Film Review: The Lovely Bones

Peter Jackson’s elaborate visualization of the Alice Sebold best-seller fails to capture the poignant power of the original.

Alice Sebold’s acclaimed 2002 best-seller The Lovely Bones gets deluxe treatment in this film adaptation directed by Lord of the Rings maestro Peter Jackson. But an expensive production and dazzling visual effects aren’t the ideal fit for Sebold’s delicate, poignant tale of a murdered teenage girl who observes her family and community from an afterlife where the rules of physics no longer apply. Moviegoers unfamiliar with the book will be more satisfied with Jackson’s treatment of the material than those who know what’s missing.

The early, pre-murder scenes are the best part of the film, because they’re grounded in reality and show a deft touch in portraying the 1970s Pennsylvania home and school life of 14-year-old Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan, the Irish Oscar nominee from 2007’s Atonement). Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz play her loving parents, Jack and Abigail; Susan Sarandon is her outrageous alcoholic grandmother; and Rose McIver and Christian Ashdale round out the household as feisty younger sister Lindsey and inquisitive little brother Buckley. At school, Susie has a major crush on Ray Singh (Reece Ritchie), a handsome Indian with whom she almost shares a first kiss.

Cutting through a nearby cornfield on the way home from school, Susie encounters reclusive neighbor George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), who convinces her to take a look at the underground “clubhouse” he’s constructed for the local kids. Jackson spares us the grisly details of what follows; the prelude is creepy and terrifying enough.

Once Susie finds herself in an elaborate, surreal and constantly changing CGI limbo, the script by Jackson and his longtime writing partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens loses its potency. The adapters jettison one of the most compelling plot elements in the novel: Jack’s immediate suspicion of eccentric neighbor Harvey, and how it overtakes his life and poisons his relationship with his increasingly fragile wife. Through no fault of Wahlberg or Weisz, their characters, so sympathetic in the book, seem like an afterthought in Jackson’s retelling.

Instead, Jackson seems more interested in the point-of-view of the killer and generating suspense from the possible discovery of his nefarious deeds. Tucci, so warm and delightful as Julia Child’s husband in this summer’s Julie & Julia, is chillingly effective (and nearly unrecognizable with his glasses, moustache and blondish hair) as the quietly calculating serial murderer. Jackson does bring Hitchcock-like tension to the scene, straight out of the book, in which Lindsey breaks into Harvey’s house in search of evidence against him.

But ultimately, Jackson has streamlined much of the heart and soul from Sebold’s vivid gallery of characters, instead opting for admittedly impressive but overdone fantasy panoramas, and broad vignettes like Grandma’s comic attempts to take over the household chores.

Luckily, the film has the gifted Ronan at its center to offer compensation. With her red hair, piercing blue eyes and lilting voice, this young actress makes a highly appealing guide to the strange, mournful yet life-affirming celestial journey of Susie Salmon. If only the rest of Susie’s family had been as indelibly portrayed, The Lovely Bones might have been a movie classic.