Peter Jackson, whose film versions of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy could be a textbook example of how to adapt a literary work for screen, could find his latest film, “The Lovely Bones” as the example on the next page of how not to. His sincerity and artistry are there, but unlike Tolkien’s triology, Alice Sebold’s book-club favorite is not essentially cinematic. What made the book successful with critics and the public was not the story but the language. Jackson’s efforts to translate the graceful, lucid prose into images loses all of the story’s delicacy and becomes cloying and dissonant. Instead of a poetic meditation on life and the human spirit it becomes more like “CSI” if one of the detectives was dead.
As in the book, we know right from the beginning that Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan of “Atonement” and “I Could Never Be Your Woman”) is dead and telling us her story in a tone of calm, slightly distant regret. She was 14, the oldest daughter in a happy, loving family. She had a crush on a boy named Ray (Reece Ritchie). She and her father made meticulously constructed boats in bottles. And then, one night, walking home from school , a neighbor invites her to see a cool clubhouse he dug beneath the cornfields, filled with candles and snacks and board games. And he kills her.
In the movie’s best scene we and Susie both think that she has escaped the killer (Stanley Tucci) as she bursts out of the underground room and races through the streets. But then we realize just before she does that it is only her spirit that survives. Susie has been murdered. She will watch the rest of her story from a personal heaven, an in-between place for a soul that is not ready to let go.
But the lyricism of the book translates on screen into under-imagined images that look like stock photos used for screen savers or the discreet artwork of a mid-range hotel. Leafy trees, aquamarine skies, fluttering fields, and of course spa music (from Brian Eno) and quavery voice-overs.
Ronen is breathtaking, and Susan Sarandon adds some life as the boozy grandmother who steps in when the parents are devastated by Susie’s loss. The script softens the brutality of the story and irons out some of the sub-plots. But it gives us too much information about the less interesting parts of the story and not enough about what we really care about. But we are never sure whether we are there to see justice done or to put Susie’s soul to rest and by the time Susie meets up with her murderer’s other victims and returns to fulfill one last human longing, it feels more like a campfire ghost story than a meditation on love, loss and the enduring human spirit.