John P. McCarthy
Peter Jackson's "The Lovely Bones"
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Upon reading the first, remarkable sentence of Alice Sebold’s 2002 novel The Lovely Bones, and after watching only a few moments of Peter Jackson’s Oscar-bait adaptation, we know our protagonist, 14-year-old Susie Salmon, is dead. But what about God? Susie narrates the tale from beyond the grave following her rape, murder and dismemberment by a neighbor on December 6, 1973, in Norristown, Pa. That there’s an afterlife at all can be taken as a positive sign; and yet God, by any definition, goes unmentioned.

Bracketing the question of how everything came to be, God’s existence is not essential to the narrative logic of the movie or the book. Up to a point, the book and film work beautifully in God’s absence--in a theological void, so to speak. Moreover, both author and filmmaker are aware of the omission, having studiously avoided anything that might suggest religion. Still, it’s odd. Especially given the emphasis Jackson, director of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “Heavenly Creatures,” places on the afterlife in his movie.

Whereas Sebold offered a shudder-and-cry melodrama about loss, built using an enticingly vague supernatural scaffold, Jackson was evidently drawn to the material because it afforded him a chance to fashion another world--a surreal place where fantasy and human yearning meld. Unfortunately, the film’s major aesthetic weakness turns out to be his cheesy rendering of what constitutes Susie’s purgatory, what Sebold calls the “In-between” and describes as part of heaven.

The result is a lava lamp of a movie with a brightly colored, ever-shifting liquefied center. Whether one interprets it as a tricked-out, late-Age-of-Aquarius ghost story or as a genuine spiritual investigation will depend on one’s beliefs. Either way, Jackson’s depiction of the post-mortem realm Susie inhabits detracts from what made the book so powerful: the grief of her parents (Rachel Weisz and Mark Wahlberg) and Susie’s tender, uniquely feminine insights into the interrupted blossoming of a teenaged girl.

After her demise in a cornfield on the way home from school, Susie, played by the Irish actress Saoirse Ronan, lingers in a state in which she is still fixated on her earthly imprint, caught between the earthbound and what is to follow. From this vantage point, she watches her killer Mr. Harvey (Stanley Tucci), her family--including her two younger siblings and dipsomaniac grandmother (Susan Sarandon)--the boy she had a crush on, and a peer eerily attuned to female apparitions.

It’s not all backward-looking gloom in this anteroom. Popcorn is served and other wishes are readily fulfilled. Susie dreamt of becoming a wildlife photographer when she grew up and the design of her limbo reflects her early-1970s “Partridge Family” sensibility, along with her emotional turmoil and biography. While animals are scarce, this dramatically lit environment boasts a tree of life, sunsets and sunrises, Alpine meadows, seascapes featuring the ships-in-the-bottles she helped her father make, plus lots of running in slow motion and drowning in murky bodies of water. A lighthouse figures prominently. You half expect to spy a unicorn, or a hobbit.

This afterlife may or may not jive with Catholic doctrine, but it sticks out cinematically, feeling schlocky and conventional--more expressive of Jackson’s creative inclinations than Susie’s. Her progression through this realm isn’t particularly detailed in the book and, naturally, Jackson and his screenwriting partners, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, have had to jettison and rearrange many plot elements. The essentials remain, however. Briefly, in order for Susie to continue her journey she must shed the hatred she has for Harvey (which, by the way, does not preclude supernatural if not specifically divine justice) and be reassured her loved ones will remember her.

The biggest divergence between the novel and the movie is due to radical time compression. Instead of a process lasting a dozen years, coming to terms with Susie’s death in the film takes much less time, both in heaven and on earth. The plot’s violence and sexuality are handled tastefully and movingly. There’s ample suspense, even though the crime-solving dimension is downplayed. Brian Eno’s tinny, celestial score and Tucci’s mannered performance--making Harvey an obvious villain rather than an authentically chilling, mundane monster next door--are two other glaring faults in the production.

The creation of miniature, self-contained worlds is a major theme in “The Lovely Bones”--from the penguin shown trapped in a “perfect world” snow globe at the outset, to Jack Salmon’s hobby of building ships-in-a-bottle, to serial killer Harvey constructing dollhouses and building spaces in which to catch his victims. In terms of scale, these worlds are dwarfed by Jackson’s abilities as a celluloid architect. Perhaps he got carried away and took his eye off what is most compelling about Sebold’s story. Whether it stemmed from his own God complex or from trying too hard to be faithful to Susie’s spirit (and Sebold’s coyness about religion), the afterlife he offers is ultimately hollow, without a solidly transcendent base.

The hope and solace provided by the movie and book are fleeting at best--secular humanism with special effects. Not addressing the theological elephant in the room, i.e. God, certainly diminishes the spiritual impact of “The Lovely Bones” for the faithful. It brings to mind the advertising campaign launched by atheist organization in cities around the world this holiday season. Intending to hearten non-believers (and maybe annoy theists), one of their billboard slogans reads, “No God?...No Problem!” Positing a godless afterlife amounts to trying to have it both ways; it’s the ultimate hedge.

Faced with unbearable temporal pain and sorrow, you can be agnostic and still enjoy the trappings of salvation. Talk about creating a perfect, imaginary world. And they say believers have bought into a fiction.

John P. McCarthy is the editor of Cineman Syndicate and the media correspondent for Catholic Digest. He also reviews films for Catholic News Service and Boxoffice Magazine.

Comments

Mariano Apologeticus | 12/21/2009 - 9:03pm

The AHA bus ads are mere propaganda that answers to an argument that no one has made. The claim is not that atheists lack of morals but lack of moral premise, lack of ethos.

It is also a reprinting of their ads from last year:

http://atheismisdead.blogspot.com/2008/11/another-atheist-charity-huge-success.html

And they are all a part of the atheist bus ads fracas:

http://atheismisdead.blogspot.com/2009/08/atheism-essays-particular-to-atheist.html

Yet again, during a time of the year when people are generally more inclined towards charity—peace on earth and good will towards non-gender specific personages—atheists are busily collecting hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of dollars during a time of recession not in order to help anyone in real material need but in order to purchase bill boards and bus ads whereby they seek to demonstrate, to themselves, just how clever they are—need any more be said? 

Norman Costa | 12/12/2009 - 6:59pm

John,

Now I'll have to read the book or see the film. Thanks.

John McCarthy | 12/12/2009 - 5:48pm

Norman,

You raise a number of interesting questions. I hope the tone of my review of The Lovely Bones isn't too harsh or sarcastic. I didn't find there to be anything in the novel or film that was particularly hostile toward Catholicism. No moviegoer's redemption is in jeopardy. It may even be that Jackson's conception of the afterlife is totally consistent with Catholic doctrine - once God is put into the equation.

What struck me is that the major aesthetic or artistic weakness of the film - the depiction of the afterlife - also happens to be where you'd expect to find signs of the divine or transcendent. Might the hollowness of Jackson's rendering of heaven have something to do with the absence of God? 

Even allowing for the mystery of what follows death, the migration of Susie's soul doesn't have much meaningful substance in the movie. Letting go of her anger toward her murderer, along with other earthbound concerns, is certainly praiseworthy and possibly necessary for her progress deeper into heaven. But for theists, that's not enough. Her relationship with God and God's role in all this is essential. 

Jackson (and Sebold) can argue that God isn't necessary for the stories they are telling to make logical sense or to be emotionally persuasive. And, up to a point, the same goes for viewers (or readers) of faith. Ultimately, however, those who believe in God need and expect more.  

Finally, I'm not suggesting that Susie has to met by a bearded fellow in long flowing robes with a booming voice. I'm saying that to posit an afterlife without offering some definition of God or the divine is to risk being shallow, both aesthetically and spiritually.

Norman Costa | 12/11/2009 - 6:26pm

John,

Thanks for your review. I've not read the Alice Sebold 2002 novel The Lovely Bones, nor viewed Peter Jackson's film. So I would like to comment from the perspective of one that might be interested, from your writing, to read and watch. You did get my attention and I would like to react to your words, mindful that everything could change should I read the book or see the movie.

Dating myself, I remember an article in the Knghts of Columbus magazine, perhaps 35 or so years ago, on the subject of Transcendental Meditation (TM). The gist of the article was a sarcastic appraisal of TM as nothing more than prayer, wrapped in guru's clothing, and something we Catholics already had in copious amounts. It was old wine in new bottles, and the modern consumer was probably better off with the original estate label.

I didn't like the article then and I don't like it know. The writing betrayed a narrow view of the world that could not assess, or possibly appreciate, something like TM on its own terms. The unfamiliar could only be understood in orthodox terms. I sensed, also, that the motivation behind the TM article was a jealousy over the universal availability of a prayer form that did not require church approvals or definitions.

My reading of your review raises questions about your reservations concerning Sebold's and Jackson's treatments of the afterlife. One way to approach the handling of any literary device or subject, is to examine whether or not it helped advance the intent of the author. Did it promote the story line, the development of tension, the delineation of character, the amplification of the moral or philosophical underpinnings? To this service, I don't understand why a review should take the position that the treatment of the afterlife is inconsistent with the church's theological views on life, death, and salvation.

Are the novel and the film vehicles for criticism and sarcasm directed at Catholics and their belief's? Are the author and director taking such obvious and purposeful positions against the sensibilities of people of God? I wonder if there is a tone similar to that which I read in the old Legion of Decency reviews of movies. If the movie script contained elements that were forbidden by the Church (divorce and remarriage) then there is nothings that could be redeeming in watching the film. If you did watch it, your own redemption could be at stake.

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