The Book Thief: The Problem with Choosing the Wrong Narrator (Review)
by Brad Windhauser
No, I haven’t read The Book Thief, but when I saw previews for film version of The Book Thief with a friend, she wanted to go—how bad could anything starring Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson be?
The film’s good, though the script is mostly predicable—what new angle on the atrocities of living under Nazi rule can one expect? The story follows a recently orphaned girl (her mother could not afford her or her brother) as she adjusts to living with her new parents in Nazi-controlled Germany. As the Nazi grip of the country tightens, what is permissible shrinks. Because she learns to read with her new father, she develops a thirst for books (most of which are banned). She shares this love with a Jewish man who is kept hidden in their basement.
There’s a bit more to the plot but you get the idea. The script offers all the tension and tug on the heart strings you can imagine with this type of story set-up. This makes for an enjoyable story.
I had one glaring issue with the script, however, and that was its selection and use of a narrator, the one whose voice-over opens and closes the film with a nice tidy chunk of summary (surfacing one other time mid-story): Death.
Yes, Death narrates the film, and as our narrator, he introduces the “theme”—in case you couldn’t deduce it on your own—forces you to “understand” a key scene 2/3 of the way through the story, and then fast-forwards through multiple decades in order to clarify the film’s point.
I have no idea how or if this is handled in the book, and I suspect it might work in prose. In a script, it’s all wrong.
First, its use announces the point of view throughout the film. By introducing the story in such a heavy-handed way, the audience is being talked down to—there is nothing in this film that the power of the image and use of scene could not convey—and thereby insulted. We can figure it out if the script trusted us enough.
Second, because our narrator has been established, we now know who is watching the events unfold. I could not swallow that Death was watching every moment of these characters’ lives. This is too much of a stretch. Sure, Death is likely omnipotent—I get it—by why would he watch THIS girl, THIS family? In an era and setting saturated with death, you’d think the guy would be busy. His presence totally took me out of the story.
In fiction, the narrator choice is one of the most crucial decisions you make in a story. As readers, we accept that we need one for a number of good reasons. In film, this expectation is not present, and that’s why the use of a narrator (through voice-over) can be controversial. The screenwriter’s choice to use Nick as narrator in ways that Fitzgerald does not in The Great Gatsby burdens an all ready troubled film. The different versions of Bladerunner also present two very different feels to the story. The 1982 theatrical release contains the mostly-hated use of the character Richard Deckard’s narration to try and “explain” elements of the plot.
There’s a reason the “final cut” version of the film (released in 2007) has wiped the narration from the film.
Stories use a narrator to guide the reader or (in the case of a script) the audience. Sure, it makes explanation easier; however, the narrator also serves as the person most impacted by the story’s events. The change delivered then is one felt or understood by the narrator—this is why she or he is telling the story, to chronicle a change in character. It works in the Coen Brother’s remake of True Grit, where the script allows Mattie Ross to flash forward and—with the help of maturity—put the events in the bulk of the film and the impact on her life in perspective. She’s the changed one and that’s why SHE’S guiding us.
Choosing Death suggests that out of all the momentous events in The Book Thief that HE’S the one most changed. And his absurd declaration about what the atrocities in the Second World War taught him is ridiculous. Really, Death learned about the horrors of what Man is capable of? This is also insulting to the audience. Remove him as the narrator and the audience gets it on their own. Why the script uses him—even if he’s used this way in the book—is baffling.
When you adapt a book into a screenplay, you can make changes that suit storytelling on the screen. The screenwriter here should have chosen differently. And if the studio or some other influence is responsible for this script element, they should have reconsidered.