In 2002, Alice Sebold published her debut novel, The Lovely Bones. The fantasy-drama told the story of Susie Salmon, a typical teenage girl who is violently raped and murdered by her neighbor. Her spirit flees upward and heads to her own personal Heaven, where she remains indefinitely as she watches her family struggle with the fallout from her disappearance. Almost immediately, The Lovely Bones became a startling success. Inspired by her own experiences with sexual assaults, Sebold's tale tapped into something unique and yet universally understandable about grief and trauma, told through an unexpected lens that subverted audiences' expectations. Curiously, The Lovely Bones is a beautiful and uplifting book about a horrific rape and murder. Readers couldn't get enough of it, and the title sold more than a million copies in one month, a near-unheard-of phenomenon given its lack of big-name endorsements and Sebold's status as a debut author. Of course, a movie would have to follow.
Before publication, the Scottish director Lynne Ramsay snapped up the adaptation rights, hoping to turn the story into a psychological examination of Susie's father as he goes mad with grief, akin to Hamlet. Ramsay had acquired a proof of the book before it was even finished and worked from there, admitting she preferred the darker content to the sugary Heaven scenes and wanted to get away from the more fantastical elements in favor of something more in line with her other films. When the book became a million-dollar hot property, Ramsay was removed from the project, as the producers wanted something more faithful to the source material. Ramsay would later say that she nicknamed the project "The Lovely Money," since that was all the producers seemed to care about. They desired a director who would slavishly stick to the book and ensure audiences got what they wanted on a grand scale. Enter Peter Jackson and a world of misguided creative decisions.
By 2009, Peter Jackson had thoroughly established himself as one of the biggest film directors on the planet. After many years of delightfully crash low-budget shock-horrors, he made the seemingly impossible happen by bringing J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy to life on the big screen. He took on the oft-described insurmountable task of adapting one of fantasy fiction’s most beloved sagas and did so with epic scale, loving attention to detail, and true cinematic flair. There’s a reason those films stand up to scrutiny today and are considered as close to a perfect adaptation of Middle-earth as we’ll ever get. The franchise’s financial and critical success, plus its plethora of Oscars, put Jackson in the much-envied position as a filmmaker of essentially being able to make whatever the hell he wanted. First came his remake of King Kong, a three-hour display of pure fanboy glee that delights and infuriates in equal measure. While there’s much to love in the film and the way it expands its scant source material, this was the first sign audiences got that Jackson might have been flying off the rails a little with his lavish approach to cinema and increasing reliance on CGI.
It made sense that producers of The Lovely Bones would want Jackson at the helm of this much-hyped project. Expectations were high, fans wanted something that stuck to the source material, and Jackson had the required experience to bring Susie’s otherworldly Heaven to life. He also had a great eye for casting, which carried over well with The Lovely Bones as the much-coveted role of Susie was awarded to Saoirse Ronan. The oft-underrated Stanley Tucci was perfectly cast against type as Susie's murderer George, while her parents were to be played by Rachel Weisz and Ryan Gosling. The latter didn't work out, mostly because Gosling was only 26 at the time and he'd also chosen to grow a beard and go 60 pounds overweight without informing Jackson. He was quickly replaced by Mark Wahlberg. Jackson wanted to retain the "curiously optimistic" tone of the novel and portray Susie's Heaven in a way that was "ethereal and emotional but not hokey." He was also insistent on keeping the movie at a PG-13 rating to ensure it could reach the widest audience possible.
None of his decisions was necessarily bad at the time. They were essentially the same ones he'd made when taking on The Lord of the Rings. The key difference here was that The Lovely Bones, for all its illusions of optimism and grasping at the warmth of a beautiful, comforting afterlife, is an extremely dark book. Remember, this is a story that starts with a teenage girl being raped, murdered, then dismembered, never to be fully found by her family or those who love her. She remains eternally an adolescent, watching her family grow and suffer and being completely unable to do anything about it. Even though she now lives in paradise, she’s painfully aware that she’ll never truly experience peace after what she’s been through. The Lovely Bones is about many things, but most importantly it’s a testament to the crater of damage left behind by trauma and how we seldom suffer alone, for better or worse.
Jackson said he was drawn to the book because "like all the best fantasy, it has a solid grounding in the real world." Strangely, there's not a shred of evidence to support that fact in his adaptation. Instead, Jackson seems obsessed with turning Susie's Heaven into a crash-bang-wallop of colors and effects that are more headache-inducing than inspiring. It's clear that this is where the lion's share of Jackson's attention (and the $65 million budget) went, and it's to the film's ultimate detriment. This CGI spectacle overshadows the human heart at the center of The Lovely Bones, reducing Susie and her family to puppets of misery. The rougher and more abrasive edges of the story are sanded down into something more palatable, which greatly defeats the point of the narrative: Death isn't supposed to be easy.
To add insult to injury, Jackson's effects extravaganzas have a distinct lack of imagination. None of it looks especially original or even comes close to evoking the ambiguous beauty of the novel. Sebold's novel refuses to give easy answers to her readers' questions over the nature of this Heaven, one she says is separate from belief in God and the doctrine of Christianity. Turning that liminal concept into distinct visual language would be impossible for any director, but Jackson simply chooses to throw everything at the screen and hope some of the lollipop sweetness sticks. This Heaven is Lisa Frank meets a painted van by the beachside, only without any of the self-conscious camp. The ultimate effect of this approach is that Heaven ends up seeming kind of cool and not that bad a place to go once you’ve been brutalized. All of the tension and emotional heartache of Susie's afterlife voyeurism and her family’s pain is sugar-coated by the pastel prettiness she then inhabits. Truthfully, watching these scenes on my revisit made me feel sort of dirty. They were accompanied by an unnerving stain of good faith decisions gone wrong, a smudging away of more complex ideals in favor of distraction. The film is less a filling meal than a beautifully decorated cake that's tooth-rottingly sweet on the inside and has started to rot on the inside.
Roger Ebert, in his review of the film, famously described it as "deplorable," with a seriously messed-up message: "If you're a 14-year-old girl who has been brutally raped and murdered by a serial killer, you have a lot to look forward to. You can get together in heaven with the other teenage victims of the same killer, and gaze down in benevolence upon your family members as they mourn you and realize what a wonderful person you were. Sure, you miss your friends, but your fellow fatalities come dancing to greet you in a meadow of wildflowers, and how cool is that?"
For all the producers’ demands that the film stick as closely to the source material as possible, The Lovely Bones ends up falling incredibly short of that aim despite joining all the dots together as directed. The aesthetic overshadowed the true meat of the narrative, and by the time the film came out, few were satisfied with what they saw. Instead, what it came to symbolize were the long-running pros and cons of Peter Jackson as a filmmaker. Jackson has always been defined as a director who took on the frequently dismissed genres of fiction and used them as sturdy foundations to experiment with new special effects and evolutions in cinematic technology. The Lord of the Rings is so successful because every aspect of its beautifully rendered craft is working in tandem with the script and actors, elevating rather than overshadowing the core of the stories. Moments of CGI that haven’t aged well are forgiven because everything around them is so stellar and enthralling. Good storytelling never ages, but that's become less of a priority for Jackson following on from The Return of the King. This stance came to an especially crushing nadir when Jackson took over The Hobbit films from Guillermo del Toro, bloating the slim story to three epic films and using an increased frame rate that made the action look like a PS2 cutscene. He became so obsessed with seeing how far he could push the technological envelope that he forgot to make a good film to put it all in. It may have seemed like the right choice for The Lovely Bones, especially since everyone seemed to be asking for it, but sometimes a director needs to deviate from the source material and put aside their preferred ideas for the good of the narrative.
Personally, I still think a lot about what Lynne Ramsay's movie of The Lovely Bones would have looked like. Ramsay is one of the best directors working today and easily one of the most proficient in tackling themes of trauma, something that runs through all of her work, which made her the perfect choice for Sebold's novel before it became a phenomenon. A more austere approach focused less on Heaven in favor of the pain left on Earth by Susie's absence would have grounded the film in the humanity of its themes. That's what people were won over by, not the promise of prettiness.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.