Commentary on Movies and TV by Brian Holcomb

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


by Brian Holcomb

"The book was better."

This is the challenge for any filmmaker who dares to adapt a popular novel for the big screen. Well, of course the book was better. The book was perfect since it was yours. The novelist provides the spark but the fire rages in the reader's mind, colored by their own life experiences and imagination. In the end, the book belongs to the reader on a personal level. But a FILM belongs to the director who has no idea what you were thinking and can only color it with his own life experiences and imagination. Though much of the narrative is the same, this is clearly Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones and that is a mixed blessing.

Alice Sebold's novel would be a challenge for any filmmaker to adapt. The story is told from the POV of a 14 year old girl who was raped, murdered and dismembered as she watches from the afterlife the years that follow in the lives of her family and her murderer. That story is actually the catalyst for several others. That of the disintegration of a family overcome with grief, a suspense thriller about the investigation into the girl's death and a coming of age story for the dead girl herself, Susie Salmon, who finally accepts her death and all that it requires her to give up. That's just the body of the story. The engine behind it is the mournful tone which channels Thornton Wilder's Our Town for its expression of the fragility of life and the temporary nature of all things. This is a story about loss-the loss of life, a parent's loss of their child, but most of all the loss of human experience. Susie is killed just as she begins to experience her first love. At its most basic level, murder is a form of theft. Susie's murderer steals this precious experience from her and the whole story is haunted by the sadness of a life unlived.

Adaptations are all about making choices and sometimes drastic ones in order to capture the spirit of the book rather than the letter. The Lovely Bones requires a kind of high wire act in order to pull this off successfully so it's no surprise that Jackson along with his usual collaborators Phillipa Boyens and Fran Walsh seem overwhelmed by the task. This is the kind of material that requires a complete overhaul in order to work as a movie but it is also a popular novel which seems to beg for absolute fidelity or else face the wrath of its fans. Something has to give and if you are making a film you must fight for the film. It is the ideas and emotions in Sebold's story that have to make it to the screen not her character list. But instead of reshaping it into something more cinematic, they make the "safe" decision to tell the story as fast as they can including as much of the book as possible. Having to tell a thriller, a family drama, and a ghost story all at once and within a reasonable running time is ultimately self defeating. Especially when all three never seem to integrate effectively. Even at 135 minutes, the film leaves characters such as Susie's mother Abigail(Rachel Weisz, wasted)woefully underdeveloped while others are virtually props (Susan Sarandon). Sarandon is cast as the Salmon family's crazy grandmother and basically exists within one long, tonally flat and absurdly comic montage sequence which seems like an outtake from Stepmom. The core of the story would've been better served by dropping her character altogether. Imagine the film without her presence and you will find that nothing is lost.

Peter Jackson is a fine filmmaker but he may not have been the right fit for this material. Jackson seems to see the story as a kind of bookend to his earlier film, Heavenly Creatures and uses much of the same mix of blatant fantasy and stylized reality here. What worked in that film is a liability in this one and the Candyland visions of heavenly worlds break the tenuous threads that hold the story together. It is Susie who must hold the film together. It is her presence as witness to the events following her death that gives the story meaning. Visually placing her in a goofy CG landscape for much of the running time separates her too much from the rest of the film. She seems stranded in that "Palm Pre" commercial . What was needed was the matter of fact surrealism of Luis Bunuel so that the veils between worlds would feel more uncanny and human than some digital Magritte. In fact, the more one thinks about it David Cronenberg would've been the best choice for this film. His work during the psychic vision sequences of The Dead Zone are very effective in mixing the real with the unknown.

What Jackson does get right and pulls off superbly is the evocation of 1970s suburbia. The street that the Salmon family lives on seems not so much a realistic depiction of time and place as a slightly hyper-real memory of it. In the film, Susie is a budding photographer chronicling the world around her with a tiny Kodak Instamatic. This idea seems to have inspired Jackson and cinematographer Andrew Leslie to visualize the real world as one of those vibrant and slightly unreal Kodachrome snapshots. Particularly interesting is the home of George Harvey (Stanley Tucci) with its pastel green exterior contrasted by an alarming red curtained window.

Jackson has also cast the film perfectly. No matter what the flaws may be, the film holds great power in its central role. Saoirse Ronan is absolutely perfect and heartbreaking as Susie Salmon and it is her performance that makes the film work in spite of its flaws. Giving her fine support is Mark Walhberg as Susie's father Jack. Wahlberg underplays the role very effectively and not the way he "underplayed" in The Happening. The sooner we can forget that performance the better. This is easily one of his best dramatic performances. Stanley Tucci's George Harvey is a kind of archetypal serial killer. We learn nothing about him except that he has a mania for making dollhouses (without dolls) and appears to live in one. But this is OK since he is not really supposed to be a psychologically credible character. He is the story's "big bad wolf" and Tucci is very good at reminding you of every weaselly murderer from our cultural history. You look at George Harvey and can see right through him to the BTK killer. Rachel Weisz is fine as always but her character seems to have been left on the cutting room floor.

The strangest thing about Jackson's approach is how chaste it is. The whole film is just a bit too tasteful to achieve real catharsis. Jackson seems to be a prisoner of his PG-13 rating and because of this, the darkness of the crime is left a bit anti-septic. This was the story of a teenage girl who was raped and murdered. She is now only murdered. There is a difference especially with its themes of awakening sexuality. Jackson's film is filled with the sentimentality of innocence lost but it remains empty since that sentiment has to be earned through pain that the audience needs to share. The ending is another false step though one it shares with the book. It's just too tidy for a story that wants to express the chaos of the world.

Directed by: Peter Jackson.
Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson, based on the novel by Alice Sebold.
With: Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Stanley Tucci, Susan Sarandon, Michael Imperioli, Rose McIver and Christian Thomas Ashdale.


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