The May Lovely Bones Challenge – belated

So, a while back (two months ago, but it feels like a lifetime!), I posted a challenge that a Twitter friend and myself had set for ourselves. The challenge was to read the book The Lovely Bones during the month of May and then blog about our responses, in light of our unfavorable opinions of the movie.

I’m here to tell you that both Donna and I did, in fact, read and finish The Lovely Bones during May. However, when it came time to reflect upon the book, life got in the way for both of us. Donna was dealing with some health issues and I was working on a few other projects.

I’m going to go ahead and review the book The Lovely Bones in light of the film, and Donna will chime in when she can. One of our main purposes for doing this was to see what went wrong in the adaptation of a wildly popular book into a movie – and if the flaws were already in the book or if they were created in the film.

Consider everything that follows extreme spoilers for both the novel and the film. Accordingly…

My biggest dissatisfaction with the film was that it was a perfect cast. I’m a fan of every actor in that movie and even without having read the book, I could tell they were well-cast. Despite their stellar abilities and performances, the movie didn’t work. I couldn’t figure out how a movie could fail with such consistent and gorgeous performances.

But the movie did fail. There was a strange disconnect from the story, from the characters, in favor of green-screen/CGI flash. Which had been my biggest concern when I heard that Peter Jackson was directing. I’d hoped that the odd choice could work, that Jackson would demonstrate with the movie an ability to scale-back and tell a story. But unfortunately, that was not the case and I feel that this movie was actually ruined by too large of a budget. I read that a Scottish director, Lynne Ramsay, was also interested in directing the movie and while I don’t know her work, she appears to have a more appropriate track-record for a film like this.

I feel that because The Lovely Bones novel was such a success, it became a hot commodity, demanding a director with a blockbuster track record and the ability to get a big-name cast. So when Peter Jackson expressed interest, it was his film, regardless of the fact that none of his other films have indicated he knew how to make this movie. While had the right cast, he underutilized them (most remarkably Rachel Weisz, whose major subplot was almost entirely removed from the film) in favor of detailing Susie’s In-Between in all its potential, flashy glory.

But perhaps the book was unfilmable. That is what I wondered after having seen the movie and one of the major reasons I read the book. Having read it, I think it would have been a successful film with a fraction of the budget, one that focused on the emotional responses of Susie’s family after her death, rather than her killer. The book IS about Susie’s family and their survival after she’s taken from them. Her mother has an affair and leaves the family for some time — the affair isn’t mentioned (though I noticed hints of it in the chemistry between the two actors) and her abandonment of the family is glossed over and relegated to a small film space. It’s a large issue – a mother’s betrayal of her family — and clearly there was no space for it in Jackson’s vision of the film.

Similarly, with the wonderful Stanley Tucci going to great lengths to portray Susie’s killer (lentil fat suit, skin lightening) George Harvey, we’re still left somehow hungry for more of his story. And yet, he takes up too much space in the film, space that should have belonged to the stories of Susie’s sister, to Ray and Ruth, the two misfit kids at her school who miss her, and to her father. We’re left with very little of what happened to them after Susie’s death – merely a fast-forwarded series of images that make little sense because they’re entirely out of context. For instance, Lindsey Salmon’s boyfriend Sam Heckler plays a much larger role in the book, stepping into Susie’s distraught family and, in many ways, holding it together. He’s an afterthought in the film, cast but just barely.

Interestingly, Susie’s fate, while not depicted gratuitously, is entirely unambiguous in the book. George Harvey lures her into an underground fort he’s built just for her, rapes and murders her. He dismembers her and puts her body into a safe, first kept in his house and then later disposed of in a sinkhole. Peter Jackson shies away from showing anything of Susie’s rape or murder – perhaps appropriately cautious of how much more powerfully horrific it would be depicted visually. Perhaps he merely had to be careful of his underage child actress – or chose to. Perhaps, as a father himself, he couldn’t stand to film anything more graphic than he did. Whatever the reasons, while I applaud his discretion, the scene is confusing in the movie (especially if you haven’t read the book, which I hadn’t yet).

Two of the stupidest elements of the film — George Harvey’s death and Susie’s after-death kiss with Ray through Ruth — are actually in the book. But even in a relatively slim novel like The Lovely Bones, there is more space to create a context for them. And while I found both elements pretty stupid/creepy in the book as well, they made a lot more sense than they did in the movie.

Monster movies like Jaws and Psycho prove that less is more often than not more. What we don’t see can often haunt us more than what we do. With a tiny budget, the Jaws filmmakers had to be creative. With a smaller budget, another filmmaker could have focused on the emotional story that is the core of the popular novel The Lovely Bones. But instead, we get Peter Jackson obsessing over visuals.

We can’t ever forget that people have been hungry for stories for thousands of years. While technology has given us movies and special effects as vehicles for telling stories, they can’t replace the story itself. Since even before the newest technological advance of the book, the fundamental form and nature of stories and story-telling has changed very little since human beings figured out how to communicate.

The Lovely Bones is a story about how the death of a young girl affects the lives of the people who loved her. Period. That’s a filmable story. Maybe in a few years, we’ll see a smaller, cheaper, more creative version of the story on the big screen.

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