There’s a lot of times when you read a book and then later it gets made into a movie. You watch the film, but often times it leaves you feeling “the book was better”. Many times, that’s not a dig on the movie – it’s very hard to convey the subtleties that an author can in a 90-120 minute film.
But while I was on vacation, I read Alice Sebold’s 2002 book “The Lovely Bones” which I was curious about because a month or so before we had watched Peter Jackson’s 2009 film adaptation. I give them both a solid “B”, but for different reasons.
(A FEW SPOILERS)
The book tells the story of the murder of a teenage girl (Susie Salmon, like the fish) and its aftermath on her family. The story’s device is that it’s told from Susie’s vantage point in the afterlife. Susie recounts what happens and watches her family deal with her disappearance and death, tries to will them discover her murderer and eventually hopes that they’ll move on and be happy with the life left to them. The most gripping part of the book is her entrapment and demise and her father’s relentless obsession with finding her killer. There are some minor supernatural elements that are blended nicely into the story and give the read a gauzy dreamlike feel. My problem with the book was that that most interesting part was all in the first half. The second half is more of a meandering story of a family that crumbles under the stress of having a lost a daughter and then reassembles. I cared mostly about Susie, her murder and finding out whether her killer would be caught and so the second half left me a little flat.
Jackson seemed to feel the same way, because in the film he pared down the story to focus on Susie, her murder and finding out whether her killer would be caught. Good going, Peter. Saoirse Ronan was wonderfully cast as Susie and epitomized that fragile age of not-a-child, not-a-real-teenager. The scenes with her were riveting, and the Jackson nails the subtle supernatural aspects to good effect. Stanley Tucci was incredibly creepy as the man that kills Susie. In many ways, this film was prepped to maybe be better than the novel because of these performances and more focused story-telling.
Then Peter decided to stray from the material (rather than trim and edit) and got very “What Dreams May Come” with Susie’s afterlife. There were bizarre “heavenly” FX shots that a) didn’t look that great, and b) had pretty much no impact on the story. There’s a reason that heaven is effectively shown as a white light (see LOST finale), because trying to “show” heaven is always going to be a letdown. Those scenes’ inclusion were really too bad, because they were constantly derailing an otherwise fine film. Sometimes, Peter, less is more.