The Lovely Bones (2009): United States, United Kingdom, New Zealand – directed by Peter Jackson
Rated PG-13 by the MPAA – contains some language, violent content, mature themes
Alice Sebold’s debut novel caused quite a splash when it hit shelves in 2002. The profound sense of loss and the painful growth that the characters experience hit a nerve with many people. The fantasy element ensured that many people (including me) would think Peter Jackson might be an excellent choice to direct, following in the vein of Heavenly Creatures.
Unfortunately, we were wrong. The Lovely Bones not only disappoints as an adaptation of the novel, it is also a surprisingly poorly made film. Jackson’s touch with fantasy elements remains intact, but any hope at subtlety or emotional impact is lost in the confusion. Part of me wonders whether this is the film as Jackson intended, or if various studio elements were overly involved.
The story follows the primary elements of the novel. Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan, from Atonement) is a young girl living in the suburbs of Pennsylvania. She has a loving family which includes her father, Jack (Mark Wahlberg), mother Abigail (Rachel Weisz), younger sister Lindsey (Rose McIver) and younger brother Buckley (Christian Thomas Ashdale).
Their lives change dramatically when Susie is abducted and murdered by a neighbor, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci). Her body disappears and there seem to be no leads. Detective Fenerman (Michael Imperioli) eventually has to stop looking, though Jack can’t let go and continually brings crazy new theories to his attention.
Abigail deals with her grief in a much different fashion, drawing inward. Eventually the pain becomes too much and she runs off to California, leaving her mother (Susan Sarandon) to care for the remainder of the family.
Meanwhile, Susie has left the earth but has not arrived in heaven. She is stuck in the Inbetween, a mystical world that appears as she wants it. She must remain there, she is told by a fellow denizen, until she is able to leave her family on earth. The pain they are suffering, however, ensures that it will not be easy for her to forget about them.
The Lovely Bones plays like a crime mystery, except that we know who committed the murder, where they live, and most everything about them. The only things we don’t know are how Susie was killed (though this is never really explained) and where her body is. The latter turns out to be pivotal element as the film reaches its climax.
There will undoubtedly be comparisons to the book, and I’m afraid the similarities are slight. The characters and story elements remain intact, but the mood and themes are dramatically altered. Instead of dwelling on how Susie’s family members change, Jackson opts for the more commercial aspect involving the crime. In the novel the crime is witnessed in the first chapter, and sparingly referred to after. It is not the crux of the story, and by making it so in the movie the filmmakers dismiss the complex themes that could have been addressed.
There are also many people who have not read the book, and they will be wondering how the movie is, simply as a movie. I’ve seen all but one of Jackson’s feature films, and this is his worst attempt yet. Any subtlety is lacking as the story points are hammered into the audiences’ conscious time and again. Events that transpire at one point in the film are shown in flashback fifteen minutes later to make sure we get the point. Did they expect we would forget so quickly? Likewise I found almost all the performances hammy and over-the-top. There is no gentle swell of emotion as the enormous grief her parents feel is explored. I can’t chalk this up solely to poor performances by the all-star cast; someone is telling them how to act.
I wonder how much more impact The Lovely Bones might have had if it followed the example of Irréversible, detailing the gruesome rape and murder in graphic fashion at the beginning and then letting the remainder of the film honestly look at its effects on the family and Susie as she wanders the Inbetween. This is the manner in which the book deals with the subject, and it is far more effective.
Jackson still manages to conjure up fascinating images of the Inbetween, and some of the directing is masterful. The production, as a whole, is capable and professional. There are so many problems with the film, however, that I would have trouble recommending it to many people. Fans of the book may well be horrified at the adaptation, and critical film-goers will have trouble being engrossed in the film due to its lack of subtlety and honesty. The Lovely Bones is simultaneously one of the most disappointing films of the year and one of the poorest-made big-name efforts.