Two very different literary-minded coming-of-age movies unfolding against the backdrop of World War II are opening this week. One of them, Kill Your Darlings, is pretty good. The other one, The Book Thief, is pretty terrible.
Kill Your Darlings takes place in and around New York City's Columbia University, where freshman Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) meets charismatic fellow student Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan). Carr is a bright, seductive blowhard in love with sardonic come-ons spiked with visions of cultural revolution. Naturally, young Ginsberg finds him irresistible. When Carr introduces Ginsberg to fellow reprobates and future Beat Generation icons Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster), plenty of antisocial hijinks, romantic entanglements, and harsh, painful life lessons soon follow. Their story plays like A Separate Peace on bennies and nitrous oxide, with a few formal experiments and avant-garde camera trickery thrown in to sustain the druggy, jagged, cold-water-flat vibe.
The Book Thief, which was adapted from Markus Zusak's bestselling 2006 novel, takes viewers on a more conventional emotional journey. The film follows young Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) as she learns about life, literature, and love from her adoptive parents (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson) and a Jewish refugee (Ben Schnetzer), who ends up hiding in the family cellar. Some other good Germans help her, too, but those wicked Nazis seem to pop up everywhere. Liesel's story plays like a less expansive, airbrushed Forrest Gump presided over not by Tom Hanks but by Death itself. (Yes, no joke, Death narrates part of the movie.)
The off-putting, patchwork quality of The Book Thief film version is evident from the beginning, and it has to do with the dialogue. Even though the film takes place almost entirely in Germany, all of the major characters speak English with a German accent. This is nothing new, though; there are countless examples of Hollywood films set in foreign locales where all the people talk like Iowa weathermen.
But, strangely, not everyone in the film follows this convention. One wicked middle-aged Nazi delivers his grand book-burning speech in German, and the swastika-wearing Hitler Youths-to-be sing their propaganda in die Muttersprache as well. Liesel, her parents, her friend Rudy (Nico Liersch), and others drop unds and dummkopfs into their everyday speech, but the precious words that line the cellar walls and help Liesel learn how to read are all in English.
This may seem like a minor point. But in a movie that's all about the redemptive power of reading, writing, and storytelling, why isn't it clear which language is the language of that redemption? Why switch from one language to another at any point, much less at key points early and late? Why not shoot the whole thing in English? (Or German?) One plausible theory is that the filmmakers are trying to convince moviegoers that German is the best language of all when it comes to oppressing and frightening citizens. But English is a fine language for fear-mongering and intimidation, too.
This puzzling, corner-cutting decision would not loom so large if the rest of the film weren't rushed and thoughtless as well. I haven't read Zusak's book, but the film seems to pick up and drop ideas that must have been given more space in print. From Rudy's Jesse Owens fixation to Death's weary lamentations about working for the worst people in history, The Book Thief skims too many surfaces when it should stop now and then for a longer, deeper look. Instead of insight, we're treated to light comedy that's as uncomfortable as Roberto Benigni's mugging in Life Is Beautiful.
I'll say this for The Book Thief, though: After seeing its timid, unoriginal depiction of the Nazi era, I have newfound respect and admiration for Quentin Tarantino's loony, vengeance-fueled demolition of all things Third Reich in Inglourious Basterds.
Amazingly, Kill Your Darlings might have more provocative things to say about war than The Book Thief. The scene when Ginsberg's smug literature professor dismisses his rebellious pupil by reminding him that "the war awaits" is the most pungent commentary about the limits of art and imagination in either film.
Kill Your Darlings' episodic structure and narrative fractures reflect the impulsive, cut-up aesthetic that Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs would later explore and refine. But this is an actors' show, and the leads humanize these mythical men very well. The sunken-eyed, desperately composed DeHaan could be Leonardo DiCaprio's evil but supremely talented older brother; as Burroughs, Ben Foster could be Ryan Gosling's more detached, cerebral, and androgynous older sibling. Nice job, fellas.
Kill Your Darlings
Studio on the Square
The Book Thief