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.
Reader Feedback - 30 Comments
EPIC FAIL! Peter Jackson lost his "Midas Touch" for the first time since the Rings Trilogy. Was soo looking forward to this but now Im having second thoughts. Same thing will happen to AVATAR. Trust me. AVATAR will fall really flat. it will linger around the 70% on the Tomatometer.
GP Productions on Dec 8, 2009
wow, really....i was definitely looking forward to this as well. probably will see it just for the sake of it now. but who knows...i might think it's a really good movie.
lego on Dec 8, 2009
i think avatar will win best picture
mike on Dec 8, 2009
"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." Well that's exactly what she did in the book. I don't think we're suppose to like her actions much, but that's how some people deal with grief. "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." Again, exactly how it was betrayed in the book. I had no satisfaction when he was killed. But the book isn't about getting what people deserve, how often is life like that? That said, i haven't seen the movie yet, but i am feeling worried. Thanks for the review.
budbud on Dec 8, 2009
I figured...the trailers never really seemed good either. But I'm glad that Saoirse Ronan was to you the light in the dark...I'll end up seeing it and probably liking it though.
Xerxex on Dec 8, 2009
Narrative in films have always been a difficult thing to get right. It seems that was a difficult thing for Brandon to get past. I'm still going to see this film since I think there's always something to learn from a master filmmaker. Even master filmmakers take risks and make mistakes. I cheer Peter Jackson for taking a HUGE risk in making and adapting The Lovely Bones. It's just a shame it seems to have not been received well thus far.
Quanah on Dec 8, 2009
What Dreams May Come Part Duex
esophus on Dec 8, 2009
"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." Brandon, have you ever dealt with strong grief before? I have and i did some very stupid things that i'm not proud of. You should think twice about calling someone a coward because they are acting out in pain. Rachel Weisz does an extraordinary job despite the fact that they cut her scenes in half. ( Her character had a lot more screen time and had a great build up to her leaving the family) As for the movie, ( i saw it) its a bad film and that falls on Peter Jackson, not the actors, who seem to me more interested in CGI than a real story and i also read the book and its fabulous, so there was no reason for the movie to be this bad, especially when you have a great book as source material.
Jane on Dec 8, 2009
The source material holds a wonderful story, but that does not make it a "good" source material for a movie. The structure of the book is one of the those does not lend itself to an effective screenplay. Some people say Lynn Ramsey was the better director for this, but there is no evidence that she was since she backed out. Like others have stated, voice over narration is one of the most tricky techniques to move a story forward in film. The novel is mostly Susie's narrative, and an entire voice over would've killed it from the start. All I can say: Thanks goodness Jackson didn't that.
Jill on Dec 17, 2011
Jackson really?...I mean I wasnt planning on seeing this but its a suprise to see him actually make a bad film. Maybe he should focus on larger scale movies like his previous since heas obviously masterful at those.
Cody on Dec 8, 2009
@#9 Cody Even though Brandon writes good reviews, I'd watch it before thinking it's "The Word". I think what Brandon's pointed out will definitely be in my forethoughts when I go to see this, but it doesn't by any means define for me whether or not I think Jackson made a "bad film". I'd give it a shot anyway Cody. There are other reviewers out there that think it's brilliant. I'm betting it's somewhere between good and ok simply because it seems Jackson didn't take any risks with the source material. He did in LOTR and it came off brilliantly. If he followed the letter of the book here than he's made a mistake. The book itself, although good, may not have translated well into a film as is. It needed some creative scripting. It sounds like it didn't get any. In that sense, the writing is probably the culprit and not the directing. I always start with step 1 in any failed film. Step 1 being the writing.
Quanah on Dec 8, 2009
the man wrote and directed Dead-Alive of course some of his movies are going to turn out as complete shit. this does not surprise me at all and it shouldn't surprise anyone else!
DoomCanoe on Dec 8, 2009
#1 HAHAHAHAHA...not! Avatar is a Cameron movie it is not about to fail. Why? Because it is James Cameron. McG, Bay, and Jackson didn't teach Stanley Kubrick something new about film-making, Cameron did. 'Nuff said.
tyrascilee on Dec 8, 2009
Pretty shit review, I'll never understand comments like 'I dislike this actress' because of whatever role she performed in a film. Get out more.
Mike on Dec 8, 2009
Mike: "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." Notice, I said Rachel Weisz's character. I love Rachel Weisz, and every character she's played until this one in TLB has been wonderful. She usually chooses wisely and plays them brilliantly. This is the first time I've disliked her playing her character. Again: her character.
Brandon Lee Tenney on Dec 8, 2009
Quanah: You're dead on, all the way around. My word is definitely not THE word. And when there's a major problem, it usually does stem from the writing, as it does in TLB. The directing is quite splendid, as I said, Jackson is one hell of a filmmaker, but it's the writing that causes the rest of the of the film to suffer.
Brandon Lee Tenney on Dec 8, 2009
#12 I'd really like to know how, exactly, Cameron could teach Kubrick something new about film-making. Don't get me wrong, Cameron is a very, very good director, even an excellent one at times. But Kubrick was/is in a different league.
Sleepykid on Dec 9, 2009
Ronan's like a young Chloe Sevigny,there's a natural depth and complexity to her-I read this book years ago,didn't think it was an exceptional read but surely Peter Jackson's visual dexterity could've lifted this into semi-classic territory? Avatar,good or not,will make heaps in its opening week-look at how passionately people discuss that shit,when its not even out yet.That said,the trailer looks promising. Brandon,your reviews have been progressively more and more enjoyable to read-but I feel like there's more wit and vitriol that you wish to let out.Every other reviewer on this site is passable,and you've got so much more to offer. The movie?Of course I won't see it,look at how shamelessly mainstream it is.There's some missing x-factor apparent even in the trailer.
twispious on Dec 9, 2009
Time to do some more zombie flicks I guess
Jos van den Atmos on Dec 9, 2009
The criticisms (and praise) about the book here are fair. The Lovely Bones was seriously emotionally involving and contained a brave and original exploration of death and the afterlife. But it stopped short of taking that emotional involvement into the realm of exploring the deeper questions about justice and forgiveness that permeate such a story. This lack of depth also appears in the movie, leaving theater goers disappointed. There’s a new book just out — Forgiving Ararat by Gita Nazareth -- that explores these themes and, while also being seriously emotionally involving, is far more complex, evocative and intellectually challenging. It’s a supernatural thriller/murder-mystery about a young female lawyer who dies and, in heaven, is assigned to defend souls at the Final Judgment, and there confronts her own killer. Gita Nazareth combines Alice Sebold, Scott Turow, John Grisham, Kafka, Tolstoy, Steinbeck…well, you get the idea…all in one. As a publicist and fan, it’s a great read.
litlover on Dec 9, 2009
If you like The Lovely Bones, read “Forgiving Ararat” by Gita Nazareth. I’m a publicist and fan of the book which is about a woman who unlocks the secrets behind her own murder. Read the first two chapters of this supernatural thriller at http://www.forgivingararat.com and read my review at http://forgivingararat.blogspot.com/
Shane on Dec 9, 2009
Are there any filmmakers with a flawless track record?... (haven't really thought about it before) Peter Jackson has undoubtedly made some epic films but he has also made some that (in my opinion) fell flat... I really was disappointed with King Kong. Shame about this one though, was really looking forward to this one.
Xan on Dec 9, 2009
@#15 Brandon I hope you don't take my comment as an insult to you Brandon. It isn't meant to. You wrote a great review. I think it's still worth watching a master filmmaker like Jackson attempt to bring to life difficult source material. Although, as I said before: Your review will be swirling around in my head as I sit through this film. I mean that in a good way. 😉 @#21 Xan I would say there are not any filmmakers with flawless track records. There are more than one of Spielberg's films that received horrid feedback (1941, Hook). Same goes for Clint Eastwood, Tim Burton, etc. However, I always admire the desire by these directors in taking on risky projects. Jackson took a risk with LOTR and that turned out well. He's taken another one here and it appears to be getting a different kind of attention. :/
Quanah on Dec 9, 2009
GP productions had a crystal ball that help him/her/it predict the future!Wow you are great!I don't trust you...sorry...
Ambient on Dec 9, 2009
@Ambient Thank you, I know. I never asked you to trust me, it was just my opinion. Its the internets, you should have not even thought once to trust it. Now go cry in your room like a good little boy/girl/thing 🙂
GP Productions on Dec 9, 2009
Ofcourse there are directors with perfect track records, but mostly young guys: Chris Nolan, Darren Aronofsky, Paul Thomas Anderson, etc.
Jos van den Atmos on Dec 9, 2009
While theres things viewers SHOULD be able to get on their own, remember a lot of movie goers forget how to use their brains as soon as the pre-movie commercials start. for example i went with a group of about 15 people to the 3rd pirates of the carribean, i was the only one in the group to not be confused by the movie and my friends arent exactly stupid just most audiences are used to no-brainer movies where its pure action/comedy/romance.
emeecai on Dec 9, 2009
@litlover I agree on your views. Lovely Bones is basically a grand idea ruined by weak development. Alice Sebold has a few very solid, poignant observations here and there, but you get the sense that she got stuck and couldn't figure out how to finish it, so she just kept writing and hoping for something to materialize. And the movie was just a medium to deliver its already marred source. I've read the book that you recommended. Forgiving Ararat was a more matured and intelligent read in comparison. A lot of readers online have also compared it to the likes of The Shack by William P Young which I find to be rather off tangent, seeing that the two had not much in common. But then again, one would need to read all three books in order to fairly discuss this.
Stella bella on Dec 28, 2009
I actually enjoyed this movie, I really did. There were some good points you made about the voice-overs and other things but still I can't hate this movie. I really didn't mind Susie's in-between, I also didn't mind Holly at all. I liked the fact that Susie found someone who could lead her through things and also know what she's going through. Stanley was one of the best things in this movie. He pulled off creepy to a T. I hated him in this film...but I do love the man, he's an awesome actor. As for Saoirse, she was brilliant. I didn't realize how young she was when she made this film. She pulled out some heavy emotions without much of a struggle. I felt for her, I cried with her. I hoped, though I knew it was pointless, that maybe somehow she could go back. It was heartbreaking to watch. People will hate this, people will love this. I'm one of the one's who loves it. It just shows you what life is about...and how fast you can lose it. I give it a 9/10
Shilocompton on Jan 9, 2010
As a movie I really liked it. I don't think it's as bad as some make it to be, and I don't think it's a complete failure -- at anything it attempted to do.I don't know, for some reason I have a feeling that this will be well received as it ages . . . and it seems like it has been since it's vetting stage in late 2009 and early 2010. What Tree of Life is to Malick, The Lovely Bones is to Jackson. He shouldn't be ashamed of this because The Lovely Bones, when compared to past studio films, pushes was a movie is and what it can be. This a unique film is its narrative form and in its delivery.
goldenrushapple on May 18, 2012
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