It’s never easy to take a much-beloved book and translate it into film – some books like Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and Jane Austen’s oeuvre lend themselves to dramatizations because the stories themselves are cinematic. The plots are situation-driven and the writing is free of too much allegory or symbolism. Other books – like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway or Toni Morrison’s Beloved are full of the kind of ethereal, metaphysical writing that doesn’t work on screen. Morrison’s book in particular suffered in the hands of Jonathan Demme in his 1998 effort, which took Morrison’s themes of slavery and its enduring influence on its sufferers, and turned her dark and complex story into a creepy ghost story.
Unfortunately, much of Peter Jackson’s 2009 interpretation of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones suffers because of the novel’s passages that take place in heaven. Because heaven is such a subjective concept, it feels intrusive when viewers have someone else’s version of heaven foisted up on them – and if we’re to take The Lovely Bones as a clue, Jackson’s vision of heaven feels like a strange acid trip.
But it’s not just the souped-up CGI/green screen scenes of heaven that doom The Lovely Bones, it’s also Jackson’s inability to settle on one tone. Instead, like Tyler Perry at his worst, the movie careens from being a taut thriller to a soapy family melodrama, and then turns sharply into slapstick comedy before indulging in Jackson’s penchant for fantasy (he’s made a king’s fortune turning J.R. Tolkien’s novels into billion dollar-grossing epics). It’s difficult to watch The Lovely Bones because the shifts in tone hardly feel natural.
But even if Jackson didn’t get overwhelmed by a plethora of ideas, this film would’ve been a difficult project to take on. The plot centers on Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan), a 14-year-old girl who is raped and murdered by her neighbor, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci). Unable to move on to heaven, Susie’s trapped in some kind of bizarre after-life limbo that is remarkably similar to Vincent Ward’s 1998 film, What Dreams May Come, which shares many themes of heaven, death, and the beyond.
And while Susie’s in a state of angst, her family on earth are struggling to move on. Dad Jack (Mark Wahlberg) becomes obsessed with trying to solve the murder, slowly losing himself in the investigation. Susie’s mother Abigail (Rachel Weisz) cannot deal with the tragedy and abandons her family. Lindsey (Rose McIver), Susie’s younger sister, grows up in the shadow of her family’s grief, and is the first to suspect Harvey of the murder. When the family’s despair turns desperate, Jack calls on Grandma Lynn (Susan Sarandon), an Auntie Mame-like figure who sweeps in to try and fix the family’s fractured lives.
Jackson penned the screenplay with his longtime collaborators Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh (Jackson’s partner). Working with Sebold’s popular novel, the three writers struggle to cram the complex tale into coherent two hours. Unfortunately, the trio repeatedly fail at creating a tight film – instead it feels like a cut-and-paste jobs of various scripts of varying qualities. The film works best when it works as a thriller – Jackson is able to craft and present a suspenseful story, taking an unflinching look at the appalling murder, without tipping into slasher pic/exploitation (though the director uses restraint, some of the more violent scenes aren’t for the faint-hearted).
But Jackson and company are at heart old-fashioned movie makers, in line with golden age Hollywood story tellers. And as a result, the audiences must also tolerate the redundant dips into sentimentality and schmaltz. Though Susie is intelligent and Ronan plays her very well, she’s also saddled with portentous and ponderous voiceovers, as well. At the end of the film, we’re not so sure what to make of her murder – especially since viewers are led to believe that the young girl gains some kind of wisdom as a result.
And even though The Lovely Bones isn’t a successful movie, there are some strong elements, most notably Ronan, who anchors the film with a mature and beautiful performance. Wahlberg and Weisz also are strong, though, like Ronan, struggle against a heavy-handed script (Wahlberg in particular, is saddled with a somewhat dreary role as “the devoted dad”). Sarandon is fun in her limited part, and she’s meant to be a comic relief, leavening the thick drama with a showy, flamboyant turn, but is ultimately wasted. The only performer who matches Ronan’s brilliant work is Tucci, who creates a three-dimensional monster, who despite his depravity, has committed the seemingly perfect crime.
Jackson’s most famous work – The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit – deal with travelers. The Lovely Bones is also about a journey, but he fails in crafting a convincing take on Sebold’s work. Too much of the film is devoted to Jackson’s strenuous showing off. And it’s clear that he’s sincere about his effort – achingly sincere – but because the heaven sequences come off as cloying and precious, the unintended result of The Lovely Bones is a crass commercialism and cynicism.