Peter Jackson is no stranger to the pressures of adapting a book to film. His last effort at such a task earned him a number of Academy Awards, millions of dollars at the box office and the rare feat of bringing new fans to the property whilst also satisfying the original devotees. He, along with collaborative screenwriter Fran Walsh, understands that elements of the original source must be changed during the adaptation to film. However, he also appreciates the importance of replicating the spirit of the source material. This was evident during each and every installment of the Lord of the Rings series. It is not at all evident in his interpretation of Alice Sebold’s bestselling novel The Lovely Bones, a film about spirits seemingly without one of its own.
Fans of Sebold’s novel (a category which I happily classify myself as part of) have always known that a film adaptation of The Lovely Bones could be overwhelmingly breathtaking to behold. We also knew that it would be a near impossible feat to pull off. Not that there can’t be good book-to-film adaptations; lord knows there are plenty of them. And The Lovely Bones isn’t exactly a complex book; it just doesn’t exactly cater to the medium of film. It is cinematically unfriendly. The third act takes the reader in a very unexpected direction; a direction that only works in relation to the deliberate pacing of the first two acts. Sebold holds it together. Jackson doesn’t even take the risk; he mashes the book into a bite-sized, easy-to-swallow treat and subsequently forgets what the book was all about in the first place.
Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) is a fourteen-year-old girl with a crush on a handsome boy, a fixation on photography and a deep love for her family, including her father (Mark Wahlberg), mother (Rachel Weisz), grandmother (Susan Sarandon) and younger brother and sister (Christian Thomas and Rose McIver). She’s a happy girl and they are a happy family; but sometimes terrible things happen to good people. One day she is stopped on the way home from school by Mr. Harvey (Stanley Tucci), an odd but unremarkable man who wants to show her the underground fort he has made in the middle of the local cornfield. Susie is young, curious and eager. She climbs down into the fort and is murdered at the hands of Mr. Harvey (the crime is far more nefarious and graphically detailed in the book).
Susie discovers that death is in fact not the end. Her spirit emerges from the underground fort and enters back into the real world, eventually passing on to another spiritual plane; not quite Heaven or Earth, but somewhere in-between. From here, she witnesses her family dealing with her death, their struggle to move on, and their frustrating hunt for the killer. It’s a premise that dances very closely to movie-of-the-week triteness. Although Sebold managed to avoid such corniness with her matter-of-fact prose, Jackson dives head-first into the saccharine melodrama of it all. Characters wail; they curse the heavens and howl “noooooo” into the sky. In quieter moments they delicately address one another and speak of the possible “in-between place” that Susie inhabits, while strings swell triumphantly in the background over an angelic choral singer. You half expect the love theme to Titanic to strike up at any moment.
Jackson has equipped himself with a cast and crew perfectly capable of delivering an excellent movie. You would imagine the fact that they were working with such an intriguing premise and such rich source material to only enhance the quality of the project. Sadly, Jackson’s film never had a chance. It is the very bones of his Lovely Bones that were broken from the beginning. The script carelessly compresses the decades-long events of the book into fleeting moments. For the sake of brevity I assume, but at the cost of emotional engagement. Susie’s family undergoes such overwhelming changes of personality at seemingly every turn; they make life-changing decisions based on information that the audience is not given (nor can they even infer). Worst of all, the script overlooks the heart of the book (Susie’s family) and instead focuses on the hunt for the killer.
The talented cast struggles with, and is eventually failed by, the material. They are not aided by their director either, who seemingly stood slightly off screen and urged them to “act bigger!” Saoirse Ronan and Stanley Tucci fare worst, but perhaps only because they are given the most screen-time. Susie never seems like a young girl, but instead an angelic, breathy soothsayer. Mr. Harvey meanwhile is presented like a minstrelsy sex predator; upon meeting him, no one could ever conceivably doubt that he is guilty of murder.
Just to reiterate, I don’t place the blame on the cast, but instead Jackson. He needs the performances to be big so that they don’t get swallowed by the special effects, particularly during the sequences that take place at Susie’s “in-between place”. Interestingly, shooting briefly halted back in 2008 when Jackson and the film’s art director disagreed over the film’s depiction of the afterlife. I guess the art director wasn’t a fan of What Dreams May Come, because that is the world that Jackson has created here. There are glimpses of boundless imagination, but they are suffocated by the nauseatingly over-sentimental depiction of life after life. It’s like getting a syringe full of sugar right into your forehead. Peter Jackson is a talented filmmaker, and his cast is made up of fine actors. I look forward to their next films. Alice Sebold’s novel is all about life (and death) lessons. Hopefully, Jackson has learnt his.