Back in 2001, before Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones had even been published, the Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay announced that she intended to adapt the novel into a feature film. That made perfect sense. Ramsay’s two features, the little-seen Ratcatcher (1999) and Morvern Callar (2002), were both glancing, allusive portraits of extreme subjectivity—an approach that seemed perfectly suited to Sebold’s unusual book, which is narrated by a dead teenager and has no real plot to speak of, focusing instead on tremulous emotional states. Alas, for reasons nobody seems willing to discuss in public, Ramsay lost the project, and the movie of The Lovely Bones wound up being made years later by Peter Jackson, Oscar-winning director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. That did not make perfect sense, to put it mildly, and the bombastic result confirms that Jackson was attracted to the novel for entirely the wrong reasons.
Oh, he’s faithful enough, for the most part. And the film begins promisingly, introducing us to the doomed Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan, the amazing Irish youngster from Atonement, heartbreakingly vivacious here), a 14-year-old who’s just embarked on her first puppy-love adventure. Before she can even kiss the guy, however, she’s lured into an underground lair by the neighborhood psychopath, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), who ... well, he kills her, at the very least. (In the book, Susie is also raped and dismembered; Jackson, in a controversial decision, chooses not even to allude to those possibilities, much less dramatize them.) Her soul then departs for heaven, or a personal subdivision of same, where she observes her family (Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz play the parents), her friends and her would-be beau over a number of years, as they slowly come to terms with her death—though Susie’s sister (Rose McIver) begins to suspect that friendly Mr. Harvey knows more than he’s letting on.
Just from the above synopsis, you can see what the potential problem is, cinematically speaking: Nothing much actually happens. Sebold’s novel mostly concerns gradual, almost imperceptible shifts in thought and feeling, which is the kind of thing that only a very particular sort of filmmaker (like Lynne Ramsay) can successfully translate to images. Jackson, however, gets excited by the prospect of creating elaborate fantasy worlds, and so the movie spends an inordinate amount of time with Susie in her personal heaven, which takes on various CGI guises but usually resembles the preposterously idyllic landscapes that pharmaceutical ads employ to distract you from all the side effects the voice-over is cataloguing. Even if you’re wowed by these butterscotch images, they have precious little to do with the story’s actual drama, which is ostensibly unfolding in the tortured hearts of the characters still living.
Onscreen, alas, they’re a dreary lot. Wahlberg and Weisz, who can be terrific given the right material, flail about like netted fish, in part because Jackson and his regular screenwriting partners, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, have excised the subplot in which Susie’s mom has an affair with the investigating homicide cop (Michael Imperioli). Tucci, meanwhile, skulks up a storm as creepy Mr. Harvey, turning in one of those painfully fussy performances that always seem to impress Academy members. (Expect an Oscar nomination.) Everything is misjudged, from a wacky musical interlude in which sassy grandma Susan Sarandon cleans house, to the ultimate fate of Mr. Harvey, which is taken directly from the book but shot in such an overbearing, hyped-up way that it becomes downright laughable. In more appropriate hands, it’s entirely possible The Lovely Bones might have made a lovely, haunting film. Sadly, we’ll never know.