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Book vs film: The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

The Book Corner season 5: Book vs film. Episode 6: The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold.

The cover of The Lovely Bones features a charm bracelet with a house, floating in a cloudy blue sky.

Alice Sebold’s 2002 debut novel delivered a bold and uplifting take on a brutal child murder story. In 2009, The Lovely Bones became a film by Peter Jackson, but neither the critics nor the box office warmed to his faithful adaptation.

The Book Corner

The Book Corner is a regular break from critiquing for the writing group of my former MA colleagues. We work out a theme and everyone chooses a book that we’ll read and discuss. Previous seasons have included literary genre award winners and books that shaped our writing journeys.

In this season, we’re comparing books to their feature-length adaptations. Catch up with Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion, The Dark Tower vol 1 — The Gunslinger by Stephen King and The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan, A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin vs Tales from Earthsea by Goro Miyazaki, and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Coming up: The Color Out Of Space by HP Lovecraft (vs the bonkers Nicholas Cage adap.) and Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynn Jones.

The Lovely Bones: the story

The Lovely Bones is narrated posthumously by Susie Salmon, a Pennsylvania middle-grader in 1973. When she is raped and murdered by a neighbour as she walks home, her spirit flees to her personal heaven. She can only move on when she comes to terms with her death.

Over the next eight years, Susie observes the loss and grief of those left behind. Suspicions gather slowly towards, George Harvey, who’s revealed to be a serial murderer. This isn’t, however, a cat-and-mouse story about the hunt for a cunning killer. It’s about the ripples which spread out from an act of appalling violence that leaves a family without closure.

Susie sees those ripples affect the relationship between her parents, Jack and Abigail, her younger siblings Lindsey and Buckley, and Abigail’s mother, Lynn. Jack becomes obsessed with finding Susie’s killer and fixes on Harvey. Abigail grows nostalgic for the ambitions she sacrificed to raise Buckley and eventually leaves the family home.

Jack’s obsession with Harvey almost leads to a tragic accident, but Lindsey grows to share his obsession. She eventually exposes Harvey in a daring exploration of his home. The killer becomes a fugitive and Susie’s family find some relief from their pain. Lindsey embarks on a relationship with her future husband, Samuel Heckler. Susie faces a future in which she will never grow old and fall in love.

Lives less ordinary

The ripples of her murder spread beyond Susie’s family. Best friend Clarissa grieves and grows, while first kiss Ray Singh is an early suspect. Misfit Ruth Connors is touched by Susie’s spirit as she flees her death, changing her forever.

In heaven, Susie is befriended by Holly, a child whose death is never explained. Her mentor is Franny, a former social worker who was shot by a man looking for his estranged wife. Later she meets Flora, who was Harvey’s first victim.

Susie is occasionally visible to Buckley, and Ruth’s encounter with Susie’s spirit leaves her forever connected to the afterlife. Ruth and Ray become friends, and in a bizarre moment Ruth is able to gift Susie her body for a few hours. Ray recognises Susie, they make love, and she is released from her youthful crush.

Jack suffers a heart attack after an argument with Buckley, and Abigail returns to her family. The family’s reunion releases Susie to enter an idyllic afterlife, although she’s still able to watch over them.

Mark Wahlberg and Saoirse Ronan in The Lovely Bones, 2009.

The Lovely Bones: a writer’s review

The Lovely Bones opens with a paragraph that leaves you in no doubt of Susie’s fate or the time period. It paints a simple picture of her too, but the final sentence sets the tone.

My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973. In newspaper photos of missing girls from the seventies, most looked like me: white girls with mousy brown hair. This was before kids of all races and genders started appearing on milk cartons or in the daily mail. It was still back when people believed things like that didn’t happen.

Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones.

Susie’s rape and murder is all the more unpleasant because you know the murder’s coming but you’re unprepared for the unflinching depiction of her experience. Every whimsical, heartwarming moment that follows is overshadowed by the knowledge of George Harvey’s desire to commit unspeakable acts. It’s as if Sebold has flavoured hot chocolate with a teaspoon of salt.

Unfortunately, The Lovely Bones arrived at a time when I wasn’t in the mood for a dark story. It took me a while to pick it up and discover the secular heaven built from Susie’s everyday experience. Yet Sebold dwells there only briefly before she eases you back into the tragedy unfolding on Earth.

The narrative voice of a dead teenager allows Sebold to employ the perspectives of both first and third person. Susie’s personal voice is tinged with sadness, horror and melancholy. While Susie is forever fourteen years old, there’s a sense that she has grown in the years since her murder.

Her observational distance enables a complex world populated with rich characters. Every writer wants to create characters who the read can imagine living beyond the story. Ruana Singh, Ray’s mother, is a memorable character who could probably fill her own novel, as could Ruth Connors.

What goes around, comes around

At times, the connections feel too neat and make the world feel small, particularly at the story’s conclusion. However, these links also ground the story, prevent the numerous narratives sprawling out of control, and drive its themes.

I’m wary of epigrammatic endings where the author explains what the story is about — they remind me of the moral moment you used to get at the end of kids’ cartoons.

The meaning of The Lovely Bones, and the paragraph it comes from, is the key to Susie’s exit from purgatory to true heaven, and it should probably be the final paragraph. It’s also the right title, focusing the reader on the enlightenment which Susie ultimately achieves and the positive message that she delivers in her conclusion. The original title — Monsters — paid too much credit to the antagonist.

Unfortunately, the titular line is not in the final paragraph. Instead, Sebold dilutes her message with an increasingly saccharine closure to every thread. There’s even a karmic death for Harvey that hints at supernatural agency, though I found it too convenient. I’m not sure that this epilogue is necessary, although it’s hard for any writer to leave these threads dangling.

Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) finds heaven in The Lovely Bones.
Susie Salmon’s ethereal heaven in The Lovely Bones, 2009.

The Lovely Bones: the film

Soairse Ronan's ghostly face floats above a windblown tree in poster art for the 2009 film The Lovely Bones.
Poster art for the 2009 film The Lovely Bones.

Peter Jackson has a reputation for juxtaposing light and darkness, so The Lovely Bones seems like a fitting project. He rejected an earlier script that turned Susie’s heavenly narration into a figment of her grieving father’s imagination, and embraced the uplifting, ethereal tone.

He probably goes too far, with a lurid heaven that’s at odds with the quotidian afterlife in Sebold’s novel. Her murder becomes part of the film’s climax and while the rape is downplayed, Stanley Tucci is a chilling George Harvey. Saoirse Ronan perfectly fits Susie’s girl-next-door cuteness, Susan Sarandon embraces the dark comedy of Lynn’s alcoholic affection for her family, and Rachel Weisz embodies Abigail’s frustrated mother. Mark Wahlberg, unfortunately, lacks the gravitas for Jack, and simply doesn’t look like a man who makes ships in bottles.

No-one could fit this much story into a film that didn’t over-run, so Jackson focuses on Jack’s hunt for Susie’s killer. Harvey becomes an ongoing threat to Lindsey, but that tension rises at the expense of Abigail’s story. Drawing Holly and Franny into the circle of Harvey’s former victims simplifies his history and adds to the suggestion that his death is no accident.

The sentimentalometer dials up to 11 on several occasions, despite the darkness. Even so, a 32% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes and 42/100 on Metacritic feel like harsh verdicts.

What’s better, book or film? The book has a breadth and darkness that Jackson’s film fails to capture.

The Book Corner season 5, episode 7: The Colour Out Of Space by HP Lovecraft

I choose an HP Lovecraft short for my turn in the Book Corner this season, partly to revisit a story and an author that I hadn’t read for more than three decades. Mostly, though, it’s because the adaptation stars Nicolas Cage being Nicolas Cage, in the tale of a simple New England farmer visited by something terrifying, alien and beyond description.

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