The Lovely Bones Review
This review contains some plot spoilers.
My name is Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen years old when I was murdered on December 6th 1973. - Opening lines of Chapter 1 of The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
Alice Sebold’s first novel, The Lovely Bones, was published in 2002. Luck as well as talent plays a role in publishing: it’s hard to predict which will be the right book at the right time, and next to impossible deliberately to write it. But The Lovely Bones was that novel, for many people. In a world turned scary after 9/11, many people were in need of (non-religious) spiritual uplift, and this is a theme that has continued through popular entertainment through the rest of the last decade.
I read the novel in 2003 and found it a very well-written (though with some first-novel flaws) and very moving book. It’s a far darker, less sentimental novel than some would have you believe. (Sebold’s earlier, autiobiographical book Lucky sheds some light on this: it details her own rape and its aftermath.) There are novels which have clearly been written with an eye to film adaptation, but I don’t think this was one of them. It must have been clearly a difficult book to adapt, and it’s also clear that Peter Jackson and his usual writing partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens haven’t managed it. The first issue is that the story has a protagonist who is entirely inactive: she is murdered half an hour in and is thereafter a passive observer. The novel works through its first-person narrative voice, and no amount of Susie's voiceover can compensate for film being an inherently third-person medium. None of the other characters’ storylines – such as Susie’s father Jack (Mark Wahlberg) and sister Lindsey (Rose McIver)’s attempts to find the killer and the mother’s inability to cope with the grief and her departure - are sufficiently developed to compensate.
The opening half hour is a solid expansion on the novel, beginning with a dramatisation of the short prologue involving a very young Susie and a toy snow globe. Although the film is a little too intent to remind us that it's 1973 via rather overdetermined production design – from the music on the soundtrack, to the fashions, to the books and magazines prominently on display. (That includes a large Lord of the Rings poster in a bookshop.) Then Susie meets her killer, Mr Harvey (Stanley Tucci) and the film meets the first of its bad decisions.
Firstly, the film is a PG-13 (12A). The novel doesn't go into graphic detail about Susie's fate, but it's clear what has happened – rape as well as murder. Jackson ducks this issue completely, to the point where he outright manipulates the audience into thinking that Susie has got away. But soon she, and we, realise that she hasn't. Susie is in a heaven of her own making, which is a welter of colourfully kitsch CGI effects. The novel deals with attempts at reconciliation to terrible events – and the characters never really achieve closure. The film's scenes showing Susie meeting new friends and disco-dancing in the hereafter may well test your gag reflex. It's not too bad being dead, it seems, and an appalling crime and tragedy is delivered to you thickly coated in sugar.
Meanwhile on Earth, the Salmon family implodes through grief, but it's too skimpily described to have much effect, despite the film's overlength (which includes a ridiculous thirteen minutes of end credits). In particular, mother Abigail's (Rachel Weisz) need to leave the family for a while comes over as poorly motivated. Susan Sarandon's grandmother is a flamboyant turn that belongs in a different film. The best performances come from Stanley Tucci (Oscar-nominated) and the very impressive young actress Saoirse Ronan.
It sounds strange to ascribe lack of a dark sensibility to a director who made his name in the horror genre (horror comedies though). If he hadn't made Heavenly Creatures - which increasingly seems like an anomaly in his career – I'd suggest that Jackson was simply the wrong director for this project. You also have to wonder how much influence executive producer Steven Spielberg had, or what original director Lynne Ramsay might have made of this material. Whichever way you look at it, The Lovely Bones is a near-complete misfire.