I recall an argument I once had with a friend about the film adaptation of a book we both loved, but which consisted of the protagonist thinking to himself for something like 80% of the total work. That it could be done was not really the issue. It certainly could, though it might make for an odd experience. No, the question was really should it be done.
I haven’t read The Lovely Bones, but it seems fairly clear that we have the same game going on here. There are occasionally film adaptations that truly expose the differences in the mediums, and provide the reasons against simply turning every popular book into a movie, and The Lovely Bones is such a film. Of course, in the majority of cases, the two mediums are aiming at the same thing – telling a certain story, but once in a while you find a case where the one simply cannot manage the task, and what you end up with is the equivalent of painting a picture of a sculpture.
Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) is a young, hopelessly cute teenager, and she’s murdered by her neighbor George Harvey (Stanley Tucci). You would normally think that I’m oddly giving things away, but not if you’ve seen the trailer.
The Salmons are a family so typical that there is a fairly legitimate sense in which we might say they have 2.5 kids, and George Harvey (solidly portrayed by Tucci as he may be) is more or less from the creepy, stalking murderer page of stock characters.
Where we find a film with a murder and no mystery, and a distraught family with no resolution or compelling abstraction, we are inclined to conclude that we must be in store for some meaningful character study… of someone. Add to that general assumption the fact that Susie keeps narrating at us from somewhere between Earth and Heaven, when we aren’t actually visiting her there, and you can’t avoid the idea that there is something to say… about something.
If The Lovely Bones has something to say, apart from don’t climb into holes in empty fields that have “Deathtrap” written on them in neon, I am at a loss to figure what it might be. As you might expect by the time you get there, Susie gives us a bit of curious fortune cookie at the end, and of course she actually mentions “Lovely Bones,” because you’d be hard-pressed to put anything together if she didn’t, but by the time you’ve finished the film it doesn’t make any sense.
It’s the kind of slapped on at the end, corny proselytizing that probably makes a lot of sense at the end of the book, but coming in as it does here feels about as deep and sensible as putting forward the idea that everything makes sense because nothing makes sense.
The terrible rub of the film is that so many things about it stand out as fairly brilliant really. It’s one of those incredibly curious films which leave you feeling that there are any number of categories you could see it winning awards for, but somehow it doesn’t add up to anything. I would not be surprised, for example, to see anyone in the film nominated for their acting performance, except that I find it hard to place anyone in a category above “supporting.” The direction by Peter Jackson is perhaps not in the class of the best of the year, but it is certainly not a job worthy of much fault. Other possible notes, such as: Art Direction, Cinematography, any number of classes of Editing, and on and on, are all well above par. The suggestion of Best Picture is not to be taken seriously, but from the perspective of a film lover, there is so much done well that it is somewhat painful to say so.
The only thing one can take away (if one does not go in with the book) is that the book is probably an interesting read. There is definitely a great deal going on, but the point is lost. The family’s reaction and response is only thrown about really. The same with the young girl who is “open to things you can’t see.” Perhaps it works for those who have read the book, but for those who haven’t everything comes through in the most cursory way. There is much about a father’s love, and perhaps even something like a Zen approach to life, but you can only get it if you brought it in with you, and if that’s the case, why bother with the film?
There is much to appreciate here, but precious little to enjoy, and the cardinal sin of movies is leaving your audience wondering, “Why the hell did I watch that?”
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