The Lovely Bones (2009)

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Directed by Peter Jackson
Written by Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Fran Walsh

Rated PG-13

Saoirse Ronan as Susie Salmon
Mark Wahlberg as Jack Salmon
Rachel Weisz as Abigail Salmon
Stanley Tucci as George Harvey
Rose McIver as Lindsay Salmon
Susan Sarandon as Grandma Lynn
Michael Imperioli as Detective Len Fenerman
Reece Ritchie as Ray Singh
Carolyn Dando as Ruth Connors

I am not a person who suffers from intellectual insecurities. More specifically, I never generalize that “the book is always better than the movie.” A great recent example is 2012’s exhilarating adaptation of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. I can name many others, and there are cases to be made for the films being as good as, or perhaps even better, than the books on which they are based (2012’s wonderful The Perks of Being a Wallflower, from the Stephen Chbosky novel). Sadly, Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones is not one of these examples.

Alice Sebold’s 2002 bestseller was destined for a film adaptation. I was relieved to know it would be made for the big screen, rather than a silly, under-budget Lifetime film. Well, a big budget did nothing to enhance the book’s evolution into a film. In fact, the costly special effects may have minimized the impact of Sebold’s well-written and affecting story.

Saoirse Ronan, the wonderful, Oscar-nominated young actress from Atonement, plays Susie Salmon, a 14-year-old growing up in 1973 suburbia. She has loving parents (Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz), a younger teenage sister (Rose McIver), and a young brother. The neighborhood includes a single man, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), who builds dollhouses. He also creates an underground den, where he lures Susie one day after school. Susie never makes it out alive.

The book made no [lovely] bones about the fact that Susie was raped and murdered. Jackson has watered down the brutality of the crime - for what? So the film will be accessible, sometime in the future, to ABC Family audiences? To avoid an R rating by the MPAA? Either way, the decision to sugarcoat the cruel, brutal death of a child is the wrong decision, particularly when Sebold dealt so directly and eloquently with the subject.

Susie dies, her family attempts to hope for her return, but the police find evidence to suggest she was murdered. The family grieves, with father Jack becoming obsessed with identifying her kill, and mother Abigail unable to cope with the devastating loss. The arrival of Grandma Lynn (Susan Sarandon) is one of the film’s high points, as the character offers some comic relief and necessary light touch to offset the grim subject. It’s startling to see still-glamorous Sarandon playing a grandmother to teenagers, but as always, Sarandon gets the performance just right.

Meanwhile, Susie has ascended into a surreal “In Between,” a spiritual plateau, somewhere between Heaven and Hell. She even makes friends there. They all have a common bond, too. Any guesses?

It seems Susie can’t move on, until she has reconciled the totality of her death, and its impact on her loved ones. Jackson is a marvel at special effects, but he gets carried away here. The imagination is a wonder to behold for readers, and so much more is created by the power of words and suggestion. Jackson’s effects are wondrous, but I half expected Gollum or King Kong to have cameos. Less would have been so much more.

Ronan gives it her all as Susie, and she has several award-worthy moments. She looked and felt like the girl I read about in the novel. But the missing piece is the sense of terror and disbelief that Mr. Harvey raped and murdered her. She acknowledges he killed her, but hey - she gets to make cool new friends, and still kinda sorta see her family, ya know? I liked Wahlberg and Weisz as the parents. They were credible and moving.

Tucci scored an Oscar nomination for his work here. He makes an impressive villain, but that’s the trouble. His Mr. Harvey is only a villain. The book never excused his violent acts, but it did explain them, and the omission of this explanation is a fatal flaw. It reduces the magnitude of Tucci’s performance, a good one - but he was superior as Julia Child’s husband in the year’s earlier Julie & Julia. That’s the film that should have provided his Oscar-night invitation.

Teenage girls will probably like this film. Peter Jackson’s Comic Con following will scratch their head in befuddled amazement: he touched on similar, if not the same, themes in 1995’s Heavenly Creatures, which was a wonderfully unusual and evocative film. More clout and a bigger budget have not served Mr. Jackson well.

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