Movie Review: The Lovely Bones
The Charlotte Observer
Every work of literature is merely a jumping-off point for a filmmaker. But anyone who dumps the central premise of a beloved and respected book had better carry us to an astonishing new plateau.
That's not the case with “The Lovely Bones,” Peter Jackson's prosaic adaptation of Alice Sebold's poetic novel.
In the book, 14-year-old Susie comes to maturity in heaven, vicariously experiencing the joys she was denied when a neighbor rapes and murders her. As the years go by, she sees members of her family achieve happiness and peace. She finds sexual fulfillment by occupying the body of a psychic girl she once knew, and she learns to leave behind the pains and fears of Earth.
What has director Jackson given us instead? A mundane story where Susie (Saoirse Ronan of “Atonement”) lives in “the blue horizon,” a place resembling the painterly settings of “What Dreams May Come,” and eggs her dad (Mark Wahlberg) on to revenge against evil Mr. Harvey (Stanley Tucci). A movie that should've sought an R rating is sanitized to PG-13, because Jackson tones down the brutal crime and Susie's sexual pleasure as a celestial being.
Jackson, who wrote the script with regular collaborators Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, has turned the quietly frightening Harvey into a goggle-eyed creep with a deranged giggle, comb-over haircut and pervy mustache.
Jackson has placed monsters near the center of all 11 features he's directed, so you can see why he thought Mr. Harvey was a key focal point of the story. But all the effort spent on the will-they-catch-him plot detracts from the touching changes he ought to be depicting in Susie, her friends and kin. (One of the most appealing parts of the book is that Susie develops empathy for her slayer, who had a traumatic childhood.)
Where Sebold had time to develop characters, Jackson and his cohorts cram them in carelessly. Susie's grandma (Susan Sarandon), a wacky alcoholic prattler, briefly turns the movie into a domestic sitcom. Susie's mom (Rachel Weisz) becomes a throwaway role. Ruth (Carolyn Dando), Susie's portal to human contact, is a generic Goth poet. Ray (Reece Ritchie), the Indian student on whom Susie has a crush, barely exists.
Nor do the writers seem satisfied with incidents from the book. A character whose knee was broken with a baseball bat is now beaten into a near-coma. Harvey buried Susie's remains at once in the novel; now he stores them in a safe and stares at it night after night in his basement. (A safe that requires two men to roll it along flat ground, but which Harvey carries up a flight of stairs by himself at top speed. Now, that's bad writing.)
Performances become almost inconsequential when the roles are so superficial. Wahlberg does better with toughness than tenderness, so he's best when the father turns obsessive. Tucci gives Jackson what he wanted, and Sarandon has a minor romp as the grumpy granny.
Ronan, however, transcends the script. She's innocent yet wise, gentle yet forceful. She's the one thing in this picture that shows how great a movie “The Lovely Bones” might have been, had the people who made it believed in the book with all their hearts.