What’s The Score?: Oscars Week Special – The Book Thief

Oh my god you guys, John Williams nominated for an Oscar, there’s a turn up for the books (no pun intended) (okay pun kind of intended).

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The Book Thief is about Liesel, a young girl during the second world war who is taught to read by her adoptive father, and finds ways of satisfying and nurturing her love of reading despite the book-burning that goes on around her. When I saw the film, I wasn’t aware that it was scored by Williams because I didn’t think he was really doing much these days, but I did notice the lack of electronics or experimental sounds in the music, something that is more and more common these days – look at the collaborative efforts on The Dark Knight Trilogy and even in ‘Her’; it’s not a bad thing that scores are becoming more experimental and modern so to speak, but it’s nice that there are people still sticking to symphonic arrangements, particularly composers as skilled and adept as John Williams. As with ‘Her’, here is the suite from the soundtrack – Williams’ scores always make for lovely suites, but there are also individual tracks available on Youtube. I will, as ever, only be looking at a few cues.

After Liesel’s embarrassing first day at school, her new friend Rudy challenges her to a race – it’s a short scene, but the music in ‘Foot Race’ is lovely – it starts off with a similar tone to cartoon music, like if Tom was sneaking up on Jerry, it’s that cautious footstep music, tension without danger, building up to something.  Then it bursts into an energetic, adventurous bout of music, sort of a scherzo, as the race begins with bells twinkling in the background as the strings bounce along, coming to a gentle ending as the race ends. That innocent, magical sound that Williams cannot be beaten on is perfectly presented in this short piece.

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‘Book Burning’ plays over the scene where Liesel, having recently been inducted into the Hitler Youth Movement and also still developing her reading skills and love of books, attends a Nazi book-burning. Dissonant string chords accompany the scene as Liesel has conflicted feelings. Sustained, slow strings and slow moving lower notes add a tension to the scene, as she realising someone has watched her take a book from the pile.

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‘Rudy Is Taken’ is a heartbreaking scene towards the end of the film, where Liesel discovers that many of her loved ones have been killed in an explosion which she survives.  The strings, quiet at first and then building as the scene moves away from dialogue into slow-motion shots of wreckage and rescue, are soaring and sympathetic, showing the tragedy and emotion without being too dramatic. Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’ is a classic piece often used over war footage, and there are moments in this piece which remind me of that.

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You know you’re going to get something good from Williams, that’s a given, and the maestro doesn’t disappoint with this score. However, one thing about his scores is that you always notice them – some might say that’s not a bad thing, but people often say that the sign of a good film score is that you don’t notice it. Well, this is a good score and you notice it, okay? The task in this film is to mix the magical, childlike wonder that comes from a love of books, with the bleak and serious environment of a wartime town, and Williams does it masterfully.


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