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Peter Jackson certainly is familiar with the challenges of satisfying filmgoers’ expectations, having helmed three films derived from J.R.R. Tolkien’s immensely popular “Lord of the Rings” novel and a second remake of the iconic film “King Kong.” So Alice Sebold’s best-selling novel “The Lovely Bones,” published in 2002, should be right in his wheelhouse. In this case, though, he has changed the focus and characters to such a significant degree that his film might resonate more with those who have not read the book.
Sebold’s otherworldly meditation on unspeakable tragedy and hard-earned healing has been transformed by Jackson into something akin to a supernatural suspense thriller. A philosophical story about family, memory and obsession has regrettably become a mawkish appeal to victimhood.
Readers’ eagerness to see the film version, plus Jackson’s name above the title, should deliver a significant boxoffice take during the film’s initial release. Whether “Bones” will sustain those numbers as it expands domestically and then into foreign territories in January is unclear. This is, to Jackson’s credit, daring and deeply unsettling material.
“Bones” is the story of Susie Salmon, a 14-year-old girl who is murdered Dec. 6, 1973. She is adjusting to her new home in heaven while watching life on Earth continue without her. Her family goes through hell — her dad having the most difficult time dealing with her disappearance — while her killer, a neighbor, covers his tracks.
Sebold’s stroke of genius is to place her heroine in heaven immediately. She can thus describe with an empathetic dispassion her own rape-murder and her family’s realization that the eldest daughter will not be coming home.
In literary terms, she is a first-person narrator and an omniscient observer: She can enter the minds of other characters to know what they’re thinking and can even see into the past.
As the years roll by, she witnesses how healing slowly comes but at great cost. A few characters even realize she never completely left; they sense her presence and, on occasion, believe they see her.
The movie, written by Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, is more concentrated, in time and focus. Nor can they get past the crime. They see their movie as a murder thriller, so the role of the killer, George Harvey, has been expanded and is played by fine actor Stanley Tucci (almost unrecognizably so).
The film ventures only about a year into a future without Susie. And, like any crime thriller, it worries about the killer and how he will get caught. It even has Susie rage in heaven against her murderer, demanding vengeance.
In shifting the emphasis, the film version must all but abandon the crumbling relationship between Susie’s dad, Jack (Mark Wahlberg), and mother, Abigail (Rachel Weisz), and dramatically alters the nature of the police detective’s (Michael Imperioli) involvement with the family.
In the novel, the father immediately senses that George killed his daughter but has no proof, so his mental deterioration makes sense. In the film, he has no clue who murdered his daughter; he just goes nuts.
Saoirse Ronan, so impressive in “Atonement,” plays Susie, and she’s terrific. She is the glue that holds the story together. Her piercing blue eyes and heartfelt anguish animate both heaven and earth.
This heaven, described only sketchily in the novel, permits Jackson the full range of his visual imagination. Jackson paints a surreal outdoor palace of changing seasons and environments with rainbow colors and swift-as-thought transitions.
Andrew Lesnie’s cinematography and Naomi Shohan’s production design make earth and heaven not-quite-authentic places. Earth is a suburban, small-town America, more idealized than real. It’s as if Susie, in heaven, imagines the town in her mind rather than as she actually sees it. Meanwhile, her heaven is a timeless fantasia that reflects her mental outlook.
The movie relies on the emotionalism of a young girl murdered and an unrepentant killer lurking nearby. It just barely has time for the story’s most colorful character, the alcoholic grandmother (Susan Sarandon), who moves in and takes charge of the nearly dysfunctional Salmon household.
The film certainly plays well enough as a melodrama-cum-revenge thriller. The suspense of Susie’s sister (Rose McIver) breaking into George’s house to find a damning trace of her sister is pure Hitchcock. And Susie’s diaphanous appearances — and a girlfriend (Carolyn Dando) who can “see” her — suggest “The Sixth Sense.”
But a reader might regret the loss of the real issues between Susie’s mom and dad. Oddly, in the early minutes, the film hints at developing this only to drop it. Was there a longer version that underwent cuts? Indeed, more than a few characters get introduced briefly only to virtually disappear once everything boils down to victim and perpetrator.
This was never going to be an easy story to film. Using the same characters and many events, Jackson and his team tell a fundamentally different story. It’s one that is not without its tension, humor and compelling details. But it’s also a simpler, more button-pushing tale that misses the joy and heartbreak of the original.
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