Page to Screen: The Lovely Bones (2009)

The Lovely Bones
based on
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold


I love Peter Jackson—how can you not after seeing any of the behind the scenes material for The Lord of the Rings films? So I’ve been working my way through his filmography. While I wasn’t too impressed with King Kong, I really loved Heavenly Creatures. Because I’m squeamish, I’m hesitant about approaching his earlier work, which left me with one remaining option—The Lovely Bones. I read the book years ago at a family reunion. I liked it well enough, although the ending made me bristle with its apparent insistence that life isn’t worth it without sex. (And the timing couldn’t have been worse; that was the year I realized—as you might realize you are breathing or blinking—that I was ace.) But not only does Peter Jackson direct, but the amazing Saoirse Ronan plays Susie. I had to pick it up.

The Lovely Bones starts with a murder; the 1974 murder of its main character and narrator, Susie Salmon, by George Harvey, one of her neighbors. In death, Susie is trapped in limbo until she can move on from her murder, but she can’t begin to until her family and friends move on. Her father becomes obsessed with finding her killer, her mother can’t cope, her sister inherits their father’s vigilantism, her teenage crush can’t stop thinking about her, and the weird girl from high school knows she’s still hanging around. As Susie looks down from heaven, she does all she can to both help her family move on and bring her killer to justice—legal or otherwise.

As I read the novel ages ago, I can’t really comment on the changes more than vaguely—although the infamously problematic scene wherein Susie gets to possess someone and have sex with her teenage crush as “closure” (I can feel my eye bugging out! Stand back, people!) is changed to Susie simply being kissed, completing what she missed when Harvey murdered her. (After an almost kiss, she was going to go on a date with her crush, where she would have, presumably, kissed him.) I thoroughly approve. Jackson, ever a pragmatist when it comes to adapting source material, takes out some of the complexity to make the story more linear. He focuses more on the relationship between Susie and her father, which I found particularly heartbreaking (I teared up!)—but Susie’s mother isn’t given nearly as much development, making her eventual acceptance of her daughter’s death ring hollow. Most controversial was Jackson’s decision to completely omit the rape Susie suffers in the book; he felt Ronan was too young to film such a traumatic scene—indeed, the murder is not shown, only a terrifying shot of Harvey overpowering a fleeing Susie. Still, it’s hinted at when Susie discusses what happened to Harvey’s other victims, and we never know either way. While I mourn the loss of complexity, it’s always difficult to transpose such internal material to a medium where all the material is external.

The story is a mix of whimsy and horror, which, in the novel, is kept level from being written almost entirely from Susie’s point of view. While Susie narrates the film, we lack her view of what’s happening for good reason; it would be annoying to have Ronan (who is fantastic here, by the way) tell us what we’re being shown. But without Susie’s point of view flavoring everything, the film suffers from a bit of mood whiplash. I found the balance between whimsy and horror dealt with quite well here (as Jackson did in 1994’s Heavenly Creatures), with occasional but bad stumbles. A scene where Susie’s grandmother, a fun lush played by Susan Sarandon, comes to help the family out is too chirpy, quirky, and cheerful too soon, as is another scene where Susie and another girl in limbo play cosmic dress-up. Jackson has gotten into a lot of trouble concerning his reliance on CGI here from critics, which I mildly agree with. There are some truly beautiful moments that couldn’t be done without it (or would poorer for it): Susie’s entry into limbo is gorgeous and put me in the mind of The Little Prince, for some reason. (There’s another moment which pays tribute, but I’ll let you find that out for yourself.) But there are some moments where’s a bit much, such as the aforementioned cosmic dress-up scene and, I have to admit, the ending. But while it’s easy to blame Jackson (and he’s not blameless here; perhaps a different director would have been able to work about some of the limitations), I think the idea of adapting such an internal, odd novel into a film backfired.

Bottom line: It’s difficult to adapt an internally focused novel like The Lovely Bones into a film (the medium is, of course, more externally focused), and Peter Jackson and company do their best—the novel’s complicated interpersonal story is compressed and simplified without gutting it (well, without gutting it too much) and its mix of whimsy and horror is usually well-executed, save for a few scenes too cheerful too soon. The film does what it can, but between the occasional CGI abuse and difficulty in adaptation, it falls short.

I rented this DVD from the public library.

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