DAVE BIANCULLI, host:
Alice Sebold's best-selling 2002 novel, �The Lovely Bones,� is now a movie directed by Peter Jackson, the Oscar-winning filmmaker of �The Lord of the Rings� trilogy. The story opens with the rape, murder and mutilation of a 14-year-old girl. She becomes the story's narrator from heaven. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: Sitting through Peter Jackson's film of Alice Sebold's �The Lovely Bones� is an ordeal. I'm not talking about the subject. The book opens with the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl, so even a good adaptation would be an ordeal. But Jackson's adolescent, New Age, computer-generated fantasyland is an excruciating fusion of the novel's primal trauma and his own sensibility, which is more at home with juvenile, male-dominated �Lord of the Rings� epics. There isn't a second that rings true on any level.
As in the book, the narrator is Susie Salmon, played by Saoirse Ronan with her red hair and pale, glowing, blue eyes. The actress has a lyrical presence, but the movie uses her and those eyes for a kind of cheap, mystical sentimentality. Susie tells the story of her murder - rape isn't mentioned in the film - by a serial killer who happens to live in her neighborhood. The neighbor, Mr. Harvey, is played by Stanley Tucci with a finicky comb-over and caterpillar mustache. He shifts uncomfortably when he's questioned by an oddly oblivious detective, played by "The Sopranos' " Michael Imperioli, who looks in amazement on Harvey's intricate, homemade dollhouses.
(Soundbite of movie, "The Lovely Bones")
Mr. MICHAEL IMPERIOLI (Actor): (As Len Fenerman) You married?
Mr. STANLEY TUCCI (Actor): (As George Harvey) I was. Yeah.
Mr. IMPERIOLI: (As Len) But you have kids?
Mr. TUCCI: (As George) No, I wish. I wish.
Mr. IMPERIOLI: (As Len) You mind if I take a look?
Mr. TUCCI: (As George) No. I make everything myself.
Mr. IMPERIOLI: (As Len) Really.
Mr. TUCCI: (As George) Oh, yeah, all this. I turn all the banisters myself and make all the shingles and the furniture and - I used to do cabinetmaking but there's not much call for that these days. Maybe I spend too much time on these things, but it's the perfectionist in me, I guess.
Mr. IMPERIOLI: (As Len) Well, it shows.
Mr. TUCCI: (As George) Thank you.
Mr. IMPERIOLI: (As Len) That's amazing craftsmanship.
Mr. TUCCI: (As George) Oh, well. I took a risk and tried something new and discovered a talent that I didn't know that I had.
Mr. IMPERIOLI: (As Len) What's that underneath the stairs?
Mr. TUCCI: (As George) Oh, that would be the basement.
EDELSTEIN: Sorry, this guy's so transparent he might as well have "child molester" tattooed on his forehead. At first, Susie watches as her parents, played by Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz, react to her disappearance and the discovery of large amounts of her blood - no body - in a pit in a field. She moves back and forth between worlds. In a melancholy state reinforced by Brian Eno's floating score - much of it borrowed from his "Music for Airports" - she stands semitransparent, watching the living, including the hunk she had a crush on, her younger sister, and even her killer.
Then she and a fellow dead girl romp around a verdant, CGI never-never land with bits of New Zealand landscape � at times having so much fun, it seems like murder is just about the best present a teen girl could get. It's no mystery where Sebold's premise came from. She revealed in her subsequent memoir, with the ironic title "Lucky," that she was raped in college, in a tunnel. The police said she was lucky because the last woman raped there was killed. �The Lovely Bones� can be taken as a fantasy of the death she didn't have. And the limbo Susie occupies is like a metaphor for Sebold's post-rape detachment from her own body and her haunted inner world.
The fantasy landscape might even evoke the otherworldly lightness induced by Sebold's turn to heroin. I think "Lucky" is the greater book. To work onscreen - and I'm not sure it could - "The Lovely Bones" would need to have been made by someone who could blur the line between literal and metaphorical - not, in other words, a director whose demarcations between life and limbo are like an illustrated storybook for 6-year-olds. Toward the end, Susie drops out of the film, and Jackson seems to think he's making a Hitchcock thriller. Then, in the climax, he crosscuts between the dead girl's struggle to manifest herself physically, and her killer's attempt to dispose of her body.
Given Jackson's technique, the outcome of the sequence is bewildering. But then, there are incongruous notes all over the place, especially the presence of Susan Sarandon as an eccentric grandmother out of "Auntie Mame." Is �The Lovely Bones� powerful? Yes, how could it not be given the grisly, tragic premise. But with that power comes a responsibility to bring to life the tortured emotions that drive Sebold's vision. I don't think Jackson's tawdry sentimentality is badly intentioned. It's just that his cluelessness makes the atrociousness of his movie positively supernatural.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. You can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org. And you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
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