Tuesday, 12 January 2010

The (not so) Lovely Bones

Susie Salmon


I read the book last year. Though not the best written of works it does have a huge visceral and emotional impact and its themes are strong and affecting. Strangely, apart from a few individual scenes and moments, this film adaptation lacks in both impact and thematic resonance.

Peter Jackson's film of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones has been somewhat sanitised for movie audiences and seems happy to just fall back on sentimentality and overblown FX. What should have been an uncomfortable, heartbreaking, uplifting but – important this – a subtle story comes across as a well produced yet rather hollow melodrama with decent actors and lots of very expensive CGI.

To be honest I’m not really sure what the film of The Lovely Bones was really about or what the point of it was. I suppose it plays best as a coming of age tale as it does retain elements of the coming of age story in the book, based around young Susie Salmon’s yearning for her first boyfriend and her need to grow up, even after her cruel death. In the book she had a first kiss but it never progressed further. After her death she yearned to make love to the boy she loved – especially as in the book (but not in the film) she is horribly violated before being murdered. And that hideous act can’t be her one and only experience of sex. Basically she needed to grow up to be able to move on. But in the film this is over simplified to be all about that one first kiss. The emotional journey of Susie is completed using the same method as in the book only it is now lacking in any real weight and feels kind of rushed and rather awkward. And the characters it happens to in the film are not developed at all so we have no real sense of who they are or of their relationship to each other and of the importance to them of what Susie is doing through them. By ‘the characters’ I mean Ruth Connors, the rather odd, outsider girl from Susie’s school who loves art and poetry and has the ability to sense and sometimes see the dead, and Ray Singh, the handsome Indian/English boy who was Susie’s should-have-been boyfriend. In the book, Ruth and Ray come together and form a close and complex friendship based around Susie’s memory – even though Ruth never knew her very well. In the film this coming together and relationship isn’t developed at all. They chat briefly…and that’s it. Ruth especially is a major character from the book and yet she has only a few brief lines here.

The other major theme of the book is about family. How families can come together and also fall apart. But ultimately how life goes on, and, despite the terrible things that can happen, wonderful things will happen too. In the book a lot of time and attention is paid to the dynamics of the Salmon family and how Susie’s murder affects them all, how it starts to pull the family unit apart but also how her memory ultimately brings them back together with new happiness and love. In the film this theme is skimmed over at best with the positives being reduced to a few shots at the end over Susie’s last voiceover. Basically lip service is paid to the main themes of the book leaving the film feeling rather hollow and lacking. I know that in adapting a book to a film you need to cut away lots of stuff and move stuff around and focus your story more. But when doing that removes much of the point of the story then why bother? So in Peter Jackson’s film we get the pared down, straightforward story of fourteen year old Susie (Saoirse Ronan) being murdered, who then goes to ‘the in-between’ and runs around CGI hills and beaches, yearning for her aborted first kiss with Ray Singh while also watching her dad Jack (Mark Wahlberg) smash up his ships in bottles and obsess about finding her killer. Yep, bare bones of the book and rather unfulfilling. It is odd that Jackson, his wife Fran Walsh together with Phillipa Boyens who between them did such a grand and masterful job adapting the huge Lord of the Rings seem to have dropped the ball with a smaller more intimate tale.

Now, having been rather harsh, this is still a Peter Jackson film. And as a Peter Jackson film The Lovely Bones is technically very well made with certain sequences, scenes and moments being excellent and hitting their targets bang on. The entirety of the sequence in the cornfield with Susie being enticed by George Harvey and then meeting her end at his hands (which we don’t thankfully see) is beautifully directed and acted. You sit there watching it, knowing what is coming, saying to yourself ‘Please…just turn around and run home, Susie.’ Apart from the rape, which doesn’t happen anyway in the movie, and the murder itself, this sequence looks and feels just like how it was described in the book. Then there is Susie’s dad smashing up his ships in bottles and then seeing the strange candlelight reflection in the window. That was genuinely moving. As was the afterlife sequence where Susie realises the true horror of Harvey’s crimes. The sequence where Susie’s little sister Lindsey breaks in to Harvey’s house is also straight from the book and is handled very well. It is supremely tense and creepy.

And so what of the cast? Casting the central role of young Susie Salmon was pivotal to this film. You have to get from Susie innocence combined with genuine rage and sadness for everything she has lost and will never have. She is smart but not especially so. Sister Lindsey is the really bright one who excels at school and at sports. Susie is just a normal teenage girl full of conflicting emotions and bubbling hormones, trying to become a woman and yet still childlike in many of her ways. As Susie, Saoirse Ronan is good. She is not great – but then she is not given especially great material to work with and has probably been directed in an ill-advised manner on occasion. The main culprit for this is in the over sickly and breathy voiceovers. They should have sounded more subtle, mature and wise in their speaking. Instead they are rather overwrought and theatrical. But she is certainly a good actress and with her long limbs and huge emotive blue eyes she looks striking and sells her scenes well enough. Mark Wahlberg as Susie’s dad Jack is good too. It is a low key and understated performance. He is not required to do much except be a nice, quiet chap before later on getting bleary eyed and quietly heartbroken. And Marky Mark does fine. He is believable as a father who has lost the brightest thing in his life. His steady, low-key, unyielding obsession over finding Susie’s killer is played nicely. Rachel Wiesz as Susie’s mum Abigail sadly makes no impact at all. She plays a tiny role in the film and disappears for a large section. Her entire backstory and subplot has been removed. Susan Sarandon as Grandma Lynn is good fun as the comic relief – even more so here than in the book. And then there is Stanley Tucci as George Harvey, the Salmon’s neighbour and the killer of Susie. He is the standout in the film and is very good indeed. Perhaps too good. Tucci is instantly creepy and repulsive as the loner, dollhouse building Harvey. But to be fair that was the character from the book. Almost everyone in the book thought Harvey was odd and creepy with that being the main factor why Jack and his daughter Lindsey suspected him of Susie’s death. And Tucci is certainly good at being bad. Harvey is a genuine monster whose monstrous deeds and compulsions become further revealed towards films end. His manner is reptilian and his methods disgustingly well thought out and planned. You really hope he gets what’s coming to him. Nobody else in the film makes any impact. Ruth and Ray who should have been main characters are sidelined. The actors look the part and say their few lines well enough. But that’s it.

In the end The Lovely Bones is rather a disappointment for me. It is far from a bad film, though. Peter Jackson just seems to have missed much of the point of the story. And while certain parts are handled beautifully and will give your tear ducts a good testing, he has also misjudged or simply missed out things that would give this story the genuine overall impact that it deserves. To my mind the film he made is too overblown, sanitised and over-reliant on flashy CGI. It feels oddly hollow at its core and is lacking in an overall emotional connection while appearing rather muddled in what it is trying to do and/or say. And yet, despite its shortcomings, I still kinda like it…mainly for the scenes and moments Jackson gets dead right. For example Ray telling Susie, “You are beautiful, Susie Salmon.” Grandma Lynn telling Susie about first kisses, saying, “Just have fun, kid.” Ruth seeing Susie’s spirit rush past her in the night. The candle’s ghostly flickering in Susie’s dad’s window. The reveal of the extent of Harvey’s monstrous crimes and the following sad-yet-happy realisation by Susie that she is not alone. And the lovely final words and good wishes Susie gives to us the audience before the screen grows dark. A good film in parts then, but not really one that works as a whole. This is no Heavenly Creatures and certainly no Lord of the Rings. And that’s a real shame.



  1. It's gotta be said, I really, really like this film.

    There are a couple of things affecting my opinion (the first being obvious)...

    1/ I've never read the book, so I have no frame of reference to become disappointed.

    2/ I watched two, raw, powerful dramas before this (The Road and Precious). And while both are powerful and commendable, for my tastes, gritty, unrelenting misery aren't always the way to go for a great film (even if they do have an uplifting ending).

    I kinda saw it, not as a indepth character study of family and friends dealing with grief...but as a dark fable...with a twisted fairy tale sensibility (funnily enough, A Little Princess came to mind).

    I'll post a review later, when I've got my head round it a bit more.

  2. I gotta be clear...I do like the film but mainly for its parts rather than its whole. PJ don't make bad films. I just don't love it. It's just not the version of this story I was hoping for. The book is uplifting as well as horrific and sad. It is not unrelentingly grim as its overall message and arc is positive and hopeful.

    I mean to watch this again with a bit more distance from having read the book. I didn't hate it or actively dislike it as many seem to have, I was just a little disappointed by the direction PJ chose to go. It failed to make that overall connection with me that, say, A Little Princess did (again). But I'm glad it worked for you.

    Being in a PJ mood I've just finished rewatching the extended Lord of the Rings trilogy for the first time in ages. Jesus Christ! I'd almost forgotten just how bloody awesome and utter genius it is. Three of the greatest films ever made. Period.