The bones that grew in her absence (that we didn't see much of) ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The bones that grew in her absence (that we didn't see much of)

The Lovely Bones
My rating:

I didn't much like Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones. I can't really explain why though. Reviewing books is an entirely different kettle of fish from reviewing films, and I doubt I could do it well. In any case, I could see that the novel was beautifully written, but it wasn't so much of a story as it was a tone poem - and I never really got into that tone. Hence the reason why TMBF is TMBF and not TBBF. So no, I didn't much enjoy the book, and I figured the movie could only be better.

Well, it is... and it isn't.

Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) was 14 years old when she was murdered. Now she exists in a heavenly afterlife created out of her dreams and desires - but time and again, she is drawn back to the world she left behind. Her father Jack (Mark Wahlberg) becomes obsessed with finding her murderer; her mother Abigail (Rachel Weisz) withdraws from her family; her sister Lindsay (Rose McIver) comes to share her father's obsession; and her grandmother Lynn (Susan Sarandon) tries valiantly to help the family move on from their loss. All the while, their neighbour George Harvey (Stanley Tucci) - the man who murdered Susie - roams free, and as long as he does, Susie's soul may never find peace.

The first thing a filmmaker needs to decide, when adapting a novel, is what to leave out. And Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones leaves out a lot of the wrong things. Oh, most of the plot is there; in fact, narrative-wise, the film is pretty much faithful to a fault. The fault is that narrative has never been the strong point of Sebold's book - it is, as I said, the tone. Sebold spends time with each member of Susie's family - as well as two other teenagers; Ray Singh (Reese Ritchie), Susie's boyhood crush, and Ruth Connors (Carolyn Dando), a schoolmate who sensed her spirit as she died - exploring how each copes with their grief and pain. Jackson leaves out most of this characterization but keeps the plot, and thus a lot of that tone is lost. The reason why Abigail abandons her family never feels very convincing; and when Lindsay becomes determined to find her sister's killer, it again feels like she came to that decision out of the blue.

Peter Jackson is not the most subtle of filmmakers. In fact, he is a very unsubtle filmmaker. This makes him quite unsuited to the task of maintaining the delicate tone of melancholy sadness that the story of a young girl's murder demands. For instance, the comic montage of grandma Lynn's attempts at housekeeping; and the part where Susie and Holly (Nikki SooHoo), her companion in the afterlife, prance about in a teenage girl's version of heaven. This was most probably the scene that offended Roger Ebert so much. And then there are the scenes in Susie's heaven - or "in-between" - which are likely what drew Jackson to this project in the first place. The events on Earth affect Susie's afterlife in symbolic, visually spectacular ways, and the CGI is all very beautiful - but again, Sebold's book isn't really about a girl in heaven; it is first and foremost about a grieving family.

But Jackson did improve on the book in one way; he may have sacrificed characterization for narrative, but he did make the narrative stronger. He turns Susie from omniscient narrator in the book to protagonist of his film, complete with character arc and standard three-act structure. I liked that. The themes and messages are clearer, and the plot turns are given more meaning; whereas in the book, I often couldn't understand where the story was going. And during the parts that play to his strengths, Jackson acquits himself very well. There are two standout scenes: one is the pivotal moment when Harvey lures Susie into his underground hideout, in which the mounting horror is almost unbearable; the other is a masterfully tense sequence in which Lindsay sneaks into Harvey's house in search of damning evidence.

In addition to these two scenes, it is Saoirse Ronan and Stanley Tucci that make the film worth the price of admission. Ronan is heartbreakingly sweet, and single-handedly justifies Jackson's decision to put Susie front and centre in his film. Tucci is also magnificently creepy; his character had an entire backstory in the novel that the film omits, and again the actor's performance justifies this. We don't want to know the sad story of how he became what he is; we just know that he is irredeemably, hatefully evil. The rest of the cast aren't as good though. Rachel Weisz is a far better actor than Mark Wahlberg, so it's a pity that she's onscreen much less than him. Susan Sarandon is a hoot, but as mentioned, hoots aren't what this story should be evoking. Carolyn Dando and Reese Ritchie are dull, and that's because their characters are the most severely truncated. (And why did Jackson cast a white boy as a character named Ray Singh?)

I suspect the tepid response to this movie is a cultural thing - Westerners, and Americans in particular, find the murder (and implied rape, although the film glosses over that bit) of a child such a harrowing subject that The Lovely Bones came across to them as awkward at best, tasteless at worst. New Zealanders, on the other hand and to my personal experience of them, are a fair bit more irreverent - and Jackson is a particularly irreverent one of them. Which isn't to say he disrespected the novel; he just chose not to make an unrelentingly somber film. This would likely disappoint those who've read the book, but to those who haven't, you might find it moving and effective. Just, y'know, not as much as it could've been.

NEXT REVIEW: At the End of Daybreak
Expectations: Jane Ng *drool* um, I mean, hmm, art film, interesting