ATLANTA — Markus Zusak was born in Sydney, Australia, in 1975. He wasn’t raised during the Holocaust, nor did he feel the hate of Adolf Hitler, but he was able to put this type of story to the page.
In 1995, the Aussie published the book “The Book Thief,” the story of a 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.
“My mom and dad told me a lot of stories,” Zusak said. “They were really great story tellers. It’s interesting to me because I think if I had grown up in Germany, I wouldn’t have told as many great stories because you’re still surrounded by everything. That’s the great thing about migration, I suppose. You don’t bring a lot with you physically in most cases, but my mom and dad brought their stories with them.”
He heard stories about kids giving bread to Jewish people and other prisoners on their way to concentration camps. There were other tales of children who didn’t want to get into Hitler youth programs and people who didn’t want to hang the Nazi flag.
“I hadn’t seen much of this in a lot of the propaganda reels that they show in documentaries,” Zusak said. “You see the Hitler youth kids all standing there with their arms out. My dad thought that was boring and decided he wasn’t going until threatening letters started showing up in the mail.”
The author thought there was mischief in his parents — that’s where the book came from, imaging them on the pages.
Now eight years later, the book has been made into a full-length movie, which opens today.
Director Brian Percival had never read the novel, but when he picked up the script, he couldn’t put it down.
“I read the script and it was the best script I’d ever read in my life, I thought,” he said. “I immediately went on Amazon to find (the book). All of my friends my age couldn’t believe I hadn’t read it. I ashamedly didn’t know about if before. It left such a mark on me that I knew some way I had to make this film.”
Young actress Sophie Nelisse hadn’t read “The Book Thief” before she read the script either. She wasn’t actually sure she even wanted to audition for the lead role as Liesel.
“I actually didn’t want to audition because I was doing gymnastics … but I didn’t read the script or the book,” the 13-year-old said. “I did the audition for fun, knowing I would never get the part. I got called back to go to L.A. and then I read the script on the plane. I loved it so much that I said, ‘I have to do this movie.’ I was called back a third time to go to Berlin, then I got the part. I was really happy to get the part.”
After three months of shooting in Berlin, it was a wrap. During the entire process, Zusak only came to the set a few times.
“I best sum it up that I was happy to hand it over because it really wrecked me, writing that book — I was empty because I had put everything into it,” he said. “I didn’t want to then do the movie — the thing that killed me to write, let’s chop it up now. So I decided not to do that.”
So Percival did his best to keep the integrity of the story, while formatting it for the big screen.
“It’s a different medium; if you wanted to do 580 pages, it would be a mini-series,” he said, who also directed “Downton Abbey.” “That doesn’t lend itself to that format anyways. It lends itself to two hours in a movie theater. That is the best way to touch people. They should go through the same emotions, but obviously it takes a little longer in the book. The movie is condensed down and it seems like we’re getting that response. My intention isn’t to change anything.”
Whether it’s after reading the book or watching the movie, Zusak wants people to walk away with more than a good story.
“I hope they go beyond the film and beyond the pages and actually imagine things,” the author said. “That’s one of Liesel’s joys is to imagine and the love of stories. If people walk out with the love of stories … that’s what makes us who we are.”