My precious heaven
The Lovely Bones, fantasy-thriller-drama, rated PG-13, Regal Stadium 14, 1.5 chiles
“My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.” These shocking lines launch the first chapter of The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold’s bestselling 2002 novel, thus eliminating any uncertainty about what will happen to the book’s protagonist. Susie narrates the story of her happy life with her family in suburban Philadelphia and how, on one fateful afternoon, a man from her neighborhood rapes and murders her on her way home from school. From the afterlife, Susie watches as he covers his tracks; her father, mother, sister, and brother attempt to cope with her death and search for her killer; and her friends and her teenage crush move on and grow up.
Many fans of the novel and of director Peter Jackson have been eagerly awaiting this film adaptation, directed by Jackson, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh. Jackson cut his teeth on horror films like Braindead (1992); garnered critical acclaim for 1994’s Heavenly Creatures, in which a teenage girl kills her mother with the help of her best friend; and is best known for the award-winning adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Given these facts, a film dealing with murder, youthful fantasies, and things otherworldly
seems like an ideal project for him. But the artistic license Jackson gained after the success of the sprawling, epic Rings films must have warped his sense of restraint and his ability to construct a solid story.
With its exacting attention to period detail, vivid color, and surreal landscapes, The Lovely Bones is unquestionably interesting to look at. Jackson does a nice job of weaving in visual representations of perfect, tiny, unchanging worlds: a snow globe, miniature boats in bottles, fully outfitted dollhouses, a cottage charm on a bracelet, bones locked in a safe. He is clearly at home in fantasy territory, but simplicity is not his long suit. His mystical CGI afterlife is distractingly overcrafted, resembling a slick Zyrtec commercial. Visual pyrotechnics overwhelm the delicacy of the book’s original message about grief, consolation, forgiveness, and memory. The director sacrifices depth and feeling for showoffy visual spectacle.
He can’t decide what sort of movie he wants to make, either: an otherworldly fantasy, a sweet coming-of-age story, a serial-killer thriller, “CSI: The Movie,” a ghost story, or a family melodrama. He cuts abruptly from poignant glimpses of the Salmons at home to Susie in the afterlife. In between, he wedges a police investigator (Michael Imperioli) searching for clues and extended scenes of heart-pounding tension, as when Susie’s sister (Rose McIver) breaks into the murderer’s house to look for evidence. These moments of Hitchcockian suspense are the movie’s finest. Nevertheless, all the back-and-forth undercuts the tension and emotional impact. And lest we miss anything, Jackson has Susie narrate almost every scene and disclose every detail in an amplified voice-over whisper.
Jackson does elicit some fine performances from his actors. Icyblue-eyed Saoirse Ronan ( Atonement) has a sweet ethereality that makes her the perfect choice for Susie. Unfortunately, for two thirds of the movie, Jackson requires her to do little else but stare or look concerned. MarkWahlberg and RachelWeisz handle the roles of Susie’s grieving parents sensitively enough, although both characters are woefully flat and undeveloped, and they aren’t given much opportunity to do any serious acting. Stanley Tucci— hiding behind a blond comb-over, a creepy mustache, and his best pedo-smile — gives a spine-tingling, flesh-crawling performance as George Harvey, Susie’s murderer. Susan Sarandon makes a brief appearance as Susie’s boozy grandmother, who sweeps in to help the Salmons cope with neglected daily tasks; though her kooky character seems out of place, she’s still a welcome relief from the alternating morose and sappy moments.
Fans of the novel will note the absence of certain significant elements. Susie’s rape isn’t mentioned, and her murder is only suggested. Sure, these omissions make the movie less upsetting; nevertheless, I’m bothered by a film that uses the horrible story of a young girl’s gruesome death as a springboard for showy fantasy sequences and saccharine sentimentality about coping, “letting go,” and closure. Rather than avenging her death or keeping her murderer from killing again, Susie uses her one opportunity to come back to Earth to kiss the boy she once had a crush on. The afterlife is a colorful place where she and other murdered girls romp together through the grass in a golden sunset glow. This idyllic visualization seems to suggest that you shouldn’t be upset if you’re murdered, and your family shouldn’t grieve.
I’m not sure that Sebold’s book should have been brought to the screen at all. Things that work on the page and come to life in a reader’s mind don’t always pack the same punch when realized on film. Of course, given his success with fantastic, otherworldly subjects, I can understand the allure of the subject matter for Jackson. But this story’s real heart beats in the parts that take place on terra firma. If he had left something to our imagination — or maybe just spent less money on making life after death look so spectacular— Jackson might have retained the novel’s sweet, sad-buthopeful tone. Even in movies, some things are better pictured than seen.
The devil you know doesn’t wear Prada: Mark Wahlberg and Stanley Tucci