Critics were horrified by The Lovely Bones, and not because it deals with the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl. In Peter Jackson's hands, the complex themes of Alice Sebold's award-winning book are reduced to a sentimental CGI whodunit.
The Lovely Bones is the story of Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan), who is murdered in 1973 by her neighbor George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), after he lures her into his underground den. After her death, Susie, stuck in "the InBetween," watches as her father (Mark Wahlberg), mother (Rachel Weisz), grandmother (Susan Sarandon), sister (Rose McIver), brother (Christian Thomas Ashdale), and a detective (Michael Imperioli), cope with her death and try to solve her murder.
Reviewers say director Peter Jackson, who wrote the film adaptation along with Lord of the Rings screenwriters Fran Walsh (also Jackson's wife) and Philippa Boyens, doesn't do the book justice. While the novel allows readers to create their own image of the afterlife Susie creates for herself, critics dislike Jackson's tacky, overly-saturated CGI vision of heaven. Most of the performances are strong, especially Ronan's, but frequent interruptions by Jackson's fantasy world and a preachy, "Oprah-esque tone" undermine the emotional story of how each family member deals with their grief.
Though the film tones down the more disturbing aspects of the book by having Susie murdered off screen and only hinting at her rape, critics are still offended by how Susie's story is handled. While Jackson's early horror films and Lord of the Rings' work demonstrated that he's fascinated by gory details and Heavenly Creatures revealed an ability to tell a more delicate story, in The Lovely Bones critics say there is too much fantasy and horror, and Jackson shies away from the heart of his source material. Below, the reviews:
Sitting through Peter Jackson's film of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones is an ordeal. I'm not talking about the subject. The book opens with the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl, so even a good adaptation would be an ordeal. But Jackson's adolescent New Age computer-generated fantasyland is an excruciating fusion of the novel's primal trauma and his own sensibility, which is more at home with juvenile, male-dominated Lord of the Rings epics. There isn't a second that rings true - on any level.
The novel never flinched, the movie does. But Jackson, who builds jolting suspense when Susie's sister enters the killer's lair, is drawn to a spiritual dimension. He may oversaturate the Claritin-ad colors in Susie's in-between place, but he infuses the film with a sense that what lies beyond may have the power to heal. All this is conveyed in the remarkable performance of Ronan, an Oscar nominee for Atonement. She and Tucci - magnificent as a man of uncontrollable impulses - help Jackson cut a path to a humanity that supersedes life and death.
Tucci plays the killer not with a madman's sneers and cackles but with a quiet malevolence; he's never more ice-shivery than when he's pretending to be normal. Such a performance could have upset the movie's balance if Wahlberg hadn't provided the solid foundation of parental devotion. The center, of course, is Ronan, the Irish teen best remembered as the girl whose lie set lives tumbling in Atonement. As the dead girl hovering over her family like a guardian angel, Ronan makes Susie seem an ordinary child whom catastrophe has made otherworldly-wise. Through Jackson's art and Ronan's magic, the obscenity of child murder has been invested with immense gravity and grace. Like the story of Susie's life after death, that's a miracle.
Other elements, including The Lovely Bones' imaginative notion of what Susie's afterlife looks like, are strong, but everything that's good is undermined by an overemphasis on one part of the story that is essential but has been allowed to overflow its boundaries. That would be the film's decision to foreground its weirdest, creepiest, most shocking elements, starting with the decision to give a much more prominent role to murderer George Harvey. Expertly played by Stanley Tucci, so transformed by makeup as to be almost unrecognizable, Harvey is such an unsettling, toxic individual that the actor says he came close to turning down the role. It's not only Harvey that we see in sometimes grotesque detail, it's the bizarre decorations of the underground murder site that we watch him ever so carefully plan and build, as well as the realistic bodies of his previous victims. And there is of course the chilling time the family spends trying to solve Susie's murder.
Jackson reduces his Lovely Bones, in the end, to the dramatic contrast between the menace of a hateful killer (will he be caught?) and the grief of a loving father (can he avenge his daughter's death?). Sebold's Lovely Bones, on the other hand, is fleshed out with the perilous, irresistible power of sex - the author acknowledges a real world of extramarital sex and sex between young lovers in addition to the heinous rape from which moviegoers are shielded. The filmmaker handled the sexual power of girls beautifully in 1994's Heavenly Creatures. But here he shies from the challenge, shortchanging a story that isn't only about the lightness of souls in heaven but also about the urges of bodies on earth. Jackson forfeits depth for safe, surface loveliness.
The Lovely Bones is often moving, almost in spite of itself. Jackson draws excruciating tension out of scenes where the audience knows exactly what's coming but the characters don't, and his dreamlike, allusive handling of Ronan's murder is stunning. The afterlife scenes are gorgeous, even though they often seem to be ultra-glossy updates of sequences he managed with more heart back in 1994 with Heavenly Creatures. And Ronan remains a tender, touching performer, though Wahlberg edges perilously close to his bug-eyed sincerity mode from The Happening. But for all its successes, Bones remains more crafted than sincere, more meant to look achingly pretty on the screen than to resonate in the heart.
The book was brought off with considerable delicacy-it's really an affectionately detailed portrait of a suburban girl's life. Literalized in the movie, the material is closer to a high-toned ghost story. Jackson intermingles family goings on with Susie's gossamer interventions, and some of the brushed-with-ether imagery verges on the uncanny. Yet Jackson has become an undisciplined fabulist: the movie is redundant and undramatic. Heaven is notoriously harder to make interesting than Hell, but Jackson has outdone other artists in cotton candy-there are luscious hills and dales, and gleaming lakes and fields of waving grain, and sugarplum fairies with music by Brian Eno rather than by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The Lovely Bones has been fashioned as a holiday family movie about murder and grief; it's a thoroughly queasy experience. The lesson that Susie has to learn is that she must "let go" of her past life. Meanwhile, skilled, opportunistic artificers like Alice Sebold and Peter Jackson won't let go of a chance to mingle life and death.
Onscreen, however, The Lovely Bones is a hybrid of unmatching parts-shuffling between thriller, police procedural, family melodrama, and mystical fantasy. There's even a section-when Susie's madcap grandmother (Susan Sarandon) shows up to help the grieving family-during which the movie verges on becoming Auntie Mame. How do you literalize heaven? It's a problem moviemakers have struggled with forever, and Jackson hasn't solved it. Sebold's notion was that everyone creates a heaven to fit her fantasies and wishes. Jackson creates the afterlife of a 14-year-old raised on '70s teen life and pop culture-a kitsch universe of greeting-card imagery and Renaissance Faire clothes. The tackiness, intentional or not, is jarring. Even worse is the vision of Susie and the other murdered girls as a happy, gamboling clan of free spirits. At such moments, the story's willful wish fulfillment seems downright cuckoo.
We all like children, and - at least in our capacity as moviegoers, book-club members and consumers of true-life melodrama - we seem to like them best when they're abused, endangered or dead. Nothing else is quite so potent a symbol of violated innocence, a spur to pious sentiment or a goad to revenge as a child in peril.
[Susie] is, in any case, obsessed with the lives that go on without her, in particular with the ways her siblings and friends and father (Mark Wahlberg, agonized) and mother (Rachel Weisz, narcotized) deal with losing her, something the audience never has to endure. We are always in Susie's company, soothed by her voice-over narration and tickled by her coltish high spirits. This puts a curious distance between us and most of the characters in the film - it makes us, in effect, Susie's fellow ghosts - a detachment that Mr. Jackson's stylish, busy technique makes more acute. His young heroine, played with unnerving self-assurance and winning vivacity by Saoirse Ronan, cares desperately about the poor living souls left in her wake, but it is not clear that Mr. Jackson shares her concern.... the problem with this Lovely Bones is that it dithers over hard choices, unsure of which aspects of Ms. Sebold's densely populated, intricately themed novel should be emphasized and which might be winnowed or condensed.
The Lovely Bones also exists in the in-between, located somewhere in the interstices between thriller, fantasy, crime procedural (Michael Imperioli, The Sopranos' Christopher, plays the detective who tries to catch Susie's killer), and family-in-dissolution drama. Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz play Susie's grief-addled parents (they also have two younger children, played by Rose McIver and Christian Thomas Ashdale). There are moments that remind you what a master craftsman Jackson can be, like a pulse-pounding suspense scene in which Susie's sister ransacks the killer's house for evidence. But as Susie learns that avenging her death may matter less than giving her family a chance to heal, the movie takes on a weirdly Oprah-esque tone, as if determined to turn child murder into an occasion for personal growth. Scene by scene, the movie alternates between prurient violence and sentimental uplift. If it weren't for the luminous performance of Saoirse Ronan (who, I've said it before and I'll say it again, is going to be a huge star), this would be the kind of movie you'd give up on halfway through.
With reddish hair, brilliantly alive eyes and a seemingly irrepressible impulse for movement and activity, Ronan represents a heavenly creature indeed, a figure of surging, eager, anticipatory life cut off just as it is budding. Less quicksilver and more solidly built, McIver's Lindsey properly begins in her live-wire sister's shadow only to grow gradually into an impressive figure. Chain-smoking and depleting the liquor cabinet, Sarandon camps it up for a few welcome laughs, while Ritchie seems a likely candidate for teen idolhood. Mainly, it's Wahlberg and Weisz who are shortchanged by the film's divided attention between earthly agony and astral accommodation. Both thesps are OK as far as things go, but that's not nearly far enough.
And at this point in his working life he can use the prodigious digital resources of Weta, his production facility, to conjure up infinite worlds of special effects. Which, heaven help us, is exactly what he's done to visualize the Inbetween. The result is dumbfounding and ludicrous in equal measure, a too-muchness that makes the excesses of What Dreams May Come seem downright spartan. If Reader's Digest did music videos they might look like this. The screen pulses with bathos and swirls with surreal images, some of them shamelessly intercut with the life of Susie's bereaved family on earth-giant ships in giant bottles, fields of daisies, butterflies, cute dogs, cherry blossoms, baobab trees out of The Little Prince, a hot-air balloon, ice sculptures, snow-covered mountains, a gazebo in a lake, the same gazebo in a corn field, the same field lighted by a lighthouse. By the time Susie finally ascended to the highest realm, I was not only aghast but so exhausted by her surfeit of experience that I heard, as if touched by magic myself, those deathless lyrics from Talking Heads: "Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens...."
In Jackson's hands, The Lovely Bones is doubly appalling. Part Disney's Alice in Wonderland, part Fritz Lang's M, the movie is horrific yet cloying, alternately distended and abrupt, sometimes poignant and often ridiculous... As the novel suggests a form of talk therapy, Jackson's adaptation is a misguided tribute to the magic of the movies-which have always specialized in reanimating the dead. But there is something to be said for representing the actual world and there are some things that can only be visualized in the mind's eye. What heaven could have been more radiant than a child's view of her suburban neighborhood-what spectacle more divine than Susan Sarandon's wig?
The Lovely Bones is a fiercely delicate and often funny piece of writing, a work of fantasy with a solid footing in reality, and it wouldn't be an easy book for any filmmaker to adapt. Jackson (aided and abetted by frequent collaborators Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, who co-wrote the screenplay with him) has reinvented Sebold's story in the most facile and heedless way imaginable: He's turned it into a supernatural thriller.
The Lovely Bones is a perfect storm of a movie disaster: You've got good actors fighting a poorly conceived script, under the guidance of a director who can no longer make the distinction between imaginativeness and computer-generated effects. The result is an expensive-looking mess that fails to capture the mood, and the poetry, of its source material. David Byrne once sang, "Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens." There's way too much going on in Peter Jackson's heaven — and yet it isn't nearly enough.