There’s always a challenge in adapting a novel as popular as Alice Sebold’s best-selling “The Lovely Bones” into film form – particularly if the book also features the supernatural and has a time frame that seems particularly fluid.
After all, the book and film’s narrator, Susie Salmon (Saorise Ronan), is a ghost, murdered before the story starts, telling her tale from heaven. In the book (and, to a lesser extent, in the film), she is untethered in time. While she can focus on the story’s present (Norristown, PA, circa 1973), she can be in all times at once, as when she does a quick tour of all the other victims of her killer.
There aren’t many directors seemingly equipped to provide the visual imagination for creating heaven on Earth – or Earth, as it is in heaven – as Peter Jackson, who imagined Middle Earth in its entirety. His adaptation of Sebold’s novel is moving and suspenseful, if a tad reductionist. But what movie version of a novel isn’t?
Because, of course, movies aren’t books. Literature can leave stories unresolved – or unsatisfactorily resolved. It’s called ambiguity, and it can be a valid artistic choice. Big-budget studio films, however, have no time for that kind of silliness. A successful mainstream movie has to appeal to people who don’t read, aren’t interested in ambiguity, and want their entertainment to have an easily understood ending.
Yet, despite tightening the story to give it more of that kind of focus, Jackson still manages to be true to Sebold’s vision. This isn’t a mystery, a whodunit or a thriller about whether the killer will be caught. It’s a drama about grief and letting go of it after a tragedy has turned your life inside out (or ended it altogether).
Susie is 14 in 1973 when she is murdered in a cornfield by her neighbor, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci). As played with creepy restraint by Tucci, Harvey is bland and beige, a monster disguised as a suburban geek with a bad comb-over who makes elaborate dollhouses for a living.
Harvey lives just down the street from the Salmon family and it takes a while for Susie’s father (Mark Wahlberg) and sister (Rose McIver) to focus on him as a suspect, something the police never do. But again, that’s not really what this film is about.
Rather, it’s about the ripple effect of Susie’s murder. Or perhaps tsunami is the more accurate metaphor: It capsizes and swamps the lives of her parents (Rachel Weisz plays her mother), siblings and friends. Susie watches from heaven, trying to communicate (and getting through, vaguely, in the form of shivers and other feelings that her family gets at moments when she’s trying hardest).
But as Susie learns – and tries to convey – life is about appreciating the small moments of happiness, and about moving past grief, to reconnect with the world in which we live. In her case, it’s about releasing her grip on Earth – and on her family. That connection, in this universe, is a two-way street, with the deceased as a participant in the equation.
Jackson’s hallucinatory visuals of Susie’s heaven are both startling and enthralling: images that seem to melt and blend and morph even as you watch them. There’s a clarity and sharpness to these images that masks the viewer’s inability to pin them down because they swirl from one thing to another – from a wheatfield to a river, from a beach to a forest – they transform before your eyes.
The script he has written with his “Lord of the Rings” collaborators Fran Walsh and Phillippa Boyens compresses the story admirably, if occasionally unsatisfyingly. But with a book this encompassing, it would be impossible to film it all without extending it into miniseries length.
The cast is a strong ensemble, in which Wahlberg, Weisz, Ronan, Tucci, Susan Sarandon (as Susie’s boozy, caring grandmother) and Michael Imperioli (as the police detective on the case) all blend into the larger scheme of Jackson’s film. There’s nothing showy about the performances; rather, they create the sense of a family, a neighborhood, a mini-universe – all disrupted by the death of this girl.
It’s a hard subject beautifully handled, with an artistry that makes “The Lovely Bones” a memorably intelligent and emotional experience.