We all like children, and — at least in our capacity as moviegoers, book-club members and consumers of true-life melodrama — we seem to like them best when they’re abused, endangered or dead. Nothing else is quite so potent a symbol of violated innocence, a spur to pious sentiment or a goad to revenge as a child in peril. This is hardly news (Charles Dickens
made a nice living trafficking in the suffering of minors), but for some reason the past decade has seen an epidemic of cinematic and literary crimes against the young.
“The Lovely Bones,” Alice Sebold’s 2002 best seller, now a film directed by Peter Jackson, stands out as a singularly bold and complex treatment of this grim and apparently inexhaustible theme. In spite of the horrific act at the center of the story — the rape, murder and dismemberment of a 14-year-old girl — the novel is not depressing or assaultive but rather, somewhat perversely, warm, hopeful and even occasionally funny.
Ms. Sebold pushes the dead-child narrative to an emotional extreme, and at the same time undermines its exploitive tendencies, by means of a simple and radical formal device. She makes the victim, a daughter of ’70s suburbia named Susie Salmon (“like the fish”), an omniscient, beyond-the-grave narrator, with a lively voice and a comfortable perch in the afterlife from which to survey the doings of her family, her friends and the neighbor who killed her. The novel is conceived with enough audacity to make this gimmick intriguing, and executed with enough art to make it effective.
Mr. Jackson’s film, from a script he wrote with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, his frequent collaborators, shows less audacity and too much art. Susie’s unearthly home, in the book a minimally sketched, nondenominational purgatory where the dead loiter on their way to heaven and keep tabs on unfinished business down on earth, has been expanded into a digitally rendered Wonderland of rioting metaphors, crystal seas and floating topiary. It’s a mid-’70s art-rock album cover brought to life (and complemented by a score composed by the ’70s art-rock fixture Brian Eno), and while its trippy vistas are sometimes ravishing, they are also distracting. “Heaven,” a Talking Heads song once pointed out, is “a place where nothing ever happens.”
Accordingly Mr. Jackson’s interest in the “in-between,” as this suburb of heaven is called, is primarily visual. The drama is all down below, where the surviving members of the Salmon family contend with the loss of their eldest child. Susie’s sister, Lindsey, is played by Rose McIver; her brother, Buckley, by Christian Thomas Ashdale, while George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), the reclusive, seething killer, prunes his rosebushes and decorates dollhouses. By all appearances he has gotten away with his crime, and Susie hovers in the in-between partly in the hope that she might find a way to bring him to justice.
She is, in any case, obsessed with the lives that go on without her, in particular with the ways her siblings and friends and father (Mark Wahlberg, agonized) and mother (Rachel Weisz, narcotized) deal with losing her, something the audience never has to endure. We are always in Susie’s company, soothed by her voice-over narration and tickled by her coltish high spirits. This puts a curious distance between us and most of the characters in the film — it makes us, in effect, Susie’s fellow ghosts — a detachment that Mr. Jackson’s stylish, busy technique makes more acute. His young heroine, played with unnerving self-assurance and winning vivacity by Saoirse Ronan, cares desperately about the poor living souls left in her wake, but it is not clear that Mr. Jackson shares her concern.
Yes, he grooves on the wild color schemes and peculiar fashions of 1973. (Richard Kelly had a similar field day with 1976-vintage patterned wallpaper and fat neckties in “The Box,” his recent entry in the suburban-’70s-supernatural sweepstakes.) And this director’s fondness for odd angles, intense close-ups and trick perspectives — he films one scene as if peering out from the rooms of a dollhouse — animates a drab Pennsylvania landscape of shopping malls and half-developed farmland. As a pictorial artifact “The Lovely Bones” is gorgeous. It pulses and blooms and swells with bright hues and strange vistas.
But it does not move. Or, rather, as it skitters and lurches from set piece to the next, papering the gaps with swirls of montage, it never achieves the delicate emotional coherence that would bring the story alive. My point is not that Mr. Jackson and his fellow screenwriters have taken undue liberties with the book, a complaint that some other critics have made. On the contrary, the problem with this “Lovely Bones” is that it dithers over hard choices, unsure of which aspects of Ms. Sebold’s densely populated, intricately themed novel should be emphasized and which might be winnowed or condensed.
The filmmakers’ evident affection for the book expresses itself as a desperate scramble to include as much of it as possible, which leaves the movie feeling both overcrowded and thin. The anguish in the Salmon household is dutifully observed: dad smashes his collection of model ships, mom withdraws and then flees to California, and in the middle of it grandma arrives, a brassy boozer played by Susan Sarandon. But there is a puppet-show quality to their grief, and also to the puzzlement of the detective (Michael Imperioli) investigating Susie’s death and the sorrow of her schoolmates, Ruth (Carolyn Dando) and Ray (Reece Ritchie), the object of Susie’s first and last major crush.
The title of “The Lovely Bones” refers to the relationships among these people that knit together in Susie’s absence. In Mr. Jackson’s version, though, they are hastily and haphazardly assembled, so that nothing quite fits together. The movie is a serial-killer mystery, a teenage melodrama, a domestic tragedy and a candy-hued ghost story — a cinematic version of the old parlor game in which disparate graphic elements are assembled into a single strange picture. It’s sometimes called Exquisite Corpse.
“The Lovely Bones” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). The murder of a child, discreetly handled.
THE LOVELY BONES
Opens on Friday nationwide.
Directed by Peter Jackson; written by Mr. Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, based on the novel by Alice Sebold; director of photography, Andrew Lesnie; edited by Jabez Olssen; production designer, Naomi Shohan; music by Brian Eno; produced by Mr. Jackson, Ms. Walsh, Carolynne Cunningham and Aimée Peyronnet; released by Paramount Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 19 minutes.
WITH: Mark Wahlberg (Jack Salmon), Rachel Weisz (Abigail Salmon), Susan Sarandon (Grandma Lynn), Stanley Tucci (George Harvey), Michael Imperioli (Len Fenerman), Saoirse Ronan (Susie Salmon), Rose McIver (Lindsey Salmon), Christian Thomas Ashdale (Buckley Salmon), Carolyn Dando (Ruth) and Reece Ritchie (Ray Singh).
By J. Hoberman
A one-film cabinet of curiosities, The Lovely Bones turns the most successful CGI director of the '00s loose on one of the decade's prime literary phenomena: Cults collide as Peter "Lord of the Rings" Jackson tackles Alice Sebold's bestselling New Age gothic, the story of a rape-murder-dismemberment and its aftermath, narrated by its 14-year-old victim from heaven.
A season that has already brought adaptations of a once-controversial classic picture book about a disturbed child, and its grown-up Doomsday evil twin ("normal" child on the road in a disturbed world), is capped by a vision dramatizing the ultimate parental nightmare. In Jackson's hands, The Lovely Bones is doubly appalling. Part Disney's Alice in Wonderland, part Fritz Lang's M, the movie is horrific yet cloying, alternately distended and abrupt, sometimes poignant and often ridiculous.
The Lovely Bones begins with a flurry of activity, both inside the snow globe that's introduced as a metaphor for the afterlife, and outside in the prosaic, comforting suburban universe into which Susie (Saoirse Ronan) was born. The actress, outstanding as the child snitch in Atonement, is engagingly hyper-expressive, and the filmmaking is similarly kinetic, full of floating camera moves and breakneck cross-cutting. Jackson hits the high points of Susie's young life, speeding toward her brutal demise—but not so quickly as to bypass the novel's provocative cautionary setup.
Published in the aftermath of 9/11, The Lovely Bones' adroitly comforting synthesis of Our Town and Anne Frank was widely appreciated as a lyrical tale of grief and reconciliation, but it is also a malign fable of adolescent coming-of-age. Susie's first kiss, about to be delivered by her first crush, is interrupted—and rudely de-romanticized—by the school principal's irate tantrum over the anatomically correct female nude that Susie's weird friend drew for art class. Ignoring this omen and walking on air in anticipation of her first date, Susie is enticed down the rabbit hole that her strenuously innocuous serial-killing neighbor (Stanley Tucci, barely recognizable and supremely creepy) has prepared as her death chamber. She leaves this world horrendously despoiled yet essentially innocent.
Punishing sexual curiosity is not a foreign notion for Jackson, who broke into movies making gross-out horror flicks. Fans will remember the scene in Dead Alive in which a chaste lad's first kiss triggers his mother's transformation into a flesh-eating zombie. Still, he has the tact to omit the gruesome details of Susie's murder—and will later expunge the ludicrous scene in which Sebold allows the girl's ecstatic return to earth.
Unfortunately, he shows no such discretion in literalizing the novel's vague metaphysics. Once upon a time—see his 1994 comedy of adolescent matricide, Heavenly Creatures—Jackson sensationally infused movie naturalism with garish special effects. Here, all is subservient to the digital splendors of Susie's heavenly abode—a constantly mutating realm of spacious skies, purple mountains, and undulating amber waves of grain, not to mention crystal beaches, foggy forests, and the peripatetic cosmic gazebo from which she observes her family and murderer's doings.
All characterizations are sacrificed to steep in Susie's celestial surroundings. Initially touching, her parents (Rachel Weisz and Mark Wahlberg) are dwarfed by the ongoing pyrotechnics. Stealing scenes as Susie's cheerfully dissolute grandma, Susan Sarandon struggles to provide the reality principle—in vain. Although the novel also drowned in a vat of syrup, Sebold got by for nearly 100 pages on the unsentimental clarity of her style and sustained verisimilitude of the narrator's adolescent voice. Jackson demonstrates no such chops. Indeed, he consistently undermines the movie's uncanny elements by over-dramatizing events, such as Susie's fleeting visitations, that have their own inherent power.
As the novel suggests a form of talk therapy, Jackson's adaptation is a misguided tribute to the magic of the movies—which have always specialized in reanimating the dead. But there is something to be said for representing the actual world and there are some things that can only be visualized in the mind's eye. What heaven could have been more radiant than a child's view of her suburban neighborhood—what spectacle more divine than Susan Sarandon's wig?
By Stephanie Zacharek/Salon
There are all sorts of ways to botch a book-into-film adaptation: A filmmaker can be too cavalier about changing an author's character conception or meaning, or he can be so slavishly respectful of those things that he fails to make a work that resonates cinematically. He can rely too heavily on the use of voice-over; he can miscast one actor, or every actor; he can simply fall down on the job of capturing the lyricism or muscle of a particular writer's prose, as plenty of great directors have done. Adaptation is an art, not a science, and it's a thankless job to boot: Not even the most graceful filmmaker can escape the carping of the "Movies are always inferior to the books they're based on" crowd.
But with his garish, pointless and downright inept rendering of Alice Sebold's 2002 novel, "The Lovely Bones," Peter Jackson has hit a new low in the annals of movie adaptations. Sebold's novel tells, in the first person, the story of a 14-year-old suburban girl named Susie Salmon who, in 1973, is raped and murdered by one of her neighbors. Susie finds herself in a teenage girl's version of heaven -- a heaven filled with the things she loved in life, including dogs and ice-cream shops -- from which she can view the world, specifically her family, as it goes on without her. The story Sebold tells here is less about victimhood than it is about the interior lives of families; she explores not just the ways in which they cope (or fail to cope) with grief, but the weird little mechanisms that make them tick in the first place, the things that only an outsider -- a dead girl, watching from somewhere else -- can see clearly.
"The Lovely Bones" is a fiercely delicate and often funny piece of writing, a work of fantasy with a solid footing in reality, and it wouldn't be an easy book for any filmmaker to adapt. But Jackson (aided and abetted by frequent collaborators Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, who co-wrote the screenplay with him) has reinvented Sebold's story in the most facile and heedless way imaginable: He's turned it into a supernatural thriller. Susie is played by Saoirse Ronan, the young actress who gave such a marvelous performance in the 2007 film "Atonement," and it's perfect casting: Ronan, with her translucent skin and unblinking, observant eyes, has the look of a wide-awake but confused angel, a girl trapped between two worlds. But Jackson requires nothing of her beyond that look of alert innocence. Instead of giving her a role, he asks her for little more than a single expression. Susie barely figures into the story here: Jackson plunks her into her heaven -- in the movie's terms, it's more of a pre-heaven holding pen -- and then pops in to visit her occasionally so she can open her eyes wide for the camera. If Jackson is stingy with his lead actress, he's generous with the special effects: Susie's heaven is sometimes a misty, moody-looking Middle-earth-style landscape; at others, it looks like a rejected set from H.R. Pufnstuf, a brightly colored cartoon afterlife in which she's doomed to flounce around in flower-power granny gowns, a fashion hell if ever there was one.
Jackson doesn't seem to realize that you don't need fancy effects to re-create heaven -- that, in fact, it's maybe better to imply heaven than to attempt to show it outright. Jackson is all about showmanship, which is a positive trait in the right context: His Lord of the Rings movies were satisfying and gorgeous entertainments, and taken together the three films constitute an honorable adaptation of the J.R.R. Tolkien source material. Jackson's "King Kong" was less popular with audiences, but I still admired his eagerness to attempt a grand, go-for-broke spectacle.
But Jackson is all wrong for "The Lovely Bones." The picture was originally given to Lynn Ramsay, director of the strange, beautiful, elegiac Scottish picture "Morvern Callar," and it hurts to think about the picture she might have made. Jackson is certainly cunning: Susie's killer, neighborhood loner George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), is a builder of dollhouses, and Jackson uses some clever camera angles to take advantage of these props. At one point Harvey and the detective assigned to the case (Michael Imperioli) play a game of hide-and-seek on opposite sides of one of these diminutive structures, peering furtively at one another through doll-size doorframes and windows, a metaphor, perhaps, for the cop's failure to see the big picture inside the small one.
But it appears that tricks are all Jackson has; any deeper understanding of the material eludes him. In his hands, this isn't a movie about grief or about families, but a haphazard whodunit -- or perhaps more of a "whocares?" considering that here, as in the book, the killer is revealed practically at the beginning. Jackson has a fine cast to work with here: Susie's parents are played by Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz, who are touching even when they're not trying to be. Maybe that's because even though they're certainly old enough to be parents in real life as well as on-screen, they still look young enough to seem invincible. But on the other side of Jackson's lens, their sorrow plays itself out in the most bland and obvious terms. Wahlberg's character, frustrated by the police's inability to come up with a suspect, spends an inordinate amount of time chasing down his own unlikely leads. Meanwhile, there's Stanley Tucci just a few doors down, skulking around in his bad comb-over -- you'd have to be blind to miss the pervert/murderer signals he's sending out with every Actors Studio twitch of his eyelids.
Somewhere in the middle there, Susan Sarandon (as Susie's glam, hard-drinking grandma) shows up with her cleavage, and the mood brightens considerably. But not for long. "The Lovely Bones" is a perfect storm of a movie disaster: You've got good actors fighting a poorly conceived script, under the guidance of a director who can no longer make the distinction between imaginativeness and computer-generated effects. The result is an expensive-looking mess that fails to capture the mood, and the poetry, of its source material. David Byrne once sang, "Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens." There's way too much going on in Peter Jackson's heaven -- and yet it isn't nearly enough.