I have not read Alice Seybold’s novel The Lovely Bones, the basis of the 2009 film directed by Peter Jackson. My comments on the film do not necessarily apply to the novel, which I will read eventually.
Visual imagery and acting are the strong points of Jackson’s film. The premise, that a dead girl can somehow interact with the living world, that there is an intangible interconnection between the living and the dead world, is highly speculative. And the film’s portrayal of heaven, or whatever place it is that the dead girl goes to, is simply fraudulent—the film goes where it shouldn’t, where it can’t. If heaven exists, it is beyond the ability of anyone living to comprehend. That part of the movie is fantasy. It is one thing to have a dead character narrate a story—Quentin Compsons does that in the second section of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. But he does so as a purely narrative convention. Faulkner does not speculate about where or how or if he is—his voice merely recounts events leading to his suicide. In this film the dead girl Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) inhabits a world for the dead but at the same time can observe and somehow move around in the real world. At key moments, in ways subtle and in the end obvious, she can influence events. In the end she seems to interact directly with a still living character. The Others (2001) uses the conventional trappings of a ghost story but adds a Turn of the Screw kind of twist. The Others succeeds because viewers don’t know the truth until the very end. In The Lovely Bones director Jackson spells out the situation in so much detail that the implausible fantasy overrides and weighs down the film. On the one hand we have grieving parents, siblings, and friends trying to deal with a horrible tragedy; on the other we have the dead girl inhabiting a fancifully drawn, arbitrarily constructed after-life that seems less heavenly that psychedelic. The two dimensions of the film are a mismatch.
The Lovely Bones is a fantasy and a murder mystery. The murder mystery is more interesting and successful, though we know from an early point who the murderer is. The dead girl narrates the film as she attempts to understand what happened to her and why, and as she tries to accept her new situation. She can see family members but cannot interact with them. But there are subtle, faint ways that she can influence them, especially her father’s growing obsession with discovering his daughter’s murderer. Saoirse Ronan as Susie Salmon is beautifully convincing as she grapples with her loss of the life she was just beginning to live. She plaintively, wistfully mourns her own death, the life and family and boyfriend she has lost, and she feels real fear—or whatever fear it is that the dead may be said to feel—as she moves closer to discovering or realizing or remembering the moment of her death. Mark Wahlberg as her deeply grief-stricken father is particular good. This film was most affecting in its portrayal of how the parents and Susie’s sister react to her disappearance, not only when they learn of it but as her absence influences them for weeks and months to come.
Some might argue that the film is a fantasy and that I should view it as such. No. It tries to be fantasy and reality both. It doesn’t work.
The film is often engaging, with strong characters and scenes, but its ultimate premise offends. Its conception of the afterlife, and of what happens when one dies, should offend those who believe in heaven and those who do not. Surely the Afterlife—if it is, whatever it is—is not a New Age Theme Park.