The trick to The Lovely Bones, what made Alice Sebold's novel such a sneaky and elegant heartbreaker, is its matter-of-fact acceptance of its wild premise. It's all there in those two concise opening sentences: "My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was 14 years old when I was murdered on December 6, 1973." There's room for sentiment in Sebold's novel, particularly near the end, but it's all presented in the almost-exasperated way a teenager might. Here is my crazy story. Make of it what you will.
What Peter Jackson has made of it, in his filmed version of The Lovely Bones, is a fantasia of colors and sound and cinematic motifs that pile on top of Susie's story and add absolutely nothing to it. Instead of carefully selecting strands from Sebold's sprawling novel, Jackson wanders around seemingly at random inside it, losing track of nearly every human story thread while spending indulgent minutes in Susie's heaven, a place that sometimes expands on her personality but more often resembles a generic computer desktop background. The film is a triumph of visual imagination over any story or substance, over-directed and over-acted and completely absent a beating heart.
While the book is told entirely in flashback after Susie's death, the film pauses in prologue to introduce us to the Salmon family: devoted and geeky dad Jack (Mark Wahlberg, miscast), mysterious mom Abigail (Rachel Weisz, underused), boozy Grandma (Susan Sarandon), and three kids, with Susie (Saiorsie Ronan) the oldest, then Lindsey (Rose McIver) and four-year-old Buckley. Susie is killed on her way home from school by neighbor George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), an oddball hobbyist who has meticulously built an underground hut in which to lure Susie, pressure her with his adult authority, then rape and kill her.
After a brief purgatory-esque visit with Mr. Harvey following the murder (not in the book, and utterly unnecessary), Susie is transported to heaven, where another little girl named Holly (Nikki SooHoo) accompanies her on whatever adventures they can imagine. Still, Susie is attached to earth, and watches as her father and sister become obsessed with finding her killer, her crush (Reece Ritchie) and a gloomy school friend (Carolyn Dando) grow closer, her mother drifts from the family, and Mr. Harvey continues living his lonely life undetected.
Jackson seems to be presenting the film as a murder mystery, as Susie futilely tries to encourage her sister and father to find her killer, and Mr. Harvey meticulously covers his tracks. But when vestigial, practically abandoned threads from the book aren't getting in the way-- Abigail's abandonment of her family, the entire character of Detective Len Fenerman-- Susie's heaven is. Packed with mountains and streams and trees that turn into birds, her heaven is spectacular but meaningless and constantly shifting. Sometimes scenes from earth show up in front of her as in a play, and other times giant symbols from her life hover in the distance; sometimes she believes she can change events on earth or even revisit it, and others she's insisting that she's powerless. Though she's the first-person narrator in the book, her presence in the movie feels almost pointless, and her struggle to accept her role in heaven feels very out of place with Jackson's horror movie treatment of the events back on earth.
It's hard to see the fluid storytelling and easy humor of the Lord of the Rings films in this movie, but The Lovely Bones is unmistakably Jackson's film, and rarely does he let you forget his presence behind the camera. Simple scenes are rarely unaccompanied by a flourish of sound or camera movement, and any time Jackson wants the audience to notice something-- a charm bracelet in the corner, a connection between two seemingly unrelated characters-- the point is pounded home with three or four cutaway shots. Clearly there's an attempt at subjective filmmaking here, allowing us to feel everything as intensely as Susie does trapped in her heaven, but the result simply panders to or entirely alienates the audience. By the end of the film it's impossible to tell who Susie is or what she wants-- she insists out loud several times that she's more than just "the dead girl," but any moviegoer unfamiliar with the book will find it impossible to see anything else in her.
The handful of moments that work in the film, like a montage of Susie playing around in heaven or Mr. Harvey's creepiest scenes, are quickly forgotten in the shambling narrative, and when the film wraps up in what's supposed to be triumphant closure, you barely feel that you know these people at all. A movie simply can't have the same lived-in feel as a novel, but all of Jackson's attempts at replicating it fall entirely flat. For fans of the novel, The Lovely Bones isn't just a misfire, but a sad, pale replication of something that should be elegant and deep.