REVIEW: The Lovely Bones [2009]

“I never knew what dead meant”

I’ll be upfront—I cannot be objective in reviewing Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Alice Sebold’s novel The Lovely Bones. It’s impossible because I read the story a couple weeks ago to prepare myself for the film. With complete candor, I didn’t love the novel; I thought the first three-quarters were brilliant while the final act took some unnecessary turns and rushed to a conclusion that seemed tacked on in parts. Above all, it was very well written, expressing the pain and sorrow of loss and showing how people around a murder—whether family, friends, or strangers—react to an inhumane tragedy. Throw that all out the window if you ever decide to sit down and see this movie because that’s what the filmmakers did. My first reaction after the end credits appeared onscreen was that an illiterate child took the Cliff Notes, ripped the pages out, jumbled them back together, and sent it out to Hollywood. The only thing this film is good for is in making me appreciate and enjoy the original source material more. Sometimes you don’t know how good something is until you see it get ruined.

I’m being harsh, I know this, but I can’t help it. In all honesty, Jackson and company might have crafted a wonderful tale of murder and karmic retribution; the problem is that the novel was none of those things. Sure, Susie Salmon follows her murderer from her own personal heaven to see what he does, but the thought of revenge is inconsequential. The novel spans close to a decade of time, showing the evolution of so many people, the good decisions they make and the bad. The film distills it all down to a period of, what? Two years? Four years? I’m not really sure because the Salmon family has twenty-four cartridges of film to develop, meaning that final one is two years after the murder, but a news clipping of sister Lindsey reads how she was Valedictorian of her class. Well, if we do the math, Susie was a Freshman at the time of her death, meaning Lindsey was at most an eighth grader. So, four or five years must have passed, and if so, why is she still on the high school soccer team, running around the neighborhood? The course of time has been compressed so recklessly that plotholes like this exist—possibly not noticed unless you have a clear idea of the book’s timeline—not to mention a complete disregard for character development or the chance to earn some necessary redemption.

The Lovely Bones is gorgeous to look at, though; one cannot deny that fact. The 70s era aesthetic is precise and the imaginative mixture of heaven and earth is handled as only a creative visionary like Jackson can. Some scenes are powerful in their emotive range, suspenseful in their chaotic tension, and always a visual treat. The computer graphics by no means go overboard, they are rich and luscious in their orchestration, giving a sense of wonder making it hard for Susie to keep grounded in the real world, unable to let go quite yet, when a magical world in front of her. Watching Mark Wahlberg, as father Jack, get beat up in the cornfield—dark and sharply cut, flashlight beam rapidly strewn about, illuminating the creepy visage of murderous George Harvey relishing the violence—is absolutely cinematic storytelling at its finest. With an economy of detail, Jackson shows us and lets us hear only what he wants. I have to wonder, though, whether some details only seemed effective because I had read the novel and saw the visual representation of things the film doesn’t blatantly explain itself. This success in art direction only makes the butchering of tone and story from the book that much more criminal though.

The following may fall into spoiler territory, so I apologize and warn you in advance. To start, Susie, played with a starkly delineated range of either pure joy or heart-wrenching pain by Saoirse Ronan—the screenwriters fault, not hers, as they don’t let her have enough time to fully evolve—does not get raped by Mr. Harvey. She is killed, plain and simple, (shown metaphorically by her ghost running away for help, a really stunning sequence that gave me shivers), her body put into a safe, but not tossed in the sinkhole until much, much later. Events are combined, such as Ruth’s family owning the farm that houses the pit or Rachel Weisz’s Abigail’s return home occurring after her husband’s beat down rather than a heart attack years later, and others are completely absent, like the affair that’s so crucial to the story, the existence of Samuel Heckler—making the end glimpse of a pregnant Lindsey idiotically obtuse—his brother Hal, the Mrs. Singh, and even Buckley. That last exclusion is understandable, I guess, since he is still only maybe ten at the end of the film. Other things are shown so blatantly that any nuance from the novel is gone—it has become a chase to find a killer, a suspense film that will sell tickets, looking the away from the real tale of depression, grief, love, and understanding Sebold created.

The novel was so emotionally raw because it had the patience to allow each character their differing ways to cope. In the film, however, we see Jack’s fall into despair and denial, his life consumed by finding Susie’s killer, become simply a rage-infused rampage, ending in injury, without the time to grow afterwards; Abigail’s abandonment is more of a journey of solitude than disgraceful disappearance for her inability to be a mother when she never really wanted to be one in the first place, ashamed by her total disregard to the bonds of her marriage; Buckley’s influence on his father is thrown out the window, his role literally just there to cryptically speak of the ‘in-between’ as though this is a horror film; and Lindsey is stripped of any and all uniqueness, relegated to being the heroine in discovering the murderer’s true identity and not a person herself. There is also Ruth Connors, who is so very critical to everything in the book, displayed as nothing more than a goth chick touched by a ghost, paving the way towards a brief possession from the beyond. Even Harvey’s demise—more a whimper that anything else, keeping with the realization that the story isn’t about his comeuppance—is alluded to by a heavy-handed visual precursor halfway through the film. Everything was dumbed-down to grade school level, utterly destroying the true meaning of this harrowing tale.

If I can give any credit, it would be to Stanley Tucci. He knows his motivations and he nails the character. With a vocal pattern change and laugh that fits the sociopath he is, Harvey is truly the only role that lives up to its literary counterpart. Even though the part is warped into being a strict villain, antagonizing at every turn rather than just another person living life while Susie looks down, the mannerisms and demeanor stay the same. Susan Sarandon is also pitch-perfect casting, but unlike Tucci, who becomes the second main character, her Grandma Lynn is almost non-existent, leaving all her eccentricities off-screen. No matter how good the acting is, no one can excel beyond the fact their roles have become two-dimensional cutouts of the fully-fleshed human souls in the novel. I’d really love to hear what Sebold has to say about this film and whether it makes her feel as though she was taken advantage of; seeing an epic of the heart be relegated to an ‘eye for an eye’ type search for retribution. I’m always the first to give a director credit when he or she takes a book and makes it into a film, creating between the lines and allowing for the medium to decide where the story must go instead of being as faithful as possible. Unfortunately, it is one thing to keep the core intact while the process to show it alters, but a complete other to replace all that was important by the secondary plot; bringing the chase to the front and pushing the characterizations so far back that you’ll blink once and miss it all.

The Lovely Bones 4/10 | ★ ½

[1] Oscar® nominee Saoirse Ronan stars as Susie Salmon in DreamWorks Pictures’ “The Lovely Bones,” a Paramount Pictures release.
[2] Oscar® nominee Mark Wahlberg (left) stars as Jack Salmon and Stanley Tucci (right) stars as George Harvey in DreamWorks Pictures’ drama “The Lovely Bones,” a Paramount Pictures release.


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