If anybody could bring The Lovely Bones to the screen, Peter Jackson would seem a perfect fit. The director of the worldly Heavenly Creatures (teenage girls, murder) and the otherworldly Lord of the Rings certainly has a vision broad enough to encompass both heaven and earth, which is where Alice Sebold's hugely popular novel takes place. Earth—specifically, a suburban American town in 1973—is where 14-year-old Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) is murdered at the start of the tale. Heaven—or an in-between station—is where she resides as the story's narrator, able to see, but not be seen by, her family, friends, and killer. (Article continued below…)
Jackson has found the perfect Susie in Ronan, who dazzled as the deceitful English girl Briony in Atonement. She's no less extraordinary as an American high-schooler brimming with life and expectation when she is killed by a mild-mannered neighbor, Mr. Harvey (an almost unrecognizable Stanley Tucci). With her pale blue eyes and quicksilver emotional transparency, Ronan establishes such a rapport with the audience that we feel the loss deeply.
That loss, of course, is mitigated by the bold conceit of having her narrating the events from the afterlife. This neat trick was at the heart of the novel's success, turning a bleak tale of murder and grief into one of consolation, forgiveness, and that favorite American trope, "closure." Sebold's prose was the glue that held the novel's disparate elements together. Onscreen, however, The Lovely Bones is a hybrid of unmatching parts—shuffling between thriller, police procedural, family melodrama, and mystical fantasy. There's even a section—when Susie's madcap grandmother (Susan Sarandon) shows up to help the grieving family—during which the movie verges on becoming Auntie Mame.
How do you literalize heaven? It's a problem moviemakers have struggled with forever, and Jackson hasn't solved it. Sebold's notion was that everyone creates a heaven to fit her fantasies and wishes. Jackson creates the afterlife of a 14-year-old raised on '70s teen life and pop culture—a kitsch universe of greeting-card imagery and Renaissance Faire clothes. The tackiness, intentional or not, is jarring. Even worse is the vision of Susie and the other murdered girls as a happy, gamboling clan of free spirits. At such moments, the story's willful wish fulfillment seems downright cuckoo.
Jackson does much better on terra firma. As a thriller, The Lovely Bones can generate heart-stopping suspense: when Susie's sister sneaks into creepy Mr. Harvey's house hoping to find evidence of his crime, Jackson ratchets up the tension like the master he can be. And the grief Susie's family feels is palpable. Mark Wahlberg plays her father, whose obsession with solving the crime drives his wife (Rachel Weisz) away.
Jackson knew he couldn't tamper too much with a book so beloved. By remaining faithful to Sebold's myriad flights of fancy, however, he's inadvertently highlighted the book's vulnerabilities. When The Lovely Bones loses its grip on you, its momentousness turns into silliness.