The Lovely Bones is haunting, violent, beautiful, mysterious, and wonderful. Peter Jackson’s 2009 adaptation is some of those things. Both open with a young narrator telling us that she was 14 years old when she was murdered on December 6, 1973. That’s how we meet Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan): already gone and telling us not the story of her life and death (although that’s in there, too), but the story of her family after her death. A portrait of a family in grief. A dirge for the living. orke_book_1Of course, that’s not all Sebold has on offer. The Lovely Bones is also a cleverly disguised coming of age tale (both for Lindsey, Susie’s younger sister, and Susie herself), as well as a metaphor for the physical disassociation a rape victim sometimes feels from her own body. Yes, rape. If you only watched the movie, you might not have guessed that George Harvey (Stanley Tucci) is not only Susie’s murderer but also her rapist; and that there was a brief moment between her rape and her murder when Susie considered the possibility that the worst was behind her.
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It’s implied that he’s a pedophile, but that’s as far as movie will take it. Let me be clear: I have no interest in watching scenes of rape and murder, and I wouldn’t have any interest in filming one if I were Jackson, Ronan, or Tucci. I’m hung up on this point because it’s essential to Susie’s story, as well as essential to understanding it, and Jackson et al. tread so lightly on this point that they leave no footprint. Film may be a visual medium, but there are ways to suggest things to the audience without actually showing them.
Jackson’s adaptation rolls downhill from there. Movie Susie feels life ebbing away from her and grabs onto the top of a flower, forcing herself into the Inbetween. There, she’s confused and alone until she meets Holly (Nikki SooHoo), who helps her navigate her new world. It’s just the two of them in a perfect world of their own making. Book Susie, however, puts her dismembered body back together and meets Franny, her intake specialist, and Holly, her roommate. Book Susie’s heaven is populated with real men and women who died and now live in infinite, overlapping heavens.
While the movie remembers that the women wear gowns and are sometimes overrun with dogs, it forgets that Holly plays her saxophone at Evensong. That there are other people to form patterns of living, even amongst the dead. Previously in Book vs. Film: Twilight Watchmen The Time Traveler’s Wife New Moon Mostly, the movie fails the novel in the same way. It’s like someone told screenwriters Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens the story rather than let them read the novel for themselves, so they throw in details without understanding why Sebold put them in to begin with.
They remember that Mr. Harvey uses alarms to tell him when to open and close the drapes, but forget to link the alarms to his inability to authentically replicate the rhythms of suburbia. They include the lyricism of a heart beating like a “hammer against cloth” but forget that it’s Mr. Harvey’s, directly after the rape, that beats that way, never Susie’s. Susie’s heart skipped like a rabbit. These seem like small things, but they add up to way a novel — a movie — is remembered. The movie’s other notable failing is the way it confuses the timeline.
The emphasis goes on Jack’s (Mark Wahlberg, who picked up the role directly after filming The Happening and is stuck in the same hyper-earnest mode) search for a killer, digging up tax records and personal files on every shady man he can think of. It takes 11 months before the police even turn up Susie’s hand-knit hat. The book is much more gruesome, detailed, sharp: Susie’s elbow turns up three days later, the hat within weeks. Mr. Harvey is the first, and only, suspect on Book Jack’s list. He knows it instinctively after helping Mr.
Harvey build a structure in his backyard (a ceremonial tent in the book and a duck blind in the movie) in both cases, but it’s two years on in the movie. It’s within the first month in the novel. The Salmon family in the novel just knows in a way that the movie won’t let them. yorke_movie_1 © DreamWorks Pictures So, book or film? Book. Though the movie is relentlessly devoted to removing anything from the novel that would blemish its PG-13 rating, it does posit its own theory on what keeps Susie from moving on beyond the living.
Movie Susie lives in denial about what really happened to her, about what happened to so many girls because of George Harvey, and this denial becomes a metaphor in its own right: the invisibility that a rape victim can feel when no one knows what happened. The filmmakers lighten up on Abigail (Rachel Weisz), cutting out her affair with police detective Len Fenerman (Michael Imperioli) and having her return after Jack is nearly beaten to death instead of leaving afterward. Obviously a lot of thought and work went into creating Susie’s perfect world, a day-glo wonderland befitting a 1970s teen.
It’s part Lisa Frank, part gothic romance novel, part Seventeen. Still, the movie seems almost afraid to deal with its source directly. While it may be stunning to look at, and while Saoirse Ronan is a dream of an actor (her translucent skin not unlike Evan Rachel Wood’s back in the day), the movie lacks the tone, complexity, and sheer breadth that make Sebold’s novel such a valuable, rewarding read. As heavy as the subject matter may be, she knows when to let off the gas. It’s a grace that the movie never fully finds.