Peter Jackson’s highly anticipated adaptation of the 2002 Alice Sebold bestseller — about a 14-year-old girl who recounts the story of her savage murder from a celestial limbo — is a veritable film festival unto itself. I don’t believe I’ve ever witnessed an attempt to cram so many genres into a single motion picture.
The Lovely Bones is part supernatural fantasy. Saoirse Ronan, the young Irish actress Oscar-nominated for her precocious work in Atonement, plays Susie Salmon, a Pennsylvania teen who had one foot in childhood and the other barely in the world of bubble-gum music, fan magazines and puppy love when “I was murdered on December 6, 1973.” From a place she describes as “the blue horizon between heaven and Earth,” Susie shares her thoughts and feelings as she watches her friends, family and killer go on with their lives in the wake of her death.
The New Zealand filmmaker never met a special effect he didn’t like, and he has a field day art directing Susie’s otherworldly stopover. As envisioned by Jackson, the girl’s purgatory is a gumdrop-colored digital dreamscape. Topiary penguins tower, roses bloom beneath frozen lakes, ships-in-bottles sail sapphire seas, and paradise waits just beyond a magical meadow. Ronan’s character may be in limbo, but Jackson clearly is in CGI heaven.
Many, I suspect, will find this cosmic candyland a feast for the eyes but jarring in its juxtaposition with the grisly goings-on back on Earth. Because The Lovely Bones is also a serial-killer mystery. Both the book and the movie reveal Susie’s murderer early on, so the mystery isn’t who committed the horrific crime but rather who, if anyone, will put the pieces together. The detectives’ failure to spot the world’s most obvious perv living virtually next door to the Salmons strains credibility, but Stanley Tucci’s portrayal of ultra-creepy neighbor George Harvey is eerily convincing. It’s his most memorable performance to date.
Less effective are Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz as the victim’s shattered parents. The script by Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens (collaborators on the Lord of the Rings trilogy) gives the pair little to do as the featured players in the production’s domestic tragedy component beyond going through the motions of post-traumatic crack up. He won’t give up, long after the cops have. She needs to move on. A weekend doesn’t go by when the same story doesn’t play out at some point on the Lifetime Channel.
And we haven’t even gotten to the teenage melodrama, the police procedural or the immensely incongruous comedy. Susan Sarandon seems to be in a movie of her own as a boozy hipster grandma whose idea of helping out involves zany mishaps with household appliances. Her scenes feel like excerpts from “I Love Lucy” slipped into The Silence of the Lambs.
Considered by themselves, aspects of Jackson’s adaptation work. His visual flights of fancy evoke the trippiest moments from early films such as Heavenly Creatures; the serial-killer storyline is riveting and enormously suspenseful in places. Heaved into a big-screen blender, however, the picture’s mismatched elements make for an erratic, uneven concoction.
The filmmaker’s choices are frequently confounding: He’s been quoted, for example, as saying he deleted the book’s rape scene and kept Susie’s murder off screen so girls his daughter’s age could watch the film and not be freaked out. Why, then, give the killer more prominence than he had in the book and feature him in some of the most unsettling sequences this side of Hostel?
Movies based on popular books are always a crapshoot. But, in the case of The Lovely Bones, Sebold’s fans may be called on to do more than their share of adapting.