After 28 years in show business, Stanley Tucci finally received an Oscar nomination. While he didn’t win for Best Supporting Actor, the film veteran’s convincing portrayal of a grisly serial killer finally got him the recognition he deserves.
Tucci plays George Harvey in The Lovely Bones, the 2009 adaptation of Alice Sebold’s 2002 novel of the same name, recently released on Blu-Ray and DVD. Harvey rapes and kills 14-year-old Susie Salmon who narrates the story from a murky place between life and death that she calls “heaven”. From this place, she watches what happens to her family and friends while the search for her body ensues (only her elbow, some DNA, and trinkets are found), witnessing the eventual end to the search, as hope is lost, and her family gives up.
Susie tries, from her ghostly distance, to direct her family toward her killer, all the while watching them fall apart and then slowly heal. Ironically, she grows up in this place “heaven” or “the in-between”. Meanwhile, her family feels the effects of Susie’s disappearance. Her mother, whose grief deadens her, eventually leaves her family; her father becomes obsessed with finding his daughter’s killer; her bereaved sister, Lindsey, becomes suspicious of Harvey; her love interest, Ray, is led to Susie’s schoolmate, Ruth, who believes she felt Susie’s soul run through her. Susie watches all this and Harvey, who continues to hide out in his house — so close to her own earthly home — and sketch shelters where he will kill his new victims.
Sebold, who had written a previous nonfiction book about her own rape, titled Lucky (which obviously inspired The Lovely Bones), surprised reviewers. Overall, American critics praised Sebold’s novel, mainly due to the difficulty and subsequent success of getting the character’s perspective correct.
The idea of a dead girl narrating from a place outside of her physical body is a harrowing feat for even a seasoned writer. As Katherine Boutin wrote in The New York Times: “This is a high-wire act for a first novelist, and Alice Sebold maintains almost perfect balance.”(“Katherine Boutin – “What Remains”, The New York Times Book Review, 14 July 2002).
The Lovely Bones was an instant smash, selling over one million copies and was on the New York Times Best Seller List for over a year. UK critics, however, weren’t as impressed. Philip Hensher noted in The Observer:
It is not exactly bad, and very readable, but ultimately it seems like a slick, overpoweringly saccharine and unfeeling exercise in sentiment and whimsy. Put it down to cultural differences; after all, the manufacturers of fizzy drinks find it necessary to load their products with extra sugar in America, or so I believe. But the upfront assertions of emotion and love in adversity here bear only a remote relationship to human feelings.
(“An Eternity of Sweet Nothings”, by Philip Hensher, The Guardian Observer, 11 August 2002).
In 2005, director Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings trilogy) secured the rights to the story and gave it to screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens to rewrite. While Jackson promised the film would stay true to the book, he leaves a lot out and strays from the material in order to amp up the suspense and the drama. Jackson also vowed not to make it look cheesy. Even so, critics bashed the film. J. Hoberman of The Village Voice called it “often ridiculous” and compared it to Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. (“3-D CGI”, by J. Hoberman, The Village Voice, 8 December 2009). Roger Ebert observed:
Director, Peter Jackson, has distorted elements to fit his own “vision,” which involves nearly as many special effects in some sequences as his Lord of the Rings trilogy. A more useful way to deal with this material would be with observant, subtle performances in a thoughtful screenplay.
Ebert also noted that Jackson may have feared that “the novel was “too dark.” (“The Lovely Bones”, Chicago Sun Times, 13 January 2010).
Ebert’s scrutiny is not unfounded. In many scenes, a dark, yet poignant passage in the book is made into a CGI-d fireworks show in the film. Heaven onscreen looks corny and expected, exhibiting beautiful yellow corn fields, the moon is a clock in the sky, the sun is a big, yellow flower, and a glassy pond reflects a giant visage of Susie’s boyfriend, Ray.
In the book, “heaven” is often a concrete and unexpected place where she lives in a duplex with roommates and “lumbering women throwing shot put and javelin”. Although it eventually becomes a prettier place featuring “the soft down of new leaves, wild roller coaster rides, and escaped marbles “, Jackson takes the implied beauty and runs wild with it, creating a giant 3-D Hallmark card.
Jackson pays too much attention to this in-between world Susie finds herself in, instead of the earthly world most of the book is grounded in. He would have done himself a favor by following his own example of an earlier film he directed in 1994, which follows two young girls in a sinister predicament. Heavenly Creatures centers on events that lead up to the grisly murder of a woman by her own daughter and the girl’s best friend. The material is dark and Jackson’s interpretation stays dark along with it. The two girls have a fantasy world that they often enter, but the world is pared back and freakish enough to add to the film’s chilling nature, especially since it exists only in the girls’ minds.
One of the best things about the film version of The Lovely Bones is the cast. Saoirse Ronan does a beautiful job of playing Susie Salmon, evoking the innocence conveyed in the book’s character. Stanley Tucci, whose riveting performance earned him the aforementioned Oscar nomination, is positively chilling in his seeming normality. Mark Walberg and Rachel Weisz, who play Susie’s parents, convey well the day-to-day grief of losing a child, and Rose McIver, who plays Susie’s sister, Lindsey is especially good at subtly showing her growing suspicion of the neighbor.
Susan Sarandon as grandmother Lynn, however, plays an amplified and formidable version of the glamorous matron in the book who is fond of her drinks, but is sweet and brings love into the house. Sarandon’s Lynn is a drunken wreck, falling asleep with cigarettes burning between her fingers and somehow catching the stove on fire while swigging back whiskey. She comes across like a caricature of what people think of when they think of an eccentric, alcoholic grandmother. According to Film, Sarandon wasn’t sure she should come across so strong or so cuckoo, but she said the Jackson urged her on.
“I’m really curious to see what it’s like because he kept pushing me to be more and more extreme and sometimes that’s when you make your big mistakes so I’m not sure how it will come off — it will be interesting to see it from the point of view of the audience.”
(“Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones Stops Filming Due to Creative Rift?”, by Hunter Stephenson, Film, 1 May 2008).
Despite Jackson’s lukewarm adaptation of The Lovely Bones, there was some admirable cinematography in the “real world” and even a few, well, lovely shots of Susie in her afterlife (when the special effects weren’t simply maudlin). People interested in this story are better by the book, however, wherein Sebold will take hold of your imagination, and lead you through that place where Susie resides, for a while — that place in-between.