To Adapt a 'Book Thief

Michael Petroni Adapted Markus Zusak's Novel For Film

Thieves of Hearts: Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) and her foster father Hans (Geoffrey Rush) embrace in the film adaptation of ‘The Book Thief.’
Jules Heath/Twentieth Century Fox
Thieves of Hearts: Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) and her foster father Hans (Geoffrey Rush) embrace in the film adaptation of ‘The Book Thief.’

By Gerri Miller

Published November 14, 2013, issue of November 22, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Based on Australian author Markus Zusak’s best-selling 2006 novel of the same name, the movie “The Book Thief” concerns a young German girl who finds solace in purloined literature and befriends the Jewish refugee her family hides in their cellar. The film stars Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson as the foster parents of Liesel (Sophie Nélisse), and Ben Schnetzer as their secret boarder, Max.

Directed by Brian Percival (“Downton Abbey”), the film was adapted by Michael Petroni (“The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader”). Petroni told the Forward that he was drawn to the novel’s “unique treatment of the subject.”

“I thought it had a certain magical quality to it and a certain whimsy that I hadn’t really experienced in a World War II story before,” Petroni said, adding that the theme of the power of literature and Zusak’s use of Death as a narrator took it beyond a typical Holocaust story. “It’s more about the power of words and literacy and people and the strength of the human spirit. That’s definitely the message I would hope people take away from the film.” Petroni was familiar with the novel before he signed on to adapt it, and he was aware of its challenges. “It’s not a small book” at 550 pages, he said, “and it has a rambling quality to it, with all the children’s adventures. But you can’t deliver all that in a 120-page screenplay,” said Petroni, who eliminated a lot of those adventures to concentrate on the essential elements. “I had to figure out what the spine of the story was, and once I had that, it became pretty easy to determine what remained and what had to go.”

Petroni, who is not Jewish, was familiar with Holocaust stories like “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “Schindler’s Ark” (which became the Oscar-winning movie “Schindler’s List”). In “The Book Thief” the themes of mistreatment and persecution stirred very personal, painful memories in him of being badly bullied in high school, and reminded him of an incident that altered his family’s fate.

“My father is Maltese, but he was born in Egypt. After World War II, when the allies left, there was a lot of turmoil there,” Petroni said. “He was out fishing with his father and had drifted past the maritime border, and when they returned to port they were arrested because they were suspected of being Jews trying to escape to Israel. My father was put under house arrest, and three days later evicted from the country,” Petroni said. “I knew how much this affected him. When I would listen to this story as a boy, I had an illogical and intense feeling of helplessness that I was not there to protect my father.”

And, he added, “I have often thought that my whole existence somehow hinged on that fateful day.” His exiled father went to Australia, because that’s where the boat on which he escaped was headed, and there he met and married Petroni’s mother.

Up next for Petroni is a screenplay for “Three Little Words,” a drama about a girl’s travails in the adoption system in America. But he says that thus far in his career, he is proudest of his work on “The Book Thief,” particularly since it met with Zusak’s approval.

“It is the kind of story that can truly make people think differently. I am proud to be a part of that,” Petroni said. “No one escapes death, but it is innate in the human spirit to fight and to hope. Liesel embodies that spirit.”

Gerri Miller is a Los Angeles-based entertainment and lifestyle writer.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • It’s over. The tyranny of the straight-haired, button nosed, tan-skinned girl has ended. Jewesses rejoice!
  • It's really, really, really hard to get kicked out of Hebrew school these days.
  • "If Netanyahu re-opens the settlement floodgates, he will recklessly bolster the argument of Hamas that the only language Israel understands is violence."
  • Would an ultra-Orthodox leader do a better job of running the Met Council?
  • So, who won the war — Israel or Hamas?
  • 300 Holocaust survivors spoke out against Israel. Did they play right into Hitler's hands?
  • Ari Folman's new movie 'The Congress' is a brilliant spectacle, an exhilarating visual extravaganza and a slapdash thought experiment. It's also unlike anything Forward critic Ezra Glinter has ever seen. http://jd.fo/d4unE
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.