The Lovely Bones
Broken ‘Bones’: Jackson gets the small, fragile story all wrong
What does a movie owe to the book on which it’s based? Less than you’d think, actually. It’s nice if the filmmakers are able to translate story lines, key characters, crucial themes from one medium to the other, but literature and cinema are so radically different - one endlessly internal, the other building only on what we see and hear - that it’s generally insane to even try. At the end of the day, the movie needs to work as a movie, nothing more or less.
Peter Jackson’s film of Alice Sebold’s bestseller “The Lovely Bones,’’ then, is something special: A spectacular, cringe-inducing failure as both a book adaptation and a film. The miscalculation on almost every level is perversely thorough. It’s as if the filmmaker, faced with an endless series of daunting creative choices, proudly took the wrong road each and every time.
Maybe you have to be delusional, though, to try to create a tasteful movie out of a book narrated from limbo by a girl raped and murdered in the opening scenes. Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan, the young betrayer of “Atonement’’ and by far the best thing here) perches above her small 1970s Pennsylvania town in a sketchy but surreal afterlife, watching over the years as her devastated family and friends cope with her disappearance. The novel’s tone is wistful, elegiac, detached, in direct contrast to the agonizing events and emotions Susie describes, and without that long-view naivete - Susie’s voice, literally - the story might be impossible to endure.
Jackson’s first mistake is that he thinks we want to know what heaven looks like. Since “The Lord of the Rings’’ and “King Kong’’ have established the filmmaker as a reigning god of CGI, he visualizes Susie’s afterlife as a series of vast, endlessly morphing digitized landscapes - mountains swooping up, moons swirling down, tangerine trees, marmalade skies. It looks like all 12 pages of a very expensive New Age calendar, and it is kitsch; it’s also wholly beside the point. Susie’s heaven is unfinished because Susie’s life is; even Ronan seems to understand that.
Jackson’s second, and much worse, mistake is to jettison half the characters and story lines that were the book’s very reason for being. If you’re familiar with the novel (and I’m betting many are, since Oprah did order the nation to read it), you know that the “lovely bones’’ of the title are the relationships that grow up in the wake of Susie’s murder. The cast of characters keeps expanding because that’s how life progresses, as an exponential gathering of human connection. Through Susie’s younger sister Lindsey (Rose McIver) we’re led to her boyfriend Samuel Heckler (Andrew James Allen) and to his moody older brother Hal; through Susie’s first kiss, Ray Singh (Reece Ritchie, creepily too old for his role), we arrive at his mother (Anna George), a neglected immigrant housewife and source of unexpected grace. And so on.
Jackson and his co-writers, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, cut back or eliminate many of these characters, even dropping the affair between Susie’s distraught mother (Rachel Weisz) and the investigating detective (Michael Imperioli). The two are reduced to casting moony looks at each other that go nowhere. Gifted actors are brought on and wasted: Susan Sarandon’s boozy grandmother is a cartoon of the wise, weathered character in the book, and poor Mark Wahlberg spends the movie looking as if Susie’s father has been bonked on the head with a log, which essentially he has.
Jackson’s third and worst mistake is to increasingly focus “The Lovely Bones’’ on the one person with no human connection: George Harvey, the man who murdered Susie. He’s played by Stanley Tucci as an assortment of hair and makeup choices (green contact lenses, icky blond comb-over) and sweaty tics; the camera keeps pushing into his face so we’ll know he’s a monster. This is a rare case of a very good actor being allowed to give a very bad performance, and it’s a further symptom of the director’s haplessness with this material that he turns “Bones’’ into a serial-killer thriller, cranking up the suspense over whether Lindsey will be George’s next victim.
Suspense isn’t what Sebold was writing about, though, and no amount of desperate cinematic retrofitting will make it so. Neither was closure or revenge, which drove some readers batty. Instead, the story’s about forgiveness, reconciliation, moving on - qualities that don’t lend themselves to the epic commercial cinema Jackson represents. The director’s so far out of his element here that he makes one blunder after another, turning Susie’s little limbo pal Holly (Nikki SooHoo) into a childlike ninny, even botching the ghostly climactic resurrection that remains the book’s biggest stretch. (Jackson shows us the wrong character’s face and thus commits his own unseemly act of movie pedophilia.)
“The Lovely Bones’’ isn’t one of those fiascos that’s so bad it’s good. You don’t stand around the smoldering wreckage warming your hands, the way you did with “Glitter’’ or “Battlefield Earth.’’ You just walk away, appalled if you know the novel, confused and vaguely disturbed if you don’t. Jackson once made a fine, unsettling fantasy-drama about teenage girls, “Heavenly Creatures,’’ but that was 16 years ago. These days he can only think big, and so he takes this small, fragile story, and he breaks it.