The Lovely Bones

Saw this in spite of the middling reviews, because, you know, Peter Jackson and all. Also it looked kind of intriguing. And it is. Kind of. Intriguing.

Still, I do not recommend it.

To dispense with its charms:

The cast is pretty good. Stanley Tucci is the creepy standout as the messed up pedophile serial killer.

It has lovely cinematography, including lovely fantasy sequences set in a kind of honey-soaked purgatory, and a lovely 70s retro design that captures the slightly orange look of everything in that decade.

A handful of scenes work very well, most of them the ones that are either fairly naturalistic family drama/comedy, or the ones that are heading toward creepy. It makes me think that Jackson might have pissed off book purists, but made a decent movie, if he had just gone ahead and treated it like a regular creepy ghost story.

(Note: in case you do not know, the premise is that the story is narrated by a 14-year-old-girl, from the pretty purgatory, after her death, as she hangs around and watches her family and friends and they are sort of dimly aware of her ghostly presence. So it is technically a ghost story, but not horror.)

As it is, the story momentum just keeps screeching to a halt so that we can have our hearts warmed. It was completely impossible for me to experience any of the pathos myself, because the sappy music and the overbearing dialogue were too busy experiencing it for me.

The voiceover narration in particular is like treacle on a donut, heavy and too sweet for anybody but the most dedicated sugar junkie to possibly enjoy it. I don’t know how much of the narration was pulled directly from the book, but if it’s a representative sample, I am no longer interested in reading this book. I can deal with a narrator telling me a story. I can deal with a narrator telling me how he or she feels about a story. But I start to get really itchy when the narrator keeps telling me how I’m supposed to feel about a story. Especially when how I’m supposed to feel is all full of gooey meaningful warmness.

The movie has a wide-eyed sincerity that makes it difficult to believe in. And I mean that kind of literally. If you made a drinking game of this movie, the one that would kill you is "take a drink every time the camera pulls in from a slight up angle on the protagonist with her eyes open wide and her mouth slightly agape."

We just keep going back to that shot, frequently for no very good reason. Honestly, Peter Jackson, we don’t have to keep getting reminded that the viewpoint character is a ghost hanging out in her celestial gazebo. We can remember that part of the premise from moment to moment. If you would just settle down and tell us the story that would be better. Thank you.

We get way, way too much of the fantasy sequences. They are pretty and sometimes they are cool, but they are emotionally detached and don’t add much to the story. For example, there’s a sequence where the protagonist is walking along a fantastical beach with these giant ships in bottles bobbing next to her, and in the real world her father is violently smashing up all his ships in bottles, then he stops when he gets to the one they were building together on the day she died. The real-world smashing is very effective, but we keep cutting back to the fantasy ships in bottles, and they are also breaking, but it doesn’t have any emotional impact at all. It’s like the movie is trying to blow up a balloon of tension, and then every cross-cut back to the fantasy world pops the balloon.

I have not read the book, so I don’t know if the things about the story that seemed muddled or irritating worked better in the book. Like, at first, when she goes to this beautiful purgatory, it seems to be whatever she imagines and so it’s her perfect world. But then, I guess? She suddenly gets obsessed with punishing her killer? So everything turns dark and there’s a lighthouse? Which is symbolic? And then that obsession gets her dad horribly beat up by some random high school moron, and she feels really bad. You know, because it’s so wrong to want serial killers to go to jail. I mean, is that really the message I’m supposed to be getting out of this? That it’s bad when serial killers go to jail?

And her spirit guide or whatever tells her to let it go, that the important thing to remember is that everyone dies, even pedophile serial killers. And now that she knows this important lesson (?!?!?) she meets all the other girls this guy has killed and they welcome her into a heaven that is apparently only for people who have been killed by this one guy. And they are all glowing and stuff. But there’s this one thing she still has to do before she goes to killed-by-a-serial-killer heaven, so she turns back.

And I was hoping that this one thing she had to do was use her ghostly connection with people to get the guy finally caught by the cops, because, you know, HE’S A FREAKING PEDOPHILE SERIAL KILLER AND HE WILL KILL AGAIN UNTIL HE IS STOPPED!

But no.

The big emotional climax is when the killer succeeds in dumping her body and covering the evidence of his crime at the same exact time she has learned her important lesson and given up on vengeance — EXCUSE ME I MEAN ORDINARY JUSTICE — and uses her last connection with the earth to possess the body of this psychic chick and make out with the boy she had a crush on before she got killed. Now she’s all ready to go. To let the people she loves live their lives without her. And, oh yeah, to let the FREAKING PEDOPHILE SERIAL KILLER go his merry way.

Then the serial killer is killed by random happenstance. See, kids, you have to let GOD do these things, don’t worry your pretty little head about things like the criminal justice system.

Anyway, I have a hard time believing that "it is wrong and will keep you from going to heaven if you care about earthly justice" is really the intended message of either the book or the movie. But I could be wrong.

Has anybody out there read the book? Can you enlighten me?


  1. I’ve read the book. I thought it was just okay. It’s more interesting in the beginning and then it goes on for probably too long.

    In the book, there’s an implication, I think, that Susie kills the serial killer by nudging an icicle so it falls on his head. It’s not clear that she actually does anything, but I *think* there’s a suggestion.

    There’s not a lot of time spent on the specifics of the “afterlife” world — it’s more background. There’s certainly no “giant ships in bottles” scene, for instance.

    Roger Ebert found the movie morally reprehensible.

    1. Author

      I read Ebert’s review after seeing the movie. I wouldn’t have gone nearly as far as he did — certainly, I never felt like the movie was actually trying to imply that getting killed was the best thing that could have happened to the character.

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