It is no wonder that director Peter Jackson was fascinated by the idea of adapting Alice Sebold’s bestselling novel The Lovely Bones into film. First of all, it would allow him to revisit the subject of suburban murder, which he so brilliantly approached in 1994’s Heavenly Creatures, while at the same time he could give free rein to his visual imagination by recreating the Middle-Earthesque heavenly fragments of the novel.
Since the story’s main plot vehicle is revealed in the first line of the novel and at the beginning of the picture, I guess it’s no spoiler to tell that The Lovely Bones is the account of the murder of a 14-year-old suburban girl who, on her way to Heaven, lingers around in a kind of purgatory referred to as the In-Between, from which she looks back at the devastating effect her loss has on her family and at the distressing impunity her murder seems to get away with.
The eternal debate about film adaptations of novels is as interesting as pointless, but for the sake of completeness I would say that, having finished the book and watched the picture the same day, my pitiless verdict of Jackson’s take on Sebold is that a well loved but middling novel has been turned into a promising but disappointing film.
One of the few real virtues of the literary original is its ability to transcend the crime genre and transform it into an enjoyable small town Americana. The Lovely Bones is not the story of a crime, or of its resolution for that matter, but of the coming of age of a 14-year-old that happens to have been murdered. The film is unable to strike that balance and fails to find a form that matches the story. Jackson’s Bones swings from thriller and period drama to love story and ghost fantasy, but ultimately fails to be anything at all. In fact, it is a paradox that one of the main flaws of a film that takes great liberties with some of the pivotal plot elements of the novel and that is unable to remain faithful to its spirit is precisely its desperate but unsuccessful attempt to reproduce each and every subplot of the original text. The teenage crushes, the literary school assignments, the family estrangement all add up to the fresh account of the girl’s experience, but are artificially encapsulated in the 120 minutes of the film, providing the viewer with more mystification than explanation.
For a director that so vividly captured the world of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga, the recreation of the In-Between is highly unsatisfactory. In Heavenly Creatures the fantasy world the murderous girls turn to as refuge to their real life events was seamlessly interweaved in the main story thread. Susie’s Heaven, however, is generally dull and occasionally embarrassing. While watching the film I couldn’t help but thinking of Robbie Williams trying to reach out to Annabella Sciorra in What Dreams May Come, one of the most excruciating film experiences I have ever been exposed to.
Moreover, the film wastes the talents of an all-star cast. Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz are inconspicuous as the suffering parents and don’t manage to convey any emotion. Weisz’s character’s main transformation after the loss of her daughter is a hair cut by the end of the picture. Susan Sarandon has a showy but pointless part as the boozy grandma, Michael Imperioli has to deal with a maimed role and the young supporting players do what they can with their undefined roles, most notably in a transearthly love scene that makes the Swayze-Goldberg-Moore spiritual threesome of Ghost look like a classic.
Stanley Tucci’s turn as the creepy murderous neighbour has been hailed as the film’s best performance. Well, I don’t think there is anything Mr. Tucci can do wrong and his George Harvey is chillingly impressive, but the honours he’s been reaping all along the awards season, including his Oscar nomination, should rather have recognised his work in Julie&Julia than here. This is, after all, not Tucci’s film, but Saoirse Ronan’s. For a dead girl, she plays Susie Salmon with a convincing vivacity. Despite the unthankful role, she proves that her Oscar-nominated turn in Atonement was no fluke and that, if nothing goes terribly wrong, she might be taking from now on the roles that were meant for Dakota Fanning.
The Lovely Bones is not a terrible film, but it’s not a good one either. Although rumours point at Guillermo del Toro as most probable helmer of the project, maybe Tolkien’s The Hobbit could be a better vehicle for Jackson’s undisputable talent and creativity.