Shortly after I read The Lovely Bones in 2002, I started hearing rumblings that it was being optioned for a movie. My immediate reaction was “Why?” The emotionally devastating novel about the rape and murder of a fourteen year old seemed like dubious source material. The murdered girl resides in a self imposed ethereal limbo-land between heaven and earth for most of the book, making it logistical nightmare to film. I just didn’t understand how a filmmaker could pull it off.
In the case of director Peter Jackson, he couldn’t, and he didn’t. Jackson worked his magic with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but he is woefully out of his element here. The most shocking thing about seeing the film is that it is completely devoid of any emotion or warmth, the very characteristics that made the book so beloved. So much consideration is given to unnecessary special effects (that don’t even look good) that the crucial human interactions are lost, and that is a true pity. If you take those away, there is no reason to see this movie.
Oscar-nominee Saoirse Ronan (Atonement) plays Susie Salmon, who disappears on her way home from school one day. A nerdy and harmless looking neighbor, Mr. Harvey, lures Susie to a root-cellar like building in the middle of a field with the sheepish confession he has built a playhouse for the neighborhood kids. Susie feels honored to be the first child to see the playhouse, but she is ultimately raped, murdered, and dismembered in the claustrophobic dwelling.
Initially, she is not aware that she is dead, because she can see and hear her loved ones, as well as Mr. Harvey. She spends the next several years watching her family mature and change, particularly her older sister, who is falling in love for the first time. It is a rare poignant moment, because Susie longs to experience those typical teenage milestones that she has been so cruelly denied.
Jackson tries to straddle the line between murder-mystery and fantasy, but it just doesn’t work. Murder-mystery movies are a dime a dozen, and this one doesn’t have anything compelling enough to drive the movie, especially since we know who the killer is from the beginning. The fantasy sequences of the “in between” are poorly executed, and the set pieces are just horrible.
They look plastic and gaudy, and better suited to a Willy Wonka movie than an emotionally haunting story. I have no idea how this movie consumed a $100 million budget.
Casting is also a disaster. Ryan Gosling was originally cast as Susie’s father, but was replaced because he did not look old enough (I love Ryan Gosling, but I agree whole-heartedly with that decision.) However, he was replaced by Mark Wahlberg, who just didn’t convince me as the grieving father.
Rachel Weisz is criminally underused as the mother, and almost every bit of her story arc is stripped from the movie. Also missing: the relationship between psychic teenager Clarissa and Susie’s spirit. That pretty much leaves the sprawling two hour running time filled with far too many scenes in the fabricated heaven.
There is one bit of inspired casting. Stanley Tucci is very effective as Mr. Harvey. His performance is quite chilling, and destined to give many parents nightmares.
I rarely tell people not to see a movie, but if you read the book, you are flat out going to be disappointed, if not puzzled. I think that this is a case of a complete misinterpretation of the source material by a director. Jackson tackled a story that really should have been left alone. If you loved the book, skip the movie and read the book again.