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Author: JoAnne Hyde
January 13, 2010

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OFFICIAL SYNOPSIS: a young girl who has been murdered and watches over her family – and her killer – from heaven. She must weigh her desire for vengeance against her desire for her family to heal.

DIRECTED BY: Peter Jackson
WRITTEN BY: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson
CAST: Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Stanley Tucci

Let me begin by saying that I think people who have not read the book will like this film better than those of us who have read it.

The tone of the novel is largely lost in this adaptation. The lyricism of Alice Sebold’s writing comes out mainly in the protagonist’s voice-overs. In fact, Saoirse Ronan’s exuberant performance as the murdered girl, Susie Salmon, is one of the best things about THE LOVELY BONES. Her performance will resonate with young teens, especially girls, who I think must be the target audience for the film. The novel’s more mature themes have been diluted in the film, probably to get the PG-13 rating. Miss Ronan is radiant, and the film is teen-savvy enough that it will find an audience with the younger set.

A second – and very good – reason for seeing the film is Stanley Tucci’s brilliant portrayal of the eerily benign-looking serial killer who murders Susie, and as the viewer later learns, many more. Tucci is cast totally against type, and it must have been uncomfortable to inhabit this character’s skin, even for a little while. He is almost unrecognizable as he transforms into the lethal neighbor, Mr. Harvey. He is the scariest kind of evil – the kind that hides behind perfect ordinariness. Tucci masterfully gives us glimpses of his character’s madness without over-playing it. He’s creepy, but not creepy enough to raise red flags with the neighbors. He lurks in the background, stalking his completely unaware prey. If he doesn’t win Best Supporting Actor for this performance, the award gods must be crazy!

Painfully miscast are Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz as Susie’s parents. They appear to be too young, and with the wrong coloring to have produced strawberry-blond, blue-eyed children. Both try to convey the intense grief of losing a child, but that’s just what it feels like – trying. Susan Sarandon gives an amusing turn as the boozy, frowsy grandmother, but she may as well have been wearing a sign “Comic Relief”. When she appears to have straightened out near the end of the film, the audience is left wondering, “When did this happen?” Her transformation happens without development, so it feels artificial.

In the novel, Susie’s “perfect heaven” after-life is described in lyrical, ethereal language. She can gaze out from her gazebo onto other people’s “perfect heavens” in the distance. In the film Peter Jackson has turned it into a kind of psychedelic “happening”. It’s much too bright and shifts from place to place much too quickly. I know this story is set in the ‘70s, but give me a break! I kept thinking “bad acid flashback”, especially when it turned sinister and scary. I do not remember that tone in the novel. Maybe I should re-read it because if it was there, I don’t remember it. Too much time is spent on the after-life scenes at the expense of developing the story line. There are also a few scenes that defy logic, and I found them distracting. One example occurs when the murderer must hurriedly get rid of the large, heavy safe in which he has hidden Susie’s body. He drives it to a local sink-hole cum garbage dump where another man has to help him laboriously move it, end over end, to the edge of the hole. Wait a minute! How did he get it into the back of his SUV without help? In fact, why didn’t he just back the truck up to the edge of the hole in the first place? This scenario never happened in the novel, and it seems an odd thing to have added to the film.

There may not be actual justice in the legal sense in the film, but there is poetic justice...

I’ll leave it at that. - JoAnne Hyde


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