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Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan stars as Susie Salmon in The Lovely Bones. (©2009 DW Studios L.L.C. All Rights Reserved.)
Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan stars as Susie Salmon in The Lovely Bones. (©2009 DW Studios L.L.C. All Rights Reserved.)

Lost in translation: the book casts a spell, the movie kills it Add to ...

  • Country USA
  • Language English

The Lovely Bones

  • Directed by Peter Jackson
  • Written by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens
  • Starring Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci
  • Classification: PG

Some books should stay between their covers, and The Lovely Bones may well be one of them. The novel succeeds because its brutal conceit - the narrator is a murdered girl looking down at the world she left behind - is delicately rendered, as the filigree of Alice Sebold's prose combines with the reader's liberated imagination to weave a compelling spell. But remove that filigree, then incarcerate our imagination inside a confining frame filled with heavy-handed visuals, and the spell is gone. The book floats sublimely above its dark theme; the movie sinks into the ridiculous.

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Not at the start, though, where the establishing scenes are forebodingly taut. When we first meet Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan), she's alive and well and a sprightly teen, happily ensconced in a small Pennsylvania town and the loving embrace of her family. Mom (Rachel Weisz) knits snugly tuques, Dad (Mark Wahlberg) builds ships in a bottle, younger siblings caper and cavort - it's the early seventies and the future seems as securely fixed, and as bright, as the Snoopy poster on her bedroom wall. But then, in Susie's matter-of-fact voice-over, a different outcome is foretold: "I was 14 years old when I was murdered. … My murderer was a man from my neighbourhood."

To capture her altered future, director Peter Jackson forages through his own past, sidestepping that little Lord of the Rings detour and heading back to the technique, a mix of hard realism and fantasy, that marked his early work in Heavenly Creatures . There, the mix fused nicely; here, it doesn't, and the competing ingredients work neither separately nor together. His method is to consistently crosscut between the two worlds, beginning with the murder itself, when the girl meets her fate in a wintry cornfield while, sitting at their cozy kitchen table, her oblivious family chats merrily away.

Of course, given that we already know the horrid result, the sequence lacks suspense, although the creepy quotient is definitely high, courtesy of Stanley Tucci's take on the villain. With his hair blond, his eyes blue, and his spectacles glaring, Tucci does a credible job animating the cliché of the serial killer as quietly respectable citizen, injecting the venom of brutality into the bland.

From that point, Susie is off to her "in between" realm somewhere in the blue yonder, physically removed from, yet still viscerally engaged with, the earthly doings beneath. So the crosscutting continues, only now we're on an alternating shuttle from the supernatural to the natural. Up above, Jackson digs deep into his bag of computer-generated tricks, but the effects just ain't effective. The poor girl's halfway house seems stuck in its own surreal limbo, unsure whether it's a bad knock-off of a Dali painting or a pretty fair imitation of a Coke commercial.

Meanwhile, down in terra firma, the film is suffering a similar identity crisis, squirming about from murder tale to sensitive drama to horror flick to, surprise, situation comedy. The sad dad (although Wahlberg's revealed limitations are sadder still) is getting obsessed with the case; an investigating cop is getting suspicious of the not-so-good neighbour; Susie's sister is getting dangerously close to falling into the same predatory trap; and Susan Sarandon is just getting silly. She plays the comic granny who, whisky glass in one hand and cigarette in the other, pops up to "take charge" of the fractured household, preaching the gospel of getting-on-with-life from the pulpit of her purple haze. It's like granny wandered in from a failed pilot on the Fox network.

Well, in this life and beyond, that's a lot of oddballs to juggle, and every one of them is dropped with a thud, then swept away in a climax that unfolds with unseemly haste. By now, all the crosscutting has begun to look like a messy collision that forces us into the role of rubbernecker, gawking at the unlucky participants - the one above in her near-heaven, the others below in their living hell - but not feeling a damn thing.

And since raw feeling, poignantly invested in the transcendent voice of a child victim who grieves for the survivors, is the overriding virtue of the novel, the overriding vice of the film is easy to find. And easier to condemn. Compressed onto the screen, the bones are twisted out of shape, deprived of their emotional weight, no longer lovely. What has spread is the villainy, and with it the killing field - inevitably so, when the movie murders the book.

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