I Wanted to Like the Movie Version of the Lovely Bones

But I’m sure it’s fairly abundantly clear from the title of this post that I didn’t.  It may be nostalgia from enjoying the book much more than I expected, and as a result, feeling more protective of the property than I intended.  But I think Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation has a couple of significant flaws.

First, while the movie strips down the book quite a bit, both in terms of plot and characterization, it still manages to feel slow.  As my friend and regular movie-going buddy Alex Remington pointed out, after the murder is committed, a large part of the movie happens in slow-motion and repeated takes.  Some of the images we see over and over again are lovely, but they’re limpid, the movie takes a lot of time.  It’s too bad, because the opening section of the movie has tremendous momentum, particularly in two scenes, one where the main character races across her back yard to take clandestine pictures of a neighbor girl, another in which she commandeers her parents’ cherry-red Mustang to driver her brother, who has swallowed a twig and has an obstructed airway, to the hospital.  There’s a later scene in which her sister runs away from a man who wants to kill her that has tremendous energy as well.  Jackson hasn’t lost his ability to shoot great horror or exhilirating action, he just chooses not to for most of the movie, and it’s frustrating.

Second, a lot of the effects manage to look precious, rather than awe-inspiring.  Again, I don’t doubt Jackson’s ability to awe, but at least the way I interpreted Alice Sebold’s vision of heaven was a little more…rigorous than the candy-coated paradise Jackson occasionally conjures up for Susie to spend her afterlife in. And Jackson shifts some of the events in the novel around in a way that I think actually drains the dramatic tension from them.  I won’t say more in the name of spoilers, but Sebold manages to have a larger scope than Jackson does, and also tell a story more economically than he does at least in this outing.

That’s not to say there aren’t some things in the movie that are worth watching.  Susan Sarandon’s turn as the boozy grandmother who holds Susie’s family together after her death is marvelous.  Full of life and a little usefully placed bile, she careens into the haunted house where Susie’s family is marooned, drinking, overfilling the washing machine and dancing in the bubbles, lighting things in frying pans on fire, and believing Buckley, Susie’s younger brother, when he insists she’s still present in some way.  There’s a gorgeous shot of her shaking back her hair and lighting a cigarette through hospital glass that made me extremely happy.  Saoirse Ronan is lovely, if saddled with some narration that’s tough to swallow, much less say.  And Rose McIver, who plays Susie’s younger sister Lindsey, is marvelous, alternately distracted, grieving, furious, terrified, and passionate.  I hope she gets more work out of this, because she richly deserves it.

In the end, I wonder if The Lovely Bones ever could have been a great movie.  It’s one that people feel extremely passionate about; Jackson apparently bought the film rights to the novel with his own money rather than getting financing for it, he felt so strongly about.  I know I had an extremely specific vision of many elements of the book in my head, and wept over it as I haven’t cried over a book in a long time.  The movie made me cry too (but then, I’m an enormous sap), but I wasn’t captivated by it in the same way I loved the novel.  A book about a personal vision of heaven may not bet translatable for the masses.