The Lovely Bones (PG-13)
Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
Yes, of course: A book is a book, and a movie is a movie, and only in some mutant form shall the twain meet. A filmmaker adapting a literary work — especially a well-known or much-loved literary work — faces a daunting task in satisfying fans of the source material.
On paper, it probably seemed to Peter Jackson that he had a take on Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones that was more cinematic than the story Sebold told. But the problem isn't necessarily that Jackson attempted something radically different from the book. The problem is that he didn't succeed.
Plenty of the most fundamental plot elements are the same, of course. We learn through the voice-over narration by 14-year-old Susie Salmon (Saorise Ronan) that she was murdered in 1973, and is telling her tale from beyond the grave. The perpetrator was a neighbor named George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), who has gone on about his life while Susie's parents (Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz) — who know only that she has disappeared and never turned up — fail miserably at overcoming their grief. Susie, meanwhile, watches from a limbo-like afterlife, pondering the days she never got to live and worrying over her family members.
Susie's unresolved post-mortem existence served as the metaphorical heart of Sebold's novel, which concerned itself not just with the tragedy of Susie's murder but also the compounded tragedy of a family torn apart by a lack of closure. Jackson literalizes Susie's world as a shifting, luminous dreamscape, similar to the one he created 15 years ago for Heavenly Creatures. And it often seems a bit too reminiscent of the cotton-candy heaven from the 1998 Robin Williams drama What Dreams May Come.
But Jackson's biggest downfall seems to be that he sees The Lovely Bones as a gritty thriller. As Susie's father becomes obsessed with resolving the case, Jackson spends huge chunks of screen time on George. We see him tending the creepy dollhouses that are his hobby; we see him hiding a key piece of evidence; we see him planning what may be his next crime.
The growing suspicions of Susie's younger sister, Lindsey (Rose McIver), and some tense moments of her exploring George's house are drawn straight from the book, but Jackson goes too far — including an embarrassingly misguided final scene for George — making The Lovely Bones feel like capturing the killer is the entire point.
It's hard to imagine that approach making the film anything but a serial-killer thriller under the best circumstances, but it's undermined further by Tucci's performance. Ordinarily an understated actor, Tucci here turns into an absurd caricature. He prowls around his darkened house with his greasy comb-over, sits staring at a suspicious safe, and generally does everything but wear a flashing "Psycho!" sign.
The shame is that, at least early on, it seems possible that both Tucci's performance and Jackson's approach could work. A scene between Tucci and Ronan in George's underground "playhouse" builds a sinister tension, as we become aware along with Susie of the deep trouble she's in. And Ronan is impressive throughout, particularly as the still-living Susie. Once Susie dies, however, The Lovely Bones no longer seems interested in the feelings or thoughts of its non-insane characters.
Jackson was under no obligation to produce a duplicate of Sebold's book. But it would have been nice to see him at least produce something believable.