Monday, July 26, 2010

DVD Review: Lovely Bones buries the story

SPOILER ALERT: I don’t plan on divulging important points of the plot for this particular film. However, should I slip, consider this your disclaimer. There may or may not be spoilers ahead.

The first thing you need to know is, I am a Peter Jackson acolyte. He hooked me with Fellowship of the Ring, with his living, breathing vision of Middle Earth. With each additional chapter in the trilogy, my fandom became ever more rabid. King Kong only fanned the flames. Even District 9, which Jackson produced, marked another notch in the master’s belt. He could do no wrong.

Well, then came The Lovely Bones. And this is the second thing you need to know: Jackson can do wrong. He is human, after all. Bones proves this.

Adapted from the much acclaimed Alice Sebold novel about a 13-year old girl named Suzie who is raped and murdered and then watches from the afterlife as her family struggles and then grows through subsequent trials, a Lovely Bones film was a bold choice for the director. It had a complex narrative structure. It had an undeniably sexual undercurrent throughout. It was devoid of the fantasy element with which Jackson was so comfortable. All of these offered a challenge to Jackson. In the end, they may have been what undid him.

Jackson struggles to translate Suzie’s narrative to film. In the novel, Suzie can see everything and everyone, what they’ve gone through, what they’re thinking about. This makes for the perfect omniscient narrator. Jackson tries to recreate this by having Suzie stand in a gazebo in various afterlife-ish locations and watch as things happen in the present. In the book, she slides backward and forward through time with ease, and, within the book's pages, over a decade elapses. In the movie, Jackson cuts clumsily from earth life to afterlife. A decade is compressed into months. This shortchanges characters like Suzie’s mother and brother, her high school crush, and her sister, all of whom we get to see fall and then transform in the book.

Jackson strips out all sexual themes. Now I’m not the type that enjoys watching movies with a ton of sex. It’s powerful stuff and needs to be used responsibly. But when you take on a book like this, you have to accept the fact that the book is about sex (and a bunch of other stuff, of course). In Jackson’s Bones, sex is removed; we are left with plain old grief, suspicion, and joy. Suzie’s mother never falls. Her sister is never rescued by her loyal boyfriend. Suzie never learns the bliss of real love. In fact, when her moment with her high school crush does finally come along, it feels a abrupt and little creepy because of the absence of sex throughout the rest of the film.

You take these things away, and Bones feels like a Lifetime original movie with some snazzy special effects. Stanley Tucci as the bad guy makes your skin crawl, but even his bite is dulled by the void in this film. The novel itself was a fairly good read; stripped of its core strengths here it becomes syrupy, fuzzy nonsense. Jackson buries his story and leaves those who haven’t read the book struggling to find it.

Consider me another Peter Jackson who can’t wait to see his return to Middle Earth.

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