On my way to see The Lovely Bones, Peter Jackson’s latest, I stood next to a woman who was reading the novel on which it’s based. Her eagerness piqued my curiosity – I wondered whether the movie would inspire me to read the book. Upon reflection, I don’t think I’ll pick up Alice Sebold’s bestseller anytime soon. Even to someone unfamiliar with the story, it’s easy to pick out the inadequacies of Jackson’s work. Despite some engaging scenes, the movie never gels into a cohesive whole, and the screenplay denies the characters any depth. Even worse, its conclusion become unpleasant as I think about it more.
Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) is a happy young girl until she is brutally murdered by George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), her creepy neighbor. Her mother (Rachel Weisz) and father (Mark Wahlberg) do their best to cope, and eventually Susie’s unpredictable grandmother (Susan Sarandon) tries to salvage the crumbling family. Meanwhile Susie exists in a fantastical higher plane, one between heaven and earth, that is inspired by childhood mementos. Another dead girl (Nikki SooHoo) informs Susie she must “let go” of her earthly existence before she can enter eternal bliss. Haunting her family and crush (Reece Ritchie), Susie stays put, keeping a watchful eye on George. Her murderer grows restless, you see, and her younger sister (Rose McIver) is his next target.
Like Lord of the Rings and King Kong, The Lovely Bones juxtaposes fantasy and suspense, and special effects exaggerate typically small objects into enormous size. One scene in particular, when gigantic ships in bottles crash onto a beach, is a pleasant reminder of Jackson’s extraordinary imagination. It’s too bad the storytelling cannot rival the imagery of Susie’s afterlife. When the dad’s suspicion of George grows, for example, repetition overstates a plot development, so all tension deflates. Ronan has the thankless task of narrating the entire film – she speaks in irritating ethereal wisps that betray the likable pluck of her earlier scenes. Her voiceover lacks insight, and it becomes clear there’s complexity in the book which is absent in the movie. Actors do their best, even if they’re only given a single emotion to portray. Tucci makes an excellent psychopath, especially in a suspenseful scene with Susie’s sister, and Weisz’s grief is convincing. But for all its good intentions, Jackson’s work feels like a clumsy highlight reel of Sebold’s novel, not a thoughtful adaptation.
I can see why Jackson was attracted to this story. His oft-forgotten thriller The Frighteners also examines how spirits struggle to save innocent lives. Whereas his earlier work is a fun genre exercise, The Lovely Bones aspires to be a meditation on loss and eternal love. Because of its loftier goals, parts of the movies are disquieting. George’s fate, for example, has karmic implications which may offend anyone who prematurely lost a loved one. And Susie’s afterlife is a little selfish, as she deliberately stops her family from reaching closure. I don’t know whether Sebold’s book is difficult to adapt, or if Jackson simply doesn’t care about character depth. Given his numerous missteps, however, next time he should conform to the source material, not the other way around.