Hobbits and wizards and orcs, no problem. But when Oscar-winning The Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson turned his attention to the story of a fourteen-year-old girl, he lost his way. Alice Sebold’s bestseller The Lovely Bones held good potential for a screen treatment, but Jackson squanders it on a schizoid film that largely misses the point of the novel.
To be fair, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Jackson first earned respect with 1994’s Heavenly Creatures, a true-crime story about teen girls that incorporated fantasy elements, brought to life with tasteful special effects. Jackson clearly intended for lightning to strike twice with The Lovely Bones, which partly takes place in the afterlife of Susie Salmon, teen victim of a rape-murder (wisely kept off-screen) in the early 1970s. Sebold’s story—adapted by Jackson and regular collaborators Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens—finds Susie exploring her “In-Between” purgatory while failing to let go of Earth, where her family mourns and her killer roams free.
Sadly, the filmmakers fail to strike a proper balance of the two parallel storylines and the novel’s many characters. It’s a mark of Jackson’s lack of restraint as a filmmaker that the mystery-thriller elements and fantastic visualizations overtake the domestic drama that is the novel’s true raison d’être. Stanley Tucci (so warm and loving in Julie & Julia) adopts a Brando-esque cottonmouth and a creepy laugh to play Susie’s killer. Certainly, Jackson excels at the scenes of Hitchcockian suspense (put into further relief by a directorial cameo); in particular, he stages a memorable set piece involving Susie’s sister Lindsey (Rose McIver) risking discovery when she breaks into the killer’s home.
Jackson also deserves some credit for a number of creative visualizations, such as the extended sequences depicting Susie’s psychological confusion and trauma as she first passes into the afterlife (first facing the realities of her murder and then submerging into a sea-blue ghost world). But Jackson doesn’t know when to let well enough alone. While Susie’s self-styled “In-Between” sometimes cleverly evokes the tacky art of the ’70s (something you’d pick up for a quarter at a flea market), these sequences begin to feel like overlong luxury car ads scored by Enya (the actual culprit being prog rocker Brian Eno).
Meanwhile, Jackson fails to engage us in the hurt of the Salmons, to whom at least half of the story should belong. Sebold’s novel patiently examined the short and long-term effects of trauma on the family, a la Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ “stages of grief” model. Jackson contains himself mostly to the obsession of Susie’s father Jack (a miscast Mark Wahlberg), who believes he can and must solve his daughter’s murder. Short shrift is given to Lindsay—whose love life poignantly echoes Susie’s missed opportunities—and her mother Abigail (Rachel Weisz), rendered inconsequential and incoherent by the excision of an adultery plotline.
The problem is right there in the title: while the film dutifully repeats Susie’s explanation of “the lovely bones that had grown around my absence: the connections — sometimes tenuous, sometimes made at great cost, but often magnificent,” Jackson willfully neglects to dramatize this connective tissue —of family ties, new loves, and tentative friendships—that should hold the story’s heart in place.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]