In the world of literature and drama, it would appear that there is a never-ending stream of stories relating to the Second World War. It has become a genre in its own right, because it opens up a whole world of opportunity. Even now, over 70 years on, there is a generation of storytellers who believe that they can offer a new take on this most infamous of conflicts.
From novel to documentary; from movie to sitcom, The Book Thief is one of my personal favourites. Written by Markus Zusak in 2006 and adapted into a film in 2013, the story is both heartwarming and heartbreaking, and touches on several issues associated with the war as well as exploring themes such as mortality and loyalty.
The novel is narrated by death itself, a personification of the unforgiving nature of warfare and the sudden loss of loved ones for whom you have taken extreme risks and made great endeavour to keep safe. Death appears to be lurking in the shadows, but is shown to be tragically ruthless as the story plays out in the eyes of the innocent Liesel, the orphan who finds solace in literature.
After the death of her brother, Liesel begins to live with foster parents Hans and Rosa. She shows a willingness to learn and is nurtured by Hans, who teaches her literacy, which helps her to develop a sense of adventure. But at the same time, she has to live with the harsh reality of the Nazi regime, attending an event where books that didn’t conform to Nazi ideology were publicly burned.
It is here where Liesel ‘steals’ her first book, and it is through this that her fascination with stories comes about. Along with her friend Rudy, she proves her strength of bravery by secretly reading books from the library of the town mayor, whose wife inspires her to write own novel.
During her stay with her foster parents, Liesel forms a close relationship with Max, a fugitive Jew who the family take in and hide from patrolling officers in their basement. He eventually has to leave, devastating Liesel, and things are made worse by Hans being forced to conscript to the German armed forces.
Hans soon returns, but the area is then devastated by a bombing raid which only Liesel survives, having slept in the basement. Observing the bodies of her foster parents lying peacefully in the snow, she then watches Rudy pass away too during a highly emotional sequence. After being rescued, she embarks on a journey to become a writer.
The reason why I feel such an attachment to this story is that Zusak creates such lovable and endearing characters. Liesel is charismatic and curious; Hans is paternal and understanding; Rosa is firm but fair; Rudy is an innocent boy, yet acts as a fierce, fierce friend.
And the film adaptation handles these characterisations superbly, helped by a clean sweep of quality acting performances. The close bond that forms between Liesel and Rudy, such as their feelings of the injustices of the world they live in, can’t help but bring a tear to the eye.
Liesel arrives as an outsider, but she ends up having a profound effect on everyone around her, in one case telling a story to ease the tension within an air raid shelter. It is a powerful image that Zusak creates, and it’s recreated beautifully on screen. This particular take on the Second World War is so touching, and would have even the most cold-hearted of individuals experiencing a rollercoaster of emotions. The Book Thief is a modern classic.