A Perfect World
My humblest thanks, dear readers. Your enthusiasm and patronage made last month my best month ever, just two views shy of 900. Your response to the anonymous account of Anime Boston was swift and staggering. I thank you all for reading and sharing my good Samaritan’s story. Perhaps if we all called out sexual harassment, slutshaming, and victim blaming when we saw it, there would be less stories like Susie’s.
Without further ado, here’s my review of the film adaptation of The Lovely Bones. You can read my review of the book here.
REPEAT OFFENDER: The Lovely Bones (2009)
THE REVIEW: The Lovely Bones was a good book, but it’s one of those stories that’s meant to be a movie. On the big screen, Susie’s surrealist in-between realm bursts into life with all the color, imagery, and symbolism the written word just could not express. Peter Jackson’s film adaptation is nothing short of a visual masterpiece. Too often movies relying on visual interest and effects use them as a crutch, such as many a pretty blockbuster lacking meaning, acting ability, or coherent storyline. The Lovely Bones is one of those rare gems, a work of art with depth.
While one might expect nothing less from the man who brought us the Lord of the Rings Trilogy (arguably some of the finest films ever made), the scene where Susie and Holly play, alive in their own perfect world, truly is perfect. The butterfly capes and score lend a whimsically haunting feel to a surprisingly genuine understanding of a teenage girl’s psyche/stream of consciousness. Yet no matter how riotously colorful a world Susie buries her trauma in, the lighthouse always finds her. Her reality, and that of her loved ones on earth, destroys her idyllic escape as ships in bottles crash against the shore and the door of the green house beckons, an omen of the truth she can’t avoid forever.
The solid story and beautiful imagery is backed up by some excellent casting. Especially with the reduced roles of the other characters, Susie Salmon carries this story. She narrates it and it’s her anxiety, conflict, and imagination that provides the emotional crux of the film. A sub-par starlet or wooden child actor would have destroyed the film. Fortunately, old soul Saoirse Ronan is neither. The veteran of Atonement brings a vibrant but damaged quality to Susie and her faraway eyes make the already eerie subject matter all the more haunting.
Susan Sarandon gave a spot-on portrayal of the grandmother, in all her horrible yet caring glory; Mark Wahlberg felt entirely vulnerable even as he lashed out; and Stanley Tucci had creepy and awkward down to an artform. I have loved Rachel Weisz for many years and she was a great cast for Abigail. It’s just a shame Abigail’s story was largely left out of the film, as was nearly all of the focus on domesticity and losing your identity and your dreams in motherhood.
The movie did allude to it a bit in the beginning. When Susie is little her mother is shown swept up in a passionate frenzy, dropping the book she’s reading onto a stack of Camus and Virginia Woolf. Cut to twelve years later and she and Jack have settled into a sexless complacency. Her stack is now made up of parenting, gardening, and cook books. Ruana gets all of a second on screen.
Despite Reece Ritchie embodying the charming, British Ray Singh, his arc of being scapegoated by the town is also missing. In the book, the town needs an explanation for Susie’s murder so they can blame someone and move on. Lacking a suspect, they pin it on Ray Singh as his romantic interest in Susie provides a small town in the 70s with the perfect Scary-Foreign-Man-trying-to-take-Our-Women narrative. In fact, the town’s reaction to grief and loss was one of many interesting meditations left out of the film, save for a single reference to Lindsey as ‘the sister of the dead girl’.
Gone too is Ruth’s thinly closeted homosexuality and pretty much everything else about her (though I’m pretty okay with them losing the questionably consensual sex scene in favor of a kiss). In fact, despite the aforementioned marital passion, the movie is pretty desexualized. Gone is Abigail’s affair, Ruth’s journey through the land of lost women (aka NYC), the scene with Mr. Havey’s mother, and Len’s tragic past. Susie realizes she is getting left behind after Lindsey’s first kiss not her first time having sex. Though much of this was likely cut for time, the book did get across just how widespread violence against women and sexual trauma is in a way the movie did not.
Which brings me to the elephant–er, penguin–in the room. Susie’s death. In the book, Susie is raped. It’s not implied or suggested or left to the reader’s imagination what exactly happened. In the movie, the predatory Mr. Harvey gets Susie down in the shelter and is clearly obsessing over her budding sexuality. Yet when he reaches for her, Susie goes for the ladder. She thinks she has escaped and runs, bumping into Ruth as she does. She keeps running, confused by a surreal ghost downtown where no one acknowledges her. Even at home, no one can hear her. She then finds herself in her murderer’s bathroom, screams, and realizes she’s dead as the earth falls away. This sequence is well-done and poignant, but the ambiguity makes the extent of Mr. Harvey’s actions unclear. Did Susie hit her head on the stairs and die instantly? Did her mind flee before her body? Does she not remember what happened before she died Bruce Willis style?
Though much of the graphic and sexual content has been removed, either for time, ratings, or delicate sensibilities, the film still paints a vivid picture of a seemingly innocent time that was not so innocent after all. The feelings of the early 70s, young love, and family life are captured forever on film just as Susie always sought to do. Paired with a strong cast, memorable scoring, and a visual smorgasbord of dreams and fears made real, The Lovely Bones is a truly unique movie with a potent tale to tell.
THE CONTROVERSY: There doesn’t seem to be any controversy over the film, likely due to the removal of the offending rape, homosexuality, racism, critique of society and family dynamics/gender roles, reluctant motherhood, and adultery, as well as never calling Susie’s afterlife heaven and impressing upon the viewer that she’s in “the in-between”. Some changes, such as Lindsey breaking into Mr. Harvey’s house on her own accord instead of at the incredibly irresponsible request of her father no doubt side-stepped any issues. Justice is still not done as Mr. Harvey is never arrested, but perhaps either movie goers have a higher threshold for moral ambiguity than helicoptering parents do or Mr. Harvey’s karmic death was enough to satisfy their thirst for vengeance.
That scene spoke to me when I first saw this film, as it seemed a scathing indictment of a culture that values manners over a sense of self. The trailer and narration of the film highlight the 70s as a “simpler” time before children on milk cartons when people believed ‘those kinds of things didn’t happen’. Because ‘those things don’t happen’ Susie never got the ‘stranger danger’ talk and is polite and respectful to adults. Had she listened to her gut when Mr. Harvey was making her feel uncomfortable, she might have been able to get away before he got her in the shelter (the secondary location they always tell you never to go to). Before his death, he sees a young girl alone outside a diner and tries to lure her into his car. She calls him a creep and tells him to piss off. She lives, he dies. The moral? Don’t be polite.