Brandon's Word: Despite Saoirse Ronan, Lovely Bones is a Failure
by Brandon Lee Tenney
December 8, 2009
Peter Jackson is a spectacular filmmaker. He can capture both intimate, quiet moments and sweeping, fantastical visions with ease. His directing always feels purposeful and thoughtful and measured, and Peter Jackson has proven that he's more than capable of adapting a popular novel for the screen. The above is an approximation of my thoughts before I stepped into the theatre to see Jackson's latest film, The Lovely Bones, a film based on Alice Sebold's breakout novel of the same name. Having seen The Lovely Bones, my opinion of Peter Jackson hasn't shifted as drastically as you may be expecting from that setup, he's still a great filmmaker, a great director. Instead, The Lovely Bones has planted a question in my mind: What happened?
The Lovely Bones isn't a terribly made movie. I've no doubt that the film accomplishes precisely what Peter Jackson et al. meant it to. The problem, though, is that I'm not quite sure what that meaning is. Rather, I'm not sure what they meant to accomplish is all that great. I have read the novel, but that was years ago and my memory of its specifics are murky at best. I do, however, remember enough to know the main story beats and characters. I remember enough to know that when everyone began to cry foul over the seemingly spoiler-filled trailer that that's not what The Lovely Bones was ever about. And I remember being severely emotionally involved in Alice Sebold's telling of her story. It's this, above all, that I missed in Peter Jackson's version.
The film feels at once like it's adapted so faithfully that it strangled whatever new creativity could have existed to death and as if it employs too many departures from the novel that it eradicates the emotional thread that Sebold was able to keep so intact. Confusing, no? Well, welcome to The Lovely Bones. The story itself is one that's a tough sell for the screen. A story told from the point of view of a young girl who's been murdered and now exists in the InBetween (basically, purgatory/limbo/etc.) works effortlessly on the page because the author is afforded the ample use of narration. We can read Susie Salmon's thoughts, read her feelings, know precisely how and why she's interacting with the living world. On screen, there's no narration. There's voice over. And The Lovely Bones is not shy about employing it. Sure, there's really no other way to get inside the head of a dead girl, and, had the voice over been in any way insightful, I wouldn't have had as great a problem with its use. But it's not. There's simply too much of it and it's, for the most part, just describing what the audience should be able to grasp without it, what's happening on screen at that moment, or Susie Salmon's confused emotions, none of which enlightened me in the least. In a word, the insights are cliche. In another word, they're just plain boring.
There are moments in the film that do not employ voice over, however rare they may be. But they're usually ruined by characters who are either stereotypes, too shallow to have any impact, or just so insufferable that I didn't care to see their characters ever again. Mark Wahlberg begins to redeem himself toward the end, but for the most part he's just mediocre. The Lovely Bones also, somehow, forced me to viscerally dislike Rachel Weisz for the first time. Her character, Susie Salmon's grieving mother who (I kid you not) runs away to become a migrant worker, is an insufferable coward. Apparently she redeems herself in the end, but her former actions are so cruel (to her surviving children and her husband) that I didn't care. And then there's Stanley Tucci, the villainous, pedophiliac rapist and murderer. There are moments where his performance is haunting. But, more often than not, it's the same note of haunting villainy in every frame.
But there's one performance that stands as the sole reason why I didn't hate this film outright: Saoirse Ronan's. She, in my opinion, is the most talented young actress working. She's forced to tackle situations of such intensity and emotional rawness as well as moments of utter existential confusion on top of the often asinine voice over narration, and she does it all effortlessly. In this film, she's a revelation and the only reason to pay to see this film.
Saoirse Ronan is also the main reason why I, since seeing the film, have been trying so hard to pinpoint an answer to that lingering question of what happened. From what I can gather, my every problem with the film are machinations of the script. Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh should have realized the problems with the voice over, with the characters, and with the scenes of vibrant fantasy, of Susie Salmon's InBetween, at their very bones: in the script. Instead of so much voice over, perhaps give Susie someone else to talk to, to guide her more thoroughly through her crossing over. (There is a character, Holly, who pops up from time to time to do just this, but she's so annoying and inconsequential that I would have preferred to have not seen her at all.) Perhaps the film should have kept Susie Salmon as grounded in the real world as much as possible, acting (and being depicted) as a ghost haunting the real world, coming to grips with her own death that way before she moves on to Heaven. That certainly would have kept me, as a viewer, more grounded and involved in the important emotions of the living, instead of fraying the emotions into the pseudo-Freudian, Dali-inspired representation of purgatory.
While visually arresting, Peter Jackson's depiction of Susie Salmon's InBetween feels so calculated and overly symbolic that the emotions meant to sprout from it are stunted. I see those Freudian flowers, representative of Susie blooming into womanhood, a womanhood she'll never be able to experience. I see the overblown symbols meant to represent her family, small details that have been blown up by Susie's psyche. They're not subtle. And they're not all that imaginative, either. I should have been caught up in the sweeping vistas, the way Susie can now literally move mountains, but I wasn't. I was bored. It was hokey. And it all felt forced. It would have been a better choice to leave the majority of the InBetween unseen until the very end, just as Susie is about to cross over. Use her rootedness in the real world, even though she's a ghost, as a representation of how little she wants to let go of her now gone life. As she becomes more and more at ease with her own death, show us a bit more of her InBetween. Even though this is Susie's own purgatory, made from her mind alone, it's very difficult to represent any afterlife beside Hell. The film Constantine elucidates this wonderfully. It's very easy to imagine Hell, demons, the terrible. It's very difficult to represent perfection, utopia. Hence with Constantine is ascending to Heaven, ever so briefly, it's our imaginations that are called upon to do most of the work. With The Lovely Bones, our imaginations are sent to a corner facing a wall. There's nothing for us to do.
My mind felt as if it had shriveled over the course of the film. And even when, at last, that pedophiliac murderer was meant to get what was coming to him, even that cathartic moment was stolen from me. The moment is there, it is. But it feels so tacked on, so unrelated (because it is, it's hinted at that Susie's spirit had something to do with it all), that it's unsatisfying. It's not the kind of catharsis I needed at the end. After two hours of film that's mostly devoid of tension because you, the viewer, are painfully aware of everything that's about to occur because the narrator, Susie, is an omniscient being, I needed to at least feel some release. I didn't. So this is that release. The Lovely Bones is a failure. And not even an interesting one. At the end of the day, maybe this property shouldn't have been adapted for the screen at all. What a shame.