Percival's quest: 'The Book Thief' adapts best-seller about orphan girl in Nazi Germany who finds solace in reading


At the end of Markus Zusak’s young-adult novel The Book Thief, the story’s narrator, Death, wry, urbane and sporting a transparent cynicism in lieu of a black cloak, leaves his audience with a few parting words. At this point in the story, his readers are likely blotting the tears they’ve let stain the page. And then as is his wont, if not always his desire, Death once again unnerves: “I am haunted by humans,” he says.

Brian Percival, the British director charged with 20th Century Fox’s film adaptation of Zusak’s best-selling tale of Nazi Germany, family, and a light-fingered adoration for words, could well have written Death’s soft cri de coeur. “I tend to be drawn to stories about underdogs,” says Percival. “Human stories and emotional stories.”

An emotional underdog story is an apt subtitle for the tale of Liesel Meminger, The Book Thief’s heroine. We first meet Liesel when Death does, as he comes to collect the soul of her younger brother one very cold and, at least in the popular foreign imagination, very German afternoon. Liesel and Werner are on their way to the small town of Molching, Germany, where a set of foster parents are waiting to look after them. The year is 1939, her brother has just died, her mother, a communist, intends to leave her with strangers, and Liesel is nine years old, frightened and sad. What does she have to anchor her? An object where there aren’t (yet) people to hold. After watching her brother’s impromptu burial by the railroad tracks, Liesel catches sight of a small book. She indulges an impulse to dig. This first of what will amount to many thieveries leaves her hands bloodied from the effort of battling against the snow (her first unfeeling Aryan enemy?) for what we later learn is The Gravedigger’s Handbook. And so begins a hard-won—and always more satisfying for that—love of books.

“I was moved by the story, about this young girl who’s had practically everything in her life against her. But she had the spirit to overcome it all, to make a success of herself,” Percival affirms. There are two components to Liesel’s character that made her both a compelling figure worthy of cinematic reimagining, and a bit of a casting challenge. “She’s very strong and feisty. She’ll lash out if she needs to, she’s got a temper and she’s very, very strong-minded,” Percival says, listing those characteristics that comprise the modern aspirational young woman. But then, “she also has to be very vulnerable at times because the audience has to sympathize with her. I felt they’ve really got to care about Liesel. They’ve got to feel that life has treated her unjustly and they want to protect her from this terrible world.” Liesel is, after all, still a kid, if one called upon to demonstrate “she’s got enough spirit to overcome whatever the world has to throw at her.”

The director looked at “probably about 1,000 girls” in person as well as via audition tapes in his quest for a dynamic lead. His search took him “right across Europe,” through Scandinavia and Germany, over to Australia, and eventually Canada, the actress Sophie Nelisse’s (a dead ringer for My Girl’s Anna Chlumsky) homeland. “There was something about her on [her] self-tape that was quite modern… There was just something about the spirit that she had that outshone everybody else. Made her stand out.” Though Nelisse, who previously impressed as Alice L’Ecuyer in the French-Canadian weeper Monsieur Lazhar, had her native French accent to overcome, “once Sophie began to understand the text,” her cadences adopted a staccato rhythm, her tone hardened, and she became Liesel Meminger.

Percival is no stranger to material that finds its crux in a strong female presence. Internationally, the director is best known for the popular BBC TV series “Downton Abbey.” In 2010 he won an Emmy Award for directing episode seven of the show’s first season, which fans will remember as, among other incidents, the one where Lady Mary ruins her sister Edith’s wedding and their mother suffers a tragically preventable miscarriage. Percival is quick to point out the ensemble nature of “Downton,” in which “you regularly have scenes with 12 or 15 characters. It’s not about one or two characters.” While it’s certainly true of a series with many varied personalities that “every viewer has a character they love,” there’s no denying the strength of, and fan as well as critical response to, the female cast. Michelle Dockery, or Lady Mary, in particular has been nominated for several Emmys and won a SAG Award. It’s unclear whether the wounded outcry that arose after (spoiler!) Lady Mary’s husband perished at the end of season two was the result of popular outrage at the loss of Matthew Crawley himself, or the manifestation of other loyalties—namely, a sense of outrage on behalf of Lady Mary’s personal loss. (What did Percival think of poor Matthew’s untimely demise? “I was actually sort of involved in how it happened,” he laughs. “I knew that was coming right from the start.”)

It was the director’s work on his breakthrough, BAFTA-winning short film “About a Girl” (2001), however, which he credits with landing him his first feature film. “‘About a Girl’ had an influence on me getting The Book Thief because it’s about a feisty character that’s got a spirit.” On a superficial level, “About a Girl” proved Percival “could tell a story about someone that age.”

Written by Percival’s wife, Julie Rutterford, “About a Girl” follows an unnamed teenager as she walks the banks of a canal in Northern England and speaks rapidly about her impoverished family and friends to the camera. Her accent is thick, almost prohibitively so, lending her colloquialisms and those incisive absurdities she declaims with blithe confidence (“If Jesus were alive today, he would be a sing-a”) the burr of a foreign tongue. But the universality of “About a Girl” is easy enough to discern, in its themes of hardship dealt with, lost innocence, and perseverance. We’re introduced to our 13-year-old heroine—of a decidedly tougher stripe even than Nazi-era Liesel—at the beginning of the short as she dances on a hillside and sings Britney Spears’ “Stronger.” We leave her, still singing, after she drops the plastic bag she’s been carrying for the past 10 minutes into the canal. The bag opens, and a small, fully formed fetus floats away.

It is a tough little jab, “About a Girl,” and, in the words of Zusak’s Death, “haunting.” “I must admit I do like those sorts of stories. I like the idea of coming from a hard place and being able to overcome, to come out of it the other side,” Percival reflects.

Among his other directing credits, TV movies The Old Curiosity Shop (2007), The Ruby in the Smoke (2006) and several episodes of the mini-series “North & South” (2004) also follow young, intrepid women and girls. Percival says any recurring themes or similarities in his body of work thus far are the result of “a mixture, really. If you like it and do it well, then you’ll get more of it.”

But what precisely does the director like? Time and again, he places an emphasis on individual stories and characters. He admits there’s no one director or group of directors he’s elected to some personal pantheon, at the foot of which he worships and looks to for guidance. He isn’t a film fanboy trying to emulate someone else, which isn’t to say he isn’t a film fan. Though both Percival’s preference for “independent European cinema” and his own smaller, character-driven oeuvre would seem to indicate distaste for or at least indifference towards larger Hollywood fare, the director isn’t so discriminatory in his “wide tastes.” (He loved Gravity, and his reaction to Life of Pi was a wry “Well, no pressure there, then.”) If he were to direct a big-budget, special effects-laden feature himself, it would have to be rooted in “a good script. If that involves a green screen, or control rigs or whatever, whatever you need to tell a story, that’s what you do.” Like Liesel, Percival likes a story well-told.

The novel The Book Thief is nothing if not that, though Percival says, “When I first got the script, I didn’t even know about the book, I have to confess. I spoke to a few of my friends, and they were like, ‘Wow, that’s my favorite book!’ All of a sudden I realized just how popular it was, but you know I hadn’t heard of it, and there’s a number of people who haven’t.”

Percival took it upon himself to ensure the main story became accessible to a broad viewership, made up of fans as well as non-fans—or, like himself, not-yet fans—of the book. Calling the work “life-affirming,” he says, “I thought I could bring it to a wider audience. But the key to do that, I thought, was not particularly through Markus’ wonderful, wonderful descriptions of colors of skies and things… The key to get people to engage was through the characters.”

Proponents of the book may be surprised at the amount of cinematic potential the director left un-culled. As Percival notes, when characters in the novel die, Death describes the color of the sky at the time of their expiration. The book opens with the lines “First the colors. Then the humans.” Death focuses on the former as a kind of coping mechanism, aesthetic “distractions” from his day job. Many of these descriptions are lyrical if macabre prose accomplishments, but just imagine what “a horizon like setting glue…skies manufactured by people, punctured and leaking, and…soft, coal-colored clouds, beating like black hearts” would, could like look in widescreen?

Then there’s the character of Max, the fugitive Jew Liesel’s foster parents, Rosa and Hans Hubermann, hide in their basement. “Max has a dream where he’s sort of boxing with Hitler, and that was a great scene in the book, but I just couldn’t really imagine how that would work in the film,” Percival confides. He may have hesitated to film a dream sequence because of its inherently surreal nature, its fantastic elements proving difficult to reconcile with his more realistic handling of the material. Percival didn’t attempt to reimagine Zusak’s abstract descriptions of the sky for just such a reason. “It might have felt like I was trying too hard…the skies and the color might take away from the natural approach I was after, and my key to the story was the characters. Because I think if you believe the characters, you engage with the story.” Ultimately, he didn’t want anything to “distract from the sense of truth I was trying to convey.”

Compressing 550 pages’ worth of story into two hours of film is no mean feat, as many a director could tell you (and use as their justification for running times that significantly overstep the 90- to 120-minute norm). Often, stylistic flourishes aren’t the only casualties. The character of Liesel Meminger also underwent a small makeover as Percival and writer Michael Petroni worked to adapt her tale. Liesel does and says several unbecoming things in the novel as she grows up over the span of the book’s four years and faces horrors that continue to challenge our understanding. The Liesel of the movie displays a steadier character earlier on—she wouldn’t berate the mayor’s vulnerable wife, for instance, nor pull an innocent bystander into a deluge of blows intended for another, as she does in the book. The film Liesel has been distilled, perhaps necessarily so, in order to get to the essence or what Percival calls “the truth” of her character: her “spirit,” intelligence, and the compassion that triggers the remorse never too far removed from her poor behavior in the novel.

Percival was able to tease this essence from Nelisse, as well as the “truth” of their characters from the rest of his cast, including Emily Watson as Rosa Hubermann and the wonderful Geoffrey Rush as Hans, by means of a personal warmth clearly evident in the film. “I like to sort of talk to people quietly. I like to work together and try to create a good atmosphere where people feel like they can contribute, and steer the film that way,” Percival says of his directing style. The atmosphere on set tended “to be quite natural, quite relaxed,” from Rush and Nelisse “clowning around” before “remarkably” stepping into character, to the collaborations the director worked to foster. “Everybody had a part to play. It was enjoyable.”

Percival describes himself as “not a sort of shouty director,” a humble understatement. In our interview, he spoke softly and used many qualifiers to soften his opinions, “sort of” and “I suppose” blunting any stroke that could be mistaken for a thrust. Often, his sentences trail off before dissolving into whispers. It’s easy to miss many of his addendums. The impulse is to soften your own voice to match his.

Whatever the public’s response, there doesn’t seem to be much that could dull the pleasure Percival derived from working on The Book Thief. “This has been such a wonderful experience. I just want to enjoy this moment while it’s happening,” he says, which is part of the reason why he has yet to firmly commit to a next project. “Obviously, I see a lot of things that are just completely not right for me. That’s not to say that they’re bad scripts in any way, they just don’t sort of press the right buttons with me.” Those scripts most likely lack the human resonance that Percival, much like his mythic Arthurian namesake, is forever questing after. With all the deviations from the novel large and small, there is one line Percival kept very much intact: the last one. “Humans haunt me,” Death the narrator informs the audience at the end of The Book Thief movie, a fraught impression of humanity that, if nothing else, implies a remarkable capacity for empathy.