movie review: the lovely bones

17Jan10

I really don’t want to get into the habit of reviewing movies. Given that I stumble into a movie theater once or twice a year, I think you can all rest assured that this ill-informed cinematic musing will not become a regular thing of mine. But this time, in my opinion, is a worthy exception. The Lovely Bones came out on Friday. I loved the book. I love what the movie’s director, Peter Jackson, had done a few years back with a little book-turned-movie series called The Lord of the Rings. I love my mom, who offered to take me for my birthday. I love the moon, which was unmistakably in the seventh house.

So, friends, here is my first (and hopefully last) movie review. For those who haven’t read the book or seen the movie, there are no spoilers in this review. For those who have read/seen, please let me know how your reactions match mine.

quick synopsis

The story is told from the perspective of Susie Salmon.  Susie is a fourteen-year-old girl growing up in the 1970s.  Immediately after meeting Susie, she tells us that she has been murdered.  The subsequent story is Susie’s account of life after her death: her adjustment to the space in between heaven and earth, how her family and friends cope, how her killer covers his tracks, and how everyone (including Susie) seeks to move past such a horrific occurrence.

read the book before you see the movie.

This is a cardinal rule of mine.  I still haven’t seen Atonement, because the book doesn’t appeal to me at all. It’s also why I labored through Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (oh, the things I will do for Colin Firth).  If I watch the movie first, it stifles my imagination when I go back to the book, since I don’t get a chance to see it for myself.  Besides, one of the great things about seeing a movie adaptation of a book is comparing someone else’s vision with your own.

In this case, though, just pretend I don’t have the rule, that I’m not weirdly passionate about it, and that I’ve never said it before.  Now:

Read The Lovely Bones before you see the movie.

For me, this book was the indie band you’ve loved for years.  When you hear them on the radio, you get that bittersweet feeling of rooting for the band’s success and simultaneously accepting that your coveted secret is out.

I got the hardcover book four or five years ago.  When I pulled it off the shelf to reread it in anticipation of the film, I reveled in the torn pages and cracked spine that reminded me how many times I’ve passed it on to others.  In a world where Twilight dominates, I’m grateful to see a story with such depth reclaim some rightful popularity.

chronology

The narrative style of Alice Sebold’s book makes a rough transition onto the screen.  The novel does a great job transitioning between each character’s story, but it wasn’t as smooth in the film, particularly at the beginning.  For the first half hour or so, I wondered how those with no previous exposure to the story could possibly be following along or getting into the movie.  The mix between present and flashback was virtually indistinguishable, even though I knew from the book.

The awkward chronology picked up again at the end, and I had a very hard time figuring out how much time had passed in between scenes.  I only made it about halfway through my reread, so I don’t recall wether or not the book set the tone for this, but the timeline was a complete mystery to me.  It made for a truly frustrating distraction.

casting

Since the chronology was so bewildering, I can’t decide if casting of the younger characters is excusable.  I understand that Susie stays fourteen forever, while everyone else is subjected to the hideous task of aging (no, I’m not bitter about just turning twenty-five).  Considering each character independently of all others, the casting was great.  In the context of the entire story, though, Susie (played by Saoirse Ronan) seemed way too young.  For starters, her younger sister Lindsey (Rose McIver) looked like the eldest Salmon daughter.  I get this, though, because it sort of works to illustrate Susie’s eternal youth.

But then there’s Susie’s love interest, Ray Singh (Reece Ritchie).  The movie clearly states that she is fourteen, while he is a senior, which is a little strange to begin with.  I know, I know, age is just a number, and I readily admit to my own tendency toward old man crushes (irrefutable evidence of this), but let’s just take a look:

Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan)

Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan)

Ray Singh (Reece Ritchie)

Ray Singh (Reece Ritchie)

The actors are fifteen and twenty-three in real life (I’ll let you guess which is which), and the difference was really obvious to me.  It made me feel awkward.

The casting of the grownups was wonderful, fantastic, and all that other stuff.  Marky Mark is always a hit with me.

Then there was the murderer, George Harvey (played by Stanley Tucci):

George Harvey (Stanley Tucci)

George Harvey (Stanley Tucci)

Holy crap.  He was grood.  I mean… great.  And good.  Mission accomplished, Mr. Tucci: I had a serious case of the heebie-jeebies every time you appeared in the frame.

peter jackson

When my mother and I were making the thirty-five-minute drive back home from the movie theater, I said that I had much higher expectations from a Peter Jackson movie.

My mom replied, “I’m not familiar with his work.”

“Well, he made The Lord of the Rings movies.”

The car filled with the air of shock and disappointment as my mother realized why I was so expressively irritated.  Even though no one has any real concept of what heaven looks like, Jackson’s CGI direction was cheesy, ostentatious, and very obviously fake.  It’s people like Peter Jackson who have set the standard for animated graphics in films, and this was a pretty solid insult to that standard.  The time that he devoted to demonstrating his CGI afterlife was really detrimental to the pacing of the film, which dragged in a lot of places.

my verdict

I don’t get out much, so maybe this is what movies have become.  As we left the theater, the fifteen teenage girls in front of me were wiping tears from their eyes and talking about how great it was.  Perhaps they haven’t read the book (if this is the case, hopefully it inspired them to read it), but I was surprised to see that other people could get so into it.  Sure, it picked up a lot of steam at the end, but I really thought it should have been done better.  It wasn’t a terrible film, but when you consider the story, the director, and the cast… it really should have been better.

And to think, I saw this before I saw Where the Wild Things Are.

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2 Responses to “movie review: the lovely bones”

  1. I love how eloquently you put the read the book first rule. I have always strongly agreed with this rule, and often when my students see a movie of a book they’ve read they always seem perplexed by the fact that the book was better. I just smile and tell them that’s the way it is supposed to be.

    Thanks for the review. I also loved this book, but will probably wait for Netflix now.

  2. Karen, your rule is worth considering, but I have so much classic literature to catch up on I don’t have much time to also read bestsellers. So I watch film adaptations, and estimate their value as films. I don’t much care if a film of a bestseller is completely faithful to the book or not. I care if it works in the form it is presented to me. I used to read the books first when I was a teenager, but then I had experiences like seeing The Godfather, which to me worked so much better as a film than as a book. But the usual experience was disappointment, because having read the book, you can’t ordinarily be open to the tension and release process when seeing the film after. You already know too much about what will happen. So now I usually only do one or the other and not both. I read the Dan Brown books (I like puzzles and mysteries), and avoided seeing the films. I saw The Lovely Bones (a screener copy came for free) and enjoyed it. Now I’m not interested in reading the book. I know too much.

    I did enjoy reading your post.


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