October 22, 2011

Of course it’s beautiful, it’s heaven: How ‘The Lovely Bones’ compares from book to film

Susie Salmon was fourteen years old when she was murdered.

The Lovely Bones is such a tragic story because at fourteen everything feels unrequited. Susie was old enough that, after her death, she was able to dwell on each element of life that her murderer had taken away.

Peter Jackson’s 2009 adaptation of Alice Sebold’s novel is a wonderful film, littered with powerful performances and beautiful CGI scenery.

You will be able to watch The Lovely Bones again and again, but choose your times wisely. The film is best savored during a quiet night-in with no interruptions, when you can comfortably spend 130 minutes mid-way between a gasp and a cry.

In the pivotal murder scene, Susie walks through the cornfield just as her mother prepares the dinner that she will never eat – the scratch of the porcelain plates echo the crunch of her steps upon the drying husks.

As she descends into the deep hole, you will plead for her to stop, to see, to flee. As George Harvey laughs, your skin will crawl. And when Susie does see, and you know that it’s too late, your heart will thump along with hers.

The anticipation and foreboding continues after Susie is gone. You will have the same stirrings of fear whenever Mr Harvey lurks around his intricately crafted doll house; when he sits alone in his basement, enjoying his memories; and when Lindsay surveys Mr Harvey’s house and cannot see him peering back at her.

In an interview with Scott Bowles from USATODAY, Jackson said:

“I never found the book to be bleak. At times the story was shocking, and always it was told with unflinching honesty.”

Sebold’s novel is not bleak because she weaves the most shocking details seamlessly in with the mundane, the heart wrenching in with the humourous.

In the first chapter, when Susie first describes the small room beneath the earth where she was murdered, you are suddenly presented with a startling fact: that a neighbourhood dog discovered her elbow three days later.

A fourteen-year-old girl’s dismembered limb being dug out of the ground and gnawed-on by an animal is quite shocking, but Sebold makes it readable by presenting the facts in a direct, conversational and almost nonchalant way, as if directly from Susie’s stream of conscious.

Adapting this type of subtle, eloquent storytelling to the big screen was always going to be difficult. In order to recreate a tone that aimed to thrill rather than to terrify, it became necessary for Jackson to omit certain confronting elements of the book. (The elbow, for example.)

Rather than being dismembered and disposed of immediately, Susie’s body in the film was kept in a safe in Harvey’s basement. Also unlike the novel, Susie’s spirit in the film is allowed to flee the cornfield and is saved from the memory of her rape and the look on his face as Harvey unsheathed his knife.

There are also other obvious exclusions – such as the police interrogation and public scrutiny of Ray Singh; Jack’s heart attack, and Abigail’s fleeting affair with the Detective Fenerman. Neglecting these details does not detract from the film, it allows it to move forward – rather than becoming overwhelmed by the reverberations of Susie’s death, viewers can instead bask in her heaven.

The Lovely Bones is a tragic film, but it is the tragedy that also makes it beautiful. If Susie had not been deprived of so many experiences, there would have been nothing to hold her in the place between earth and heaven where she is haunted by her life as much as the people left behind are haunted by her death.

When I began researching this blog post, I was surprised to read so many negative reviews of The Lovely Bones.  When the film was first released, many critics found fault with it.

Claudia Puig from USATODAY, wrote:

“Some books are not meant to be adapted to the big screen. Alice Sebold's best-selling The Lovely Bones falls into that category.”

I could not disagree more.


The verdict: 

Book or Big Screen? Book

The film is:  
-->3. A decent, credible, faithful adaptation

I would be very happy to receive your comments and feedback on ‘Book or Big Screen’ – please click on the below link to tell me what film adaptation you are excited about, or to suggest the book/film that I should review next.

1 comment:

  1. Not seen this one - far too "tragic" of a story for me.