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The Lovely Bones
A possible Oscar contender.
The Lovely Bones
Mark Wahlberg Stars in "The Lovely Bones."
OPENING WEEKEND: $25,000,000
DOMESTIC TOTAL: $90,000,000
OTHER PREVIEWS: Alatriste (7/10)
  This Film is NOT a Future Release.
  The Following Preview has been Archived.

August 24th, 2009: An adaptation of the Alice Sebold best-selling novel, "The Lovely Bones" tells the story of Susie Salmon, who is murdered, but continues to observe her family on Earth after her death. Although she is detached from the world she once knew, Susie witnesses the impact of her loss on her loved ones, whilst her killer skillfully covers his tracks and prepares to murder again. In a tone that is both emotionally truthful, and darkly humorous, Susie tries to balance her desire for vengeance against the love she feels for her family and her need to see them heal; and ultimately comes to understand that the concept of family can encompass both the living and the dead.

What to Expect: I was working as a bookseller at a Borders bookstore when this book came out. I hadn't heard of it, but plenty of others had. I remember looking at the pre-order slips and seeing an unusual number of reserves for this upcoming book which wasn't a John Grisham or a Stephen King. The book was released in 2002 to enormous buzz and went on to become a huge bestseller, propelled by positive reviews and word-of-mouth, and much later by anointing from Oprah, although the book hardly needed the plug by then.

Article continues below

I made a point to read it myself, and wasn't disappointed. The book is a surprisingly touching and optimistic story, for a novel about the rape and murder of a young girl. Susie Salmon, fourteen, is killed and dismembered by a neighbor in 1973. This happens right away; the rest of the book involved Susie watching her family and friends dealing with her disappearance and death, as well as her murdered covering his tracks and continuing to elude capture. The consequences of Susie's death play out over a number of years while Susie lingers in a sort of in-between place, observing.

The film options to the book were acquired by British film company Film4 Productions in 2000. No, that's not a typo. They bought the rights when the book was nothing more than a half-written draft. Scottish director Lynne Ramsay was attached to the project, but in 2002 Channel 4 shut down Film4, leaving the option open for acquisition by a Hollywood studio, although Channel 4's in-house studio retained the rights and Ramsay was still working on the project, going as far as to begin work on a script. DreamWorks expressed interest but passed, and eventually Ramsay moved on. In 2004, Peter Jackson bought the rights himself to develop the project with his partner Fran Walsh and co-writer Philippa Boyens, a triumvirate we can all thank forever for giving us the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Jackson could have had his pick of his projects given the breadth of his achievement with those films, and this one was a bit of a surprise for some people given that it was a character-driven drama and not a ginormous fantasy extravaganza. However, Jackson's background does contain such films, most notably his first film, "Heavenly Creatures." The film was shot in late 2007 under DreamWorks' umbrella, to be distributed by Paramount.

Yep, two years ago. Why the long wait, Peter?

The film has had some problems. The male lead, Susie's father, was originally supposed to be played by Ryan Gosling, who gained 20 pounds and grew a period-appropriate beard and showed up for rehearsals. But a few days before shooting started, he...was no longer playing the part. Reports vary on how that happened. Some say that Jackson fired him over "creative differences," to wit, that he'd wanted the hunkier Gosling, not the doughier, beardier one who showed up for work. Gosling flatly denies having been fired, telling a more harmonious tale that he and Jackson mutually decided he wasn't right for the part. That isn't too surprising; the then-27-year-old Gosling was really too young to be the father of a fourteen-year-old, no matter how sharp his acting chops may be. Regardless of how and whose instigation Gosling was let go, he was replaced by Mark Wahlberg, who had just wrapped "The Happening" and become available. Wahlberg might not be quite the thespian heavyweight Gosling is considered to be, whether that's warranted or not, but he's age-appropriate and he is, after all, an Oscar nominee. I wouldn't count him out too soon. Then again...I did just see "The Happening" and I may never recover from the horribleness of it all.

I've also heard some extremely oblique rumors that Susan Sarandon had an issue with her role as Susie's grandmother. What that issue was or how she expressed it are unknown, to me at least, despite unleashing my considerably Google-fu on the matter. I dug up one interview she gave for another film soon after she began her role in this one where she said "I'm definitely the comic relief in this film." That could slant either way, although it stretches the imagination that she didn't know what her role would be in the film before signing on.

Casting was extremely important for the central role of Susie Salmon, who spends most of the film...well, dead, and shouldering much of the emotional weight of the film. Jackson's decision was made much easier when they received an audition tape from "Atonement" star Saoirse Ronan. They were so impressed with Ronan that no further discussions or auditions were scheduled before she was cast in the role. This was after Ronan had completed her work in "Atonement" but before the film's release, so her Academy award nomination for her performance in that film only makes Jackson's choice even more prescient.

For the role of Susie's mother Abigail, Jackson cast Rachel Weisz, with Stanley Tucci as the neighbor who is Susie's murderer and Michael Imperioli as the police detective who investigated Susie's death.

The creative aspects of the film were just as challenging. The story requires a depiction of what, for all intents and purposes, is Heaven, albeit a relatively secular version thereof. Such portrayals in cinema have varied from the cheesily literal to the oblique and interpretative. Tensions erupted between Jackson and the film's art department over how the In-Between place where Susie spends most of the film would be depicted onscreen, to the point that production actually shut down while the two warring parties worked out their differences. It's not clear what positions either Jackson or the art director were taking, but by the looks of things, Jackson seems to have won the day.

It's hard to talk about release dates with any authority given that films are being moved around so much these days, but in this case it bears some relevance on the post-production process. The film was initially slated to open in March, just after "Watchmen." After the studio saw an early cut of the film, the decision was made to move it to December. Usually a delay is a bad sign, but in this case it seems to be a signal that the studio feels very positive about the film's Oscar chances and wants it better positioned for the awards season. The move had another effect in that Jackson was able to take more time with the effects work on the film. Sources report that more work went into the heaven-like scenes in the film. Given that photography wrapped something like eighteen months ago, there ought to have been ample time for Jackson to give the film all the effects polishing his heart desires.

There are a lot of people eagerly anticipating this film. The book is very much beloved, which is both good and bad. It's good because it drives people into theaters, but it's bad because the expectations are so high, and when people are emotionally attached to a book, as many are to this one, a film version can often sorely disappoint and even anger moviegoers who don't think it's treated the source material with respect or that it's altered the book in some way. In my research for this preview I haven't turned up any significant differences between the book and its film adaptations; no ending-changes, no new plot twists, no big storyline shifts. Commentary from a few insiders who read the script spoke very highly of it. But as they say, the proof is in the pudding.

In Conclusion: A slightly rumor-dogged production nevertheless resulted in a film that's already generating significant Oscar buzz when the trailer's barely been released. Repositioned for maximum Academy visibility and with a top-notch pedigree of actors, director and writers, the film has just about everything going for it. Which means the expectations are so high there's almost nowhere to go but down. People root for underdogs. A film that seems anointed to be a classic award-winning masterpiece too often is one that people are waiting to criticize. If any filmmaker can pull off this mix of the emotional and the fantastical, it's Peter Jackson, and so far all looks good. If the film delivers on its potential and the promise of the book's many fans, the sky's the limit.

Similar Titles: Stir of Echoes, Lord of the Rings, Heavenly Creatures
January 15th, 2010 (wide)
December 11th, 2009 (limited)
April 20th, 2010 (DVD)


Peter Jackson

Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Saoirse Ronan, Stanley Tucci, Susan Sarandon, Michael Imperioli, Rose McIver, Carolyn Dando, A.J. Michalka

Total: 63 vote(s).


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Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material involving disturbing violent content and images, and some language.

135 min





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