For the first time in eight years, composer John Williams decided to score a movie that was not directed by Steven Spielberg: “The Book Thief,” directed by Brian Percival, based on Markus Zusak’s novel about a girl’s experiences with a foster family in Nazi Germany and their dangerous decision to conceal a young Jewish man.
“When I read this, I jumped at the chance to do it,” says Williams, 81, who won two of his five Oscars for films about children (“E.T.”) and the Holocaust (“Schindler’s List”). “What I found very powerful was the idea that this girl’s life could be saved by her passion for letters and for literature. It was a chamber piece for actors, beautifully managed by Brian, almost like a Brahms quintet.”
Percival first met with Williams last year in Los Angeles. “John’s known for these huge signature pieces,” says the director, “and my worry was that if he adopted that approach it would be too big for this small, humble, honest film. We shared the same sort of vision — a much smaller scale.”
Adds the composer: “Small pieces can deliver very forceful and powerful ideas, musically and dramatically.” A generous string section, piano and a handful of woodwinds including oboe and clarinet, comprise the main voices in Williams’ score; there is no brass.
Unlike the current wave of film scores that eschew melody or symphonic arrangements, “The Book Thief” (like most of Williams’ 100-plus film scores) embraces both. There are four main themes: a minor-key theme for the voice of Death that narrates the story; a joyous one for the concept of books and reading, one for the girl Liesel and the refugee Max, who hides in the basement; and a piece for harp that denotes the passage of time.
“At times it’s so delicate and poignant that it’s just right emotionally for our story,” says Percival, who recalls sitting with Williams at the piano during the writing process
and being “moved to tears” by his playing. “He just
— Jon Burlingame