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Alice Sebold’s celebrated novel, The Lovely Bones, opens with the brutal murder of a 14-year-old girl. Susie Salmon is raped, killed, and dismembered. An elbow is all they find after she doesn’t return home from one school day. The details of the crime are wrenching, as is the grief of Susie’s family and friends and the longing she feels as she watches the world she’s no longer a part of from another realm.
In Peter Jackson’s adaptation, you don’t see anything bad happen to Susie (Saoirse Ronan). Yes, she is lured to an underground lair by George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), a creepy neighbor. No, he doesn’t let her leave. But when Harvey grabs Susie’s ankle as she tries to climb out of the hole, we watch her pop aboveground and run, albeit now a ghostly gossamer—and then she’s full-bodied in Inbetween, a hypercolored otherworld that preps the dead for the real heaven and in the meantime surrounds them with everything they love.
This gloss-over of the story’s violence helps make The Lovely Bones the cinematic equivalent of that big farm your childhood dog allegedly went to, the one with a wonderful family and lots of room in which Fido might frolic. Jackson, who co-wrote the script with frequent collaborators Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, can be forgiven for not getting too graphic in his portrayal of a teenager’s murder—no one, let’s hope, will buy a ticket looking for an underage snuff film. But this kind of scene-tidying robs the tale of its force. Combined with goofy depictions of Susie’s Crayola-bright, shape-shifting heaven—all blue skies and endless fields, roses and butterflies, and, weirdly, giant topiary—the film is more Wonderful World of Disney than a tonally faithful interpretation of Sebold’s rich meditation on grief, family, sexuality, time lost, and dreams unfulfilled.
Not even Susie’s parents, Abigail and Jack (Rachel Weisz and Mark Wahlberg), seem all that tortured over their daughter’s passing. The couple process the tragedy in different ways—Jack becomes obsessed over finding Susie’s killer, while Abigail languishes in denial and distances herself from her family—and this emotional divide soon becomes a literal one. This subplot, though, is one of many that Jackson merely skims. When Abigail temporarily leaves Jack, viewers who haven’t read the book will wonder why. But perhaps they will be sufficiently distracted by Grandma Lynn (Susan Sarandon), who arrives to help Jack out and provide comic relief—comic relief!—as she screws up laundry, sleeps with a cig dangling from her mouth, and drinks constantly.
Besides Sarandon’s inevitably hammy performance and Tucci’s over-the-top skin-crawlingness (this guy practically has pedophile stamped on his forehead), single notes are all Jackson seems to have asked of his cast. Ronan, so sharp in Atonement, does little but look stricken as she watches her family from pre-heaven. Wahlberg and Weisz sleepwalk as well, never once offering a gut-twisting reaction to losing their daughter. Instead, The Lovely Bones is dominated by effects, saccharine depictions of how a 14-year-old would shape her afterlife. (That a unicorn never shows up is shocking.) And while the story is not so much a whodunit as a question of whether Harvey is going to be caught, even his previous crimes are cleansed of their heinousness: Susie eventually meets his other victims, a group of literally walking dead who smile at each other blissfully as if at a high-school reunion. Though an adaptation of any novel requires streamlining, Jackson offers only—forgive me—the book’s bare bones, and the cheerier ones at that. That Disneyfication is a disservice to Sebold’s emotional, thoughtful work, bound to leave newcomers unmoved and readers wishing the book was left alone.