Page to Screen: The Lovely Bones

Wednesday 9 April 2014 by

When it comes to film adaptations of novels I have read I am more than likely to have one of four different reactions; wondering whether or not it will work on screen, excitement about seeing a favourite brought to life, worry that it may be ruined or simply no interest in ever seeing it (I will admit that I have no desire to watch The Hobbit as I want to preserve my childhood interpretation).

The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold, Picador, Book

I was late to the table with The Lovely Bones having spent several years debating whether or not to read it, I would pick it up in bookshops, read the blurb then change my mind, worrying it was going to be schmaltzy, which just isn’t my thing. Eventually though I thought sod it, there must be a reason I keep being tempted. Turned out, I didn’t find it all schmaltzy and thoroughly enjoyed it. My reaction to the film release? Wondering how it would work.

When I saw the trailer I got excited, it had a great director, a superb cast including some of my favourite performers and it seemed that they had made it as a thriller which was my favourite aspect of the novel. The film I saw left me a little disappointed as the aspect of the novel that director Peter Jackson had brought to the screen was the idea of hope and moving forward from tragedy and hey, there’s nothing wrong with but I, personally, had been hoping for a thriller.

The Lovely Bones, Peter Jackson, Film

A film adaptation of The Lovely Bones was never going to be easy; it was a huge success loved by many, takes place over several years and has many different aspects to it, thriller, exploration of grief and loss, first love and father/daughter relationships. Cramming it all into 100 or so minutes of screen time is always going to mean something has to be skimmed down.

A real loss in the page to screen translation is the relationship between Mr Salmon and Lindsey. Without a mother or older sister to turn to for advice Lindsey looks to her father for advice on the little things such as when and how to start shaving her legs. It’s tender, touching and a little bit awkward all at once, a look at how two people rebuild their relationship with shifted family dynamics and roles. When it comes to bringing their suspect to justice, they’re a team. Sadly, on screen these dynamics and touching moments get a little lost in the bigger picture. One aspect of this that the film does get spot on is the scene in which Lindsey breaks into their suspect’s home where she finds a crucial piece of evidence and narrowly avoids being caught. The tension is heart stopping and even though I knew the outcome I was at the edge of my seat, breath held, urging her to run.

The film has a brilliant, near on perfect, cast including Mark Whalberg, Rachel Weisz, Susan Sarandon, Soairse Ronan and the always fantastic Stanley Tucci. The cast all do a stand up job but with so much to cram in not everyone gets to give their character fair weight. I’m a huge fan of Susan Sarandon but felt she wasn’t really used to her full potential. She seems to be there more as comic relief which is fair dos in a way as Jackson clearly didn’t want to make too heavy a film but it does detract from the character and makes her appear more ditzy and less like the bond holding the family together in the immediate aftermath. Weisz, playing Mrs Salmon, and the wonderful Michael Imperioli, playing Len the investigating detective, are massively underused. It felt, to me, such a shame to have two such talented performers and not use them to their full potential. The restrictions of screen time leave the viewer without a full enough picture of Mrs Salmon and the decisions she makes, leaving her a little unsympathetic. For instance, a long passage from the book describing her evolution from excited, ambitious academic to suburban housewife is reduced to a short montage showing a change in the sort of books she reads. In fairness to Jackson, the character of Len felt a little unexplored in the book so he can’t really be blamed for the lack of exploration on film.

There are large portions of CGI in the film which felt too whimsical and like something from a fantasy film detracting from the realism of the story, characters and setting. Yes, our narrator is speaking to us from beyond the grave but, for me at least, the novel always felt very grounded in reality. I felt this visual exploration of Susie’s afterlife distracted me from the main story and felt out of place.

The film’s main flaw is that it feels a little disjointed, I wasn’t that keen on the use of narration but it would have been hard to portray the story’s timeline without it, the novel may be relatively short but a lot happens within it. Alice Sebold’s prose is rich in layers of character, emotion and setting that envelops the reader and while this doesn’t translate fully to screen, on the whole, I do find the film enjoyable and feel Peter Jackson did a solid job of bringing the novel to the screen. The film does not do disservice to the source material but rather brings to life one interpretation of a multi-faceted novel. If you haven’t read or seen The Lovely Bones I would suggest reading the book first as you will get more out of the film that way and I think that if I had seen the film first it wouldn’t have encouraged me to read the book as it has to skim over a lot of the depth and characterisation.

The Lovely Bones (Copyright 2002) by Alice Sebold is published by Picador.

The Lovely Bones (2010) Dir. Peter Jackson is available on BluRay and DVD.

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