The man who managed to film Lord Of The Rings has chosen to adapt introspective afterlife novel The Lovely Bones, and once again he's taken some liberties. But the result is a surprisingly seamless fusion of Hitchcock and Salvador Dali.
As with LOTR, Peter Jackson's adaptation of Alice Sebold's Bones is the sum of its aesthetic choices, times the auteur's vision. Jackson brings a vibrant surrealism and suspense to the adaptation, and it says a lot that he chose Brian Eno to do the music for it. Spoilers below.
The Lovely Bones is the story of young Susie Salmon, who's murdered by a serial killer, and who then observes the aftermath as a ghost. A girl in her early teens, Susie is compellingly played by the luminous Saoirse Ronan. She observes the grief of her family, and their floundering responses as the police consider every possible suspect but the right one; she experiences an afterlife that seems a strangely logical mix of its own rules and her internal world. (In places it's a little like a subtler version of What Dreams May Come, without the philosophy-and without a Cuba Gooding, Jr). She resists complete absorption into the next world, drawn back to psychically finger the residue of her own uncompleted life.
The novel's story is told by the murdered girl. In the book, Susie says: "My murderer was a man from our neighborhood. My mother liked his border flowers, and my dad talked to him once about fertilizer." This voice, as voice-over, usually simple, sometimes penetrating, neatly interlaces and tightens the film's narration. The use of voiceover is famously a cinematic bugaboo, a chain holding many films back - it mars Kubrick's otherwise brilliant film noir, The Killing - but occasionally it can work, and here's the occasion. Saoirse Ronan's voiceover brings the first-person voice of the novel into the film, so that we feel haunted by her as we watch events unfold. Jackson uses the voiceover just enough, and in just the right places.
We know early on - as in the novel - that Susie Salmon will be murdered, because she tells us so. But somehow Jackson makes us afraid for her anyway, though her doom is a kind of fait accompli from the first. Jackson stretches out the suspense about who does it for awhile, but by the end of the first act you know it's "Mr. Harvey." The psychopathic Mr Harvey, a predator who can be just charming enough to be well camouflaged, is played with creepy brilliance by Stanley Tucci - you absolutely know that this character is a guy from your neighborhood who's very fussy about his flowers, very punctual, lives alone. You accept that he builds dollhouses - perhaps miniature houses is a better description - as a hobby. And somehow his little quirks quite logically dovetail with the fact that he likes to rape, murder, and dismember young girls. We infer we shouldn't trust people who are too neat, wound too tight, and too charming. Good advice. The scenes where Mr. Harvey stalks Susie, and entraps her in the little pre-adolescent play-chamber he builds, like a dollhouse, under the cornfield - a resonantly symbolic setting - are quite frightening. One knows what will happen, and it doesn't help. Jackson's skills at suspense and the elucidation of fear – the bringing of background fear cracklingly into the foreground, at precisely the right moment - are powerfully in evidence.
The afterlife of The Lovely Bones has its various facets, like the Bible's "many mansions"; there is a kind of dark afterlife bardo feel to part of it, but there's also the freedom of living one's dreams, in a light-hearted way, as a fourteen year old girl. Never forget, when Jackson shows you her afterlife, that it's her afterlife. It's the afterlife of a girl in her early teens. In one segment that might strike some as a bit airyfairy, there is a Little Prince style planet; there are butterflies and teen-fantasy outfits. She even sees herself fleetingly on the cover of a teen magazine. But this isn't your afterlife. It's the afterlife of a girl who had teen heartthrob photos on her bedroom wall. That sequence is not overlong, and it makes sense. And it's just a portion of her life-after-death - other parts are almost Mordor-like; are certainly fraught with symbol and infused with a living presence, so that we're never surprised when it responds to psychological impulses from Susie or the mortal world. The scenes in the Next World are often spectacular - and yet they meld potently with the drama of the mortal world.
Susie's relationship with her father, likably played by Mark Wahlberg, is more powerful than her relationship with her mother - Rachel Weisz—whom we know largely from her grief. Her father is obsessed with finding her killer, and is thoroughly unsuited for it - eventually, spiritually guided by Susie in an understated way, he intuits the killer's identity. When he tries to do something about it, his fury bears bitter fruit, in keeping with the film's theme of acceptance over hatred.
It may be that the second act, at times, doesn't quite cohere, doesn't always lead immaculately into the third. Occasionally it seems episodic. But the film's imagery and characters exert a pull that draws us relentlessly along, and the third act plays out compellingly.
Susie's sister is the one who finds the evidence the blind, flailing adults overlook while Susan Sarandon, as the alcoholic, bohemian grandmother — holds the family together. Chainsmoking, endearingly incompetent , the character is wonderful, completely convincing, and sometimes quite funny. Sarandon may get a best-supporting-actress nomination for this - she simply becomes this woman.
Susie's murder has been with us from the first, in a way, but chronologically it comes right after she meets a stunningly Byronic young immigrant from Britain (reminiscent of the young man the girls love from the Twilight pictures), who might have been her soul-mate... had she not been murdered; had her life, with all its drama and joy, its highs and troughs not been brutally, maddeningly, senselessly and oh-so-pointlessly interrupted. This is one of the film's most poignant throughlines, and provides some of its emotional resolution, in time. Just in time - to rescue an ending that some might find a little unsatisfying.
The film strays in some places from Sebold's narrative, but the end belongs to the novel, a resolution as much emotional as plot-driven. It's a denouement written by an artist, not by a Hollywood screenwriter. There must have been some Suits feeling angst over that ending, when the studio distributors saw it. (I notice they aren't spending a lot of money promoting The Lovely Bones.) Not that it's a bad ending - it's just deep. And they don't like deep. Will they recognize the cunning symbolism of the faces in the dollhouse windows? The little ships suddenly taking shape in the bottles?
I found the ending to be just frustrating enough — about as frustrating as our world is. And it is another example of choices defining an adaptation. Some fans of the book may carp about certain freedoms Jackson took, but most will hopefully see that in this very creative, authoritative film Peter Jackson preserves the characters, the theme, the dread, the delight found in the novel - and has added just enough of his own.
John Shirley's newest novels are Black Glass: The Lost Cyberpunk Novel, and Bleak History