I like a good ghost story, so The Lovely Bones sounded like it had potential when I first heard about it a few years ago. It had quite a bit of critical acclaim and good word-of-mouth, and Alice Sebold's novel would become one of my all-time favorite reads.
So, you would think that when word got out there was going to be a film adaptation, and it would be directed by none other than Peter Jackson, I'd be quite excited. To the contrary, I instantly thought of the film adaptation of The Golden Compass and how I'd been brokenhearted over how that film turned out compared to the book--and other adaptations over the years. No matter how talented a director Jackson is, the track record for turning books into movies isn't a great one over the long haul. And knowing the subject matter in Sebold's novel, I suspected there was a fair amount of potential for things to go badly.
My first twinge of cynicism towards the film happened when I heard Mark Wahlberg had been cast to play Susie's father, Jack Salmon. I've never understood the appeal of Wahlberg as a marquee actor. Maybe there's a movie I'm missing out on, but after seeing him in films like The Happening and Shooter, he's about as captivating as milk toast.
My first twinge of hope for the film came when I saw the trailer for it. Plus, Stanley Tucci's casting as Susie's murderer was about as perfect a call as you could make. Now there's a guy who can act.
In the novel, the story is told by Susie Salmon, a fourteen year old girl who's been murdered by her neighbor, George Harvey. From a kind of in-between world that's not quite Heaven and not quite the real world, Susie tries to help her family deal with her disappearance and death, as well as try to point the way to her killer. Things do go as she hoped though, as tensions in her family mount and the authorities seem unable to draw any connection between her murder and her killer.There were moments in reading the book that the story felt a bit saccharine, especially with the depictions of Susie's personal Heaven and her fleeting interactions with her family. Overall though, the book manages to find a balance between drama and thriller. And the books doesn't bog itself down by becoming a story about a ghost wallowing in the past, as she watches her family both disintegrate in ways and find new beginnings.
The movie distills the novel down to two core components from the novel: Susie's (Saorise Ronan) connection with her father (Wahlberg), as he grieves her death and obsessively tries to solve her murder; and her sister (Rose McIver), Lindsey's hunt to find evidence against Mr. Harvey (Tucci) when she's convinced over time he's responsible. It makes sense in a way to really hone in on these two pieces of the story, as they provide the most tension and suspense. However, while watching the film I found a great deal had been spliced out, things that provide a fuller context to things that occur late in the story, particularly among the tertiary characters.
While the film touches on Susie's mother (Rachel Weisz) abandoning the family to seek solace on her own abroad, it's so thinly discussed that she becomes an even less sympathetic character than in the novel. The film makes no mention of her brief affair with the lead detective in the murder, Len Fenerman (Michael Imperioli), which is part of the rising tension within the family after Susie's death. And Jack Salmon's interactions with the mother of the boy Susie had a crush on, a rather integral part to his story, is completely omitted.
And while there is a passing acknowledgment of Ruth Connors (Carolyn Dando) and her seemingly paranormal awareness of Susie within the film, she's very inconsequential in the film and used as little more than a momentary plot device. Anyone who has read the book, knows what I'm talking about there.
It's near impossible to pack a whole novel into two hours of movie, but I can't help but feel The Lovely Bones was rushed. It seemed at points that Jackson, and executive producer Steven Spielberg, were more content with dazzling audiences with the special effects used for Susie's ethereal limbo world--a place that really felt artificial to a point that I kept getting sucked out of the story, visualizing Saorise Ronan running around a giant green screen.
Winner: THE BOOK. I enjoyed the movie to an extent, thanks in large part to Tucci's cringe-worthy performance of that creepy neighbor with a sordid past, as well as Rose McIver's scene stealing moments as Susie's sister. But it's a heavily flawed film and does little justice to the rich subject matter offered by Sebold's novel. This was one of those times when a trailer can be accused of false advertising, because I got setup for a big letdown by watching it. I'm sure others who saw this movie were as well.