Movie Review/Oscar Talk: The Lovely Bones

E: Who would have thought, after the so called unfilmable epic The Lord of the Rings, that the novel Peter Jackson really couldn’t adapt was Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. Perhaps he was just too confident in his ability, too taken with his own vision, too secure that he could produce the essence of the work without keeping the details.  After all, he’d had to cull a lot from Lord of the Rings.  Sebold’s work is a more slender tale, however, and not so tolerant of tinkering.

Perhaps that’s too harsh.  Can any movie be a completely satisfying version of a novel?  So much is lost in adaptation – so much that exists in different readers’ minds – that it’s a wonder we don’t stop trying. And the film on its own terms is certainly not perfect, but not so bad as most fans of the book might initially believe.  About half way through, I started to get pretty mad at Jackson and at the movie, but now that it’s over, I think I feel a calm acceptance somewhat like that I found at the novel’s end.

“My name is Salmon.  Like the fish.  First name Susie.  I was fourteen years old when I was murdered.”  So begins The Lovely Bones.  The first section, in which we see Susie’s happy life with her parents, sister and brother, is bright and beautifully observed.  Susie is a good kid.  She likes movies.  She likes a poetry spouting boy named Ray Singh, who likes her too.  Saorise Ronan is likely to have a fine career; her Supporting Actress nomination for Atonement was no fluke.  Mark Wahlburg and Rachel Weiss are natural and relaxed as her parents.  Only Susan Sarandon seems a little off as chain-smoking, glamorous grandma.  And Stanley Tucci prowls the serene background as a guffawing, jovial, meticulous predator.  He grows roses, and he makes lovely dollhouses, completely furnished, to sell at a toy store at the mall.  And he’s created an underground room to lure Susie Salmon to her death.

The scene is tense and terrible; as a parent, your every nerve screams when Susie disregards her cautious instincts in order to be the first kid in their neighborhood to see the cool hangout that Mr. Harvey has built in the middle of a cornfield.  Her family eats dinner, laughing, and decides they’ll make Susie eat extra vegetables for being late.

It’s in the second section of the movie that the adaptation swings wide.  I can see it in my mind’s eye; Jackson (and writing partners Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh) read the book, where Susie’s family struggles to get past her death, and Susie watches occasionally, and thought, where’s the drama in that?  We need to punch it up, like we did with Faramir in LoTR.  So they’ve turned it into a murder mystery from beyond, where Susie’s father, Jack, obsesses about his daughter’s death and Susie gives him clues from the beyond.  This is why Susie’s mother leaves; because Jack can’t move forward. Soon young daughter Lindsay becomes a partner in the investigation, and also a target for Mr. Harvey, setting up some very tense scenes where we’re terrified for Lindsay’s fate.

Of course, in the book, Susie’s mom just leaves, because she can’t handle her daughter’s death.  It’s less likable, but sure no less understandable.  I’m fairly certain Lindsay was the oldest sister (C: No), and not in Harvey’s cross-hairs (C: Yes).  In the book, Susie is raped before she’s murdered.  While I’m grateful not to have seen that, I don’t think that it can be taken for granted (which seems to be writers’ consensus).  What feels worse, to me, than the writing team making the wrong kind of movie, is that they don’t really pay attention to the consequences of what they’ve changed.  There’s no emotional resonance when the mom, Abigail, leaves.  No one reacts.    How is that possible?   The young son, Buckley, essentially disappears.  Also, they’ve chosen to pair their (mostly invented) climactic moments.  Why?  We have two major events happening at the same time – twice.  Once, perhaps, but twice in a row?  The second time ends up just feeling weird.

The Lovely Bones‘ sole nomination is Stanley Tucci’s first, a Best Supporting Actor nod after a marvelous year (see also his work as Paul Child in Julie and Julia) and a fantastic career as a character actor.  He’s almost unrecognizable here – not in his features, not because of the pale hair or the comb over, but in the way he speaks, the way he holds his lips, the puff of his cheeks, the way his words jumble and round out. He can look you in the eye for a while, seem normal for a while.  He prefers to stay behind his hedges.  He prefers to watch and wait and plan.  In all, however, he seems in motivation a generic serial killer.  Why does he do these terrible things?  Because he is compelled.  He has an itch.  I suppose I prefer that to some gruesome explanation of his tortured childhood, but it makes him feel less original as a character.

Before the movie came out, folks had hopes of seeing Saorise Ronan up for Best Actress, the film for Best Picture, but then the movie came out, and fans of the book were outraged by the changes.  And nearly everyone has read the book.  Even Tucci is doomed to lose the Oscar, but at least he has his first.  The production design and effects are lovely; there’s even a little Easter Egg – a poster of a paperback edition of Lord of the Rings in the bookstore window.  That was certainly an area where the movie could have expected success, but people seemed irritated by Susie’s shifting, sometimes candy colored heaven, and the way the real world bleeds into it.  Jackson hasn’t had great luck getting his actors nominated (see Sean Astin) but this, at least, he can think of with pride.


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