Film Review: The Lovely Bones

And, as promised, here is the film version of The Lovely Bones. I must confess up front, my primary reason for seeing this was to see Peter Jackson at work. While I haven’t caught up on his earlier splatter films, like most of the world, I thoroughly enjoyed The Lord of the Rings. And, when taken for what it was, I thought his follow-up King Kong was jaw-droppingly astonishingly.

In all of those films, he has demonstrated that he is one of the most formidably talented filmmakers alive today when it comes to visual storytelling. He has got his filmmaking skills down to a level where he can convey many things in a strikingly visual way. While film is very much about story and acting as in other art forms, there is also a certain visual element that distinguishes it from other artforms, such as theatre or writing, and I think Jackson is close to the top of his game in knowing how to use all the filmmaking tricks today to tell a story.

However, Jackson does have a tendency towards excess. It’s as if he’s searching the stories he tells (and this decade, every one of them was invented by someone else) looking for big sequences – battle scenes, fight scenes, suspense scenes, clever editing scenes, aerial photography scenes. So what works well is having Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens as his screenwriters. F & B, who co-wrote the Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong, tend to bring an emotional sensitivity to the material they are working with, so that Jackson can have his big set pieces as he’s making the fim, but they’re tied into a cohesive storyline that will resonate with an audience.

So I did have high hopes that The Lovely Bones could be a success. And for a while, I thought the Jackson, Boyens, Walsh team might have pulled it off.

The first 15 minutes or so of the film, leading up to Susie’s murder, consists of various scenes either directly lifted from the Sebold novel or that are written to convey many of the same effects. For instance, we see Susie’s mother (played by Rachel Weisz) back when Susie was little with a bedside table loaded with philosophers and other great works of literature. Cut to 12 years later, and it’s loaded with cookbooks and mothering books. A reminder of how Susie’s mother took on the role of a housewife/mother, and cut herself off from her old interests and habits. (A significant storyline which was expanded on greatly in the novel.)

Or Susie’s voiceover narration talks about a man we see in the local shopping mall. She says something like, “He didn’t murder me. He looked strange, but really he had a daughter who died a year and a half later.” This reminds us of Susie’s all-seeing point of view and how she is aware in her heaven of when people die on earth, and watches their souls rise. Also, we establish Peter Jackson’s ferocious eye for detail. The 70s period just rises up, with clothes, music, cars, shopping malls – everything – feeling just right.

So, for those who read the book, the scene was set for many of the subplots which the readers would have been aware of. Then came the murder – the first major set piece of the film. Without showing us any on-screen bloodshed, Jackson gradually pulls us into what is going to happen in a tremendously creepy way – alternating all of this with the Salmon family sitting down for dinner – their last moment of normalcy before all hell breaks loose. The luring of Susie by Mr Harvey and the aftermath of her disappearance, and her own realisation that she has been killed are all conveyed brilliantly.

Where the film runs into trouble is what goes on from there. In the novel, once Sebold has established that Susie has been killed, Susie then spends the rest of the book flittering back and forth between different characters – her family, the boy at school she was interested in, her killer, Mr Harvey. What makes this so interesting is that Susie’s interests are quite diverse and she’s quite an understanding narrator – so she describes with the same level of detail and sympathy, her mother’s breakdown, her sister’s withdrawal into herself and the tortured world of Mr Harvey. This effectively stops the novel becoming a clich├ęd suspense thriller or revenge story.

And I think if Jackson and Co had kept up with the tone of the first 15 minutes, with its switching back and forth, they might have been able to pull this off.

Instead, the rest of the film is taken up with Peter Jackson sequences. These are long, extended, visually stunning collections of scenes built around the most cinematic moments they could pull out of the book. There’s obviously several heaven sequences – which provide the most surreal experience of all, especially when accompanied by the trance-like soundtrack that Brian Eno has provided for this film. Then there’s the one’s you’ve seen on the trailers – where Susie’s Dad goes into the cornfield with a baseball bat. And, the most suspenseful of all, when Susie’s sister Lindsay breaks into Mr Harvey’s house looking for evidence.

The problem is that while these sequences are all very well and make for gripping viewing, they don’t emotionally advance the story. The stuff that readers used to resonate with in the book was the little details about the character’s lives. And that is all gone. About mid-way through, I was preparing myself that a lot of the subplots would be gone, that a movie is different from a book and that the important thing is whether it gives me the same sort of emotional experience.

But, actually, no, it’s worse. There are bits missing everywhere. Ultimately, this film falls down, not because of what’s in it – but what is not in it. Susie’s high school crush, Ray Singh, after featuring heavily in the lead-up to her murder, disappears for most of the rest of the film. Ditto for Ruth Connors, the reclusive girl who sees Susie’s soul departing earth. Susie’s mother’s story is reduced to a bare outline. Susie’s dad fares a bit better, but even then that’s more to carry the plot along to the next big sequence rather than an emotional journey. Susan Sarandon does bring to life the essence of Susie’s grandmother Lynne from the novel, but she doesn’t have a huge part to play in all of this.

So ultimately, by the time Susie gets to her “lovely bones” speech (which is lifted straight out of the book – and no, I won’t explain what it’s about), it doesn’t ring very true.

Maybe all of this is because I read the book. It could well be that someone unfamiliar with the novel would find it a more compelling experience. Certainly, it’s visually arresting. But considering how faithfully Jackson stuck to the original atmosphere of Lord of the Rings and King Kong, I would have thought that he could have pulled this off here.

My own opinion is that one of two things have happened. Either:

1) The idea was to make a really simplified version of the novel that would survive based on the emotional weight of the visuals. Which it doesn’t quite succeed at, I’m afraid. Or:

2) There was a substantially longer, more character-driven cut of the film that was planned and the studio execs have forced Jackson to pare it back to the core story – and the obvious suspenseful, melodramatic moments. If that’s the case, then we could live in some hope that there will be one of his famous extended editions on DVD that will satisfy everyone. But I’m not so sure about that one . . .

Look, even with all the above, it’s more engaging and memorable than a lot of the cinema that I saw in 2009 and you certainly won’t get bored. But, sadly, a 3 1/2 out of 5.

Book Review: The Lovely Bones (Alice Sebold)

I don’t always chase up the book of a movie before I watch it, but in this case, Alice Sebold’s book was such a bestseller, even I’d heard of it. (I have so many books of my own that are still unread, I’ve kind of held off on reading new books, which means that there are many, many books out there which I haven’t had a chance to catch up on yet.)

I’m hoping to see the movie this evening, but I thought I would get my thoughts down on paper about the book before the movie affects my view of the book. (Too late to stop it going the other way.)

For those who haven’t heard of this book yet or somehow missed the hype about the movie, the story is pretty straightforward. A 14-year-old girl, Susie Salmon, is murdered by a man living near her house and the story goes on to talk about how her shattered family survive over the coming days, months and years. The twist with this story is that we know what’s going on because it’s narrated by Susie herself, speaking to us from heaven.

Susie’s heaven is a rather unusual place where she has an almost God’s eye view of the world and can watch everything that’s going on. The cleverness of this set-up is that in much the same way as her family have to get used to life without Susie, Susie is just as much going through her own process of having to let go of her family to go to Heaven proper.

The story is quite engaging – in fact, almost too engaging – as a father, I really struggled to get through the first couple of chapters, describing Susie’s murder. The detail isn’t super-horrific (while the concepts are borrowed from serial-killer novels, this is not meant to be one of those stories), but there’s enough for us to imagine it all in our head.

But the story gradually moves on from there to cover the individual members of the family, as they go through their various stages of coping. In addition, there is the matter of Susie’s killer, Mr Harvey, who successfully evades capture by the police at the time, but does not evade the suspicion of Susie’s Dad and sister.

How you respond to this novel will most likely be determined by how you respond to Alice Sebold’s prose and characters. The characters are all very well drawn and act in ways that felt completely real for me (under their particular circumstances). I had more trouble with the writing style – Susie narrates like no other 14-year-old I know. Sometimes she sounds a bit like a teenager girl, but most of the time she sounds like a novelist you’d find in the literature section. Is the idea that she’s grown rather worldly-wise after all the years in heaven when she finally tells the story? Or is it because we wouldn’t find the story half as interesting if it was narrated by a real 14-year-old? I’m not sure.

The ending of this story is a curious mixture – many of the plot strands get tied up in a rather satisfying (and almost cliched) way. But other plot strands get tied up in less conventional ways. And I’ll leave it as vague as that. If you’ve read it, you know what I’m talking about.

From a Christian point of view, this is obviously not a Christian portrayal of life after death. There’s no God. In fact, Heaven is just a kind of place that you turn into whatever you want it to be. If Susie imagines it to be like her school, then it is. The only thing she doesn’t have there is her family. So in a sense, her life is just as unsettled after death as it was before. It doesn’t sound like that great a place, to be honest, and Sebold soon gives us describing it after a while and focuses more on what’s going back on earth.

In the end, the afterlife seems to come off as a poor second to the real world, with the only relief being that you can’t really die again. This is very different from the Christian perspective of an afterlife where we have an unbroken connection with God and with fellow believers.

But for a really interesting take on grief, family and death, this novel is well worth a look.

4 out of 5.