But with the highly experienced actors Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson on set, playing Hans and Rosa Hubermann, Nélisse has the benefit of a master class in performance to fall back on. They were the filmmakers’ first choices, and both admit they were swept up in Zusak’s narrative.
Says Rush, “Markus Zusak, who’s a Sydney boy, based it on the stories that he was told when he was in his adolescence by his grandparents. I had never heard of it, and I’m sort of surprised, because I subsequently learned from my 17-year-old daughter that all her friends had said, ‘Oh, is your dad going to be in The Book Thief? That book changed my life.’ It’s one of those phenomena.”
“I’m so thrilled to be doing this,” says Watson. “When I read the script I thought it was one of the best I’d read in years, and I really thought this was a character to get my teeth into. There wasn’t really much debate in my head.”
It was this moment that grabbed Watson. “You start by perceiving the story from a child’s point of view, and Rosa is the wicked stepmother. She’s an archetype. But then there’s a really interesting moment where it tells the story of the war from the point of view of very, very ordinary German people who are not buying the Nazi ideology, even though they’re caught up in it. For Rosa, it’s not because she’s particularly radical, she’s just getting on with her life when this moral choice lands on her doorstep. She has a split second to make a decision about which way to go.”
Rush recognized immediately that the story of The Book Thief is an uplifting one. “It shouldn’t be all dour and dark,” he insists. “From Liesel’s point of view, it’s like she’s entered a Grimm’s fairytale. She’s going into the dark forest of young adulthood and she meets a nice woodcutter, and a rather mean stepmother. And then, the more the film goes on, hopefully we’re rounding out those characters so that they have bigger dimensions.”
But for all the artists involved in putting The Book Thief together, the story remains rested on the shoulders of one little girl, who goes for another take on the Babelsberg back-lot. As Percival calls “cut”, Rush reflects on just how much talent he sees in Nélisse. “She’s sparky off-camera, but on-camera she looks almost as if she’s this cool existential philosopher, taking life as it comes. They’re very tiny little threads she plays with, but she has so much subtle, beautiful, engaging stuff going on in her mind. “The camera just loves her.”
The Book Thief opens February 19 in theaters nationwide from 20th Century Fox to be distributed by Warner Bros.